Japan Eats: Thirsty in Japan? Ask a machine for a drink
December 1st, 2011
09:05 AM ET
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In Japan they say that the customer is God and even a machine is expected to pay its respects.

It’s a saying that supports the idea that Japan is the land of the vending machine with perhaps more machines per person than anywhere else in the world. In Japan’s cities they can be seen on most street corners dispensing sodas and hot coffee, but also more far-out items like ice cream, french fries, umbrellas and clothes.

They’ve even made it to the top of Mount Fuji, providing hungry hikers with hot, steamy instant noodles at the summit.

The country even has its own association of vending machine manufactures, the JVMA, which notes that the number of automatic dispensers in Japan, including ticket machines, amounts to over 5 million. That's a human-to-machine ratio of around 24 to one.

The U.S. actually has twice as many automatic dispensers as Japan, but when it comes to vending machine technology, Japan is still leading the pack.

One of the latest hi-tech additions can be found on a train station platform in Tokyo. First unveiled last year by the East Japan Railway Company it’s a machine that “recognizes” the customer and suggests what he or she “should” have.

Looming large with a slick 47-inch touch screen panel, the drinks vending machine is equipped with a face-recognition sensor that gauges information about the customer age and gender. Other sensors in the machine measure the outside temperature and help the machine come up with the recommendation depending on the time of the day and the season.

Yet the evolution of vending machines will not stop there.

Takashi Kurosaki, the secretary general of the JVMA predicts that all vending machines, no matter how lowly, will eventually be equipped with interactive screens.

Acting as much as social information devices, he can see the day when they will dispense weather forecasts or local community news as much as provide thirst-quenching drinks and refreshments.

But why did Japan fall so in love with vending machines in the first place?

"I would say that it comes from the trust the people have towards the machines," Kurosaki says. " In America or in Europe, it often happens that the purchased good isn't delivered properly. In Japan, that is simply unacceptable."

Vending machines in Japan are not faultless, as anyone who has had a bad experience with a machine can attest. Yet the trust Japanese purchasers have towards the machine and its manufacturers remains, and is one of the main reasons why they are ready to get their lunch or drinks recommendations served up by a machine as much as a person.

On CNNGo: Japan's love affair with the vending machine continues | Bananas and haircare products: Tokyo's curious vending machines

See all our Japan Eats coverage and get more on CNNGo

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Filed under: Asian • Cuisines • Feature • Japan • Japan Eats • Japanese • Travel • Vending Machines


soundoff (100 Responses)
  1. kelly

    Along the same lines of wonderful vending machines .... I will always believe the best cup of coffee I have ever had EVER was from a truck stop vending machine on Hwy 1 in South Korea. The secret? Palm Tree Oil Powder in liquid form.

    December 6, 2011 at 10:53 am |
  2. Mandie

    I ran into one of these facial recognition machines during my last trip in Japan. They are able to determine your approximate age and suggest drinks based on the types of drinks your particular age group prefers. I don't know if the machines take into account the changes on one's tastes due to weather, though. But, I think they're rather a nifty gimmick.

    December 3, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
  3. mario jones

    machines are not people they don,t have familys god created adam frist and his family let take care the american fa
    mily dont let marcin take the place of people god bless america

    December 3, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • Guest

      You, my friend, are a bonafide idiot! Keep your Christianity BS out of the equation! Why does every Bible thumping nut job from the middle of America have to chime in with their values on Christ and preach to us all how to live... Do you realize only Christianity does this? If its so great, keep it to yourself!

      December 3, 2011 at 11:20 pm |
      • Smith

        Why not. It's called freedom of speech. What makes you so threatened by another persons opinion.

        December 4, 2011 at 4:30 am |
    • Jarrod

      Preach, Brother! God created Adam and Eve, not Food Processing Machine #6 and Automated Assembly Bot Version 2.1.01! Those damn Three Laws of Robotics are false, and everyone should know it!

      End the machine tyranny!

      December 4, 2011 at 3:30 am |
    • Brian

      Learn to write English correctly, you idiot.

      December 4, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • Ck

      it's funny because obvious troll is obvious.

      but seriously, calm down, Jesus isn't gonna hate you because you like a soda machine. also, to the other commenter getting just as angry about the Christian nut as he is about this article, calm yourself.

      December 4, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • kelly

      It's a vending machine....

      December 6, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • khanikun

      I don't get the whole point of this ignorant post. For the machine to be there, it requires human workers. Someone needs to go out and fill the machine. Someone needs to go out and fix the machine. Someone needs to build the machine. Someone needs to create a program for the machine.

      A guy at 7-Eleven? Just a guy at 7-Eleven and another guy to deliver him some drinks.

      Can also get Adam and Eve can do the work too. They can ride on their dinosaurs to get there. I mean, if life was created at the same time, they should have had dinosaurs and mastadons to ride on.

      December 6, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  4. ChicagoRich

    If the machine incorporates facial recommendation, I wonder if they are compiling a large database of what each individual purchases so that it can make more accurate recommendations, or if they can match you as an individual via your credit card, for example, if they can use the data to send targeted e-mail or text marketing, even sell it to an insurance company to more accurately asses your health risks for actuarial purposes when quoting rates. Maybe they could use them with law enforcement to identify wanted individuals as well if the profile was added to their database. It all makes me wonder a bit about the rules regarding privacy there, and issues we will have to deal with in the U.S. sooner or later as well.

    December 3, 2011 at 9:03 am |
    • ChicagoRich

      spelling corrections leave a bit to be desired on my computer, should have been recognition in the first sentence, not recommendations.

      December 3, 2011 at 9:04 am |
    • Josh Barnett

      I think the machines collect face pictures which will be used as fake avatars for online flame wars. People may become epic trolls, and never know it. AS their likeness is used. Brilliant strategem!

      December 3, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  5. mr774

    "but also more far-out items like ice cream, french fries, umbrellas and clothes."
    And condoms.

    December 3, 2011 at 3:28 am |
  6. World

    Stupid American! You guys are so ignorant no wonder your economy are going down and will collapse within the next 15 years.

    December 3, 2011 at 1:49 am |
  7. whosurdaddy

    I got a machine give me BJob when I ask it.

    December 2, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
    • whosurdaddy

      oh its from Japan too!

      December 2, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
  8. jerry

    this is prime example of the fall of the world that is out and out laziness what do we need are hands and feet four maybe they should just cut them off its obvious we don't us them for anything important

    December 2, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • Stupidity_hurt_innovation

      This is what we call innovation. American dying manufacturing and booming hi-technology industry should learn how to make it works for US again.

      December 2, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
      • Josh Barnett

        That's what I would say, if I was a Chinese jealous of US innovations.. (of course the Chinese pretend to be others).

        December 3, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
    • David

      Oh, please. There are many conveniences technology has given us. You can find a way to get upset at anything, can't you?

      December 2, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
    • walkergw

      Silly boy, Japanese walk more than Americans. Americans take their car to the grocery store down the block. Try taking the train. You have to walk to the station (average 15 min.), you have to walk from platform to platform (average around 100yards) you have to walk to the office from the train (average 5 min). In total almost every Japanese average about an hour walking a day, can you say that?

      December 3, 2011 at 6:16 am |
    • khanikun

      I've lived in Japan for 2 years. Korea for 2 years. The US for 20 years. The UK for 3 years. Germany for 2 years. For just the 2 years in Japan, I have walked more there than probably my whole 20 years in the US. For the 2 years in Japan and 2 years in Korea, I have walked more than I ever have in the western world.

      On an average Saturday in Japan, going out to the clubs, I can easily average around 4-5 hours of walking around. That doesn't include the multiple flights of stairs I end up taking. On a special occassion, like Tokyo Game Show, I'll average in about 5 hours of walking and 5 hours of just standing there. As I'll go to TGS, then Harajuku, then Akiba, then back home. If I'm lucky, I'll actually get to sit down for the train ride back home.

      December 6, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
  9. Susan

    The vending machine business in this country has long been owned by the Italian mobs. I wonder if it is in Japan also?

    December 2, 2011 at 11:48 am |
    • khanikun

      Nah. The Yakuza are more into collecting protection money, human trafficing (strippers, prostitutes, etc), blackmail, stock trading, drug trafficing, and so forth. They are also quite different from your gangs, mobs, etc in other countries. For example, the recent earthquakes and tsunami caused the Yakuza to quickly mobilize their own relief for the affected regions, often times much quicker than the actual Japanese government. This wasn't the first time they did this either.

      They are also fairly open about what they do. They actually have fan magazines that talk about what they are doing. Drug trafficing is pretty small for the Yakuza as it's looked down upon. Expect larger Yakuza groups to crush the smaller groups who start drug trafficing, unless they are in different areas.

      December 6, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  10. Beefburger

    I for one welcome our new vending machine overloards.

    December 1, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
  11. Phil

    Dear Japan,

    Quit wasting time on crap like this and put a sixth gear on the Honda Gold Wing. We've only been asking this for over 30 years.

    December 1, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
  12. Jim

    A vending machine that reads minds? That could be very embarrassing. I'd put money in it an "boobies" would light up.

    December 1, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
  13. Drew

    Star Trek anyone?

    December 1, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
    • Dan

      Nerd.

      December 1, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
      • Phil

        So, Dan....did being a jock get you far in life?

        We didn't think so.

        December 1, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
  14. Jerjen

    That would be cool if the vending machines could be tied into Facebook, or some other social media platform. That way they could recomend things based on likes and dislikes, or social parterns that are tied to the users profile.

    December 1, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • khanikun

      Too bad Facebook isn't hugely popular in Japan. Maybe they can use Mixi instead. Mixi being the social network site that the Japanese use.

      December 6, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
  15. M

    First thought: Share and Enjoy!

    December 1, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
  16. Dan

    If it identifies you as gay, does it offer a steaming cup of man milk?

    December 1, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • Chris

      Let's hope so!!!

      December 1, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • drew

      Seriously? Isn't your kindergarten class starting or something?

      December 1, 2011 at 11:51 am |
      • Dan

        Lighten up, Drew. Did I touch a nerve?

        December 1, 2011 at 11:59 am |
      • Dan

        I am an idiot and a troll. A conservative nutjob with no respect to anyone's views but my own which are grossly flawed. Please disregard anything I say.

        December 1, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
      • drew

        My name is drew and my latent homophobia makes me react strongly to any comments that make light of gay people. This in spite of the fact that I don't know any gay people, but if I did, I'd probably be surprised to find out that most of them have an amazing sense of humor and do actually appreciate a joke, even if it's at their expense.

        December 1, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
      • Dan

        It's true, I am an idiot and a troll – but a conservative? Never.

        December 1, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
    • Rob

      perhaps you should test it and find out...

      December 1, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
      • Dan

        Ba-dum-tiss! That's a rimshot for you, Rob. You silly jokemeister.

        December 1, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • Monk

      Nah, youd prob get some cremosumyunguy

      December 1, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
      • Dan

        Monk, you're confused, that's Chinese food, not Japanese.

        December 1, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
  17. James

    If it doesn't make a Bloody Mary or Margarita it isn't that special.

    December 1, 2011 at 11:13 am |
  18. hamsta

    by the way it also has artifial intelligence.lets just hope its smarter than ur kids furby.then again just like in the terminator movie that maybe just smart enuff to figure out ur its enemy.

    December 1, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  19. andy b

    what about people with allergies? what if the mentioned machine decides you want something with peanuts in it, but you are highly allergic? will this machine dispense a refund, or, the EPI PEN ill need to survive?

    December 1, 2011 at 11:08 am |
    • Ramin

      no rockhead, the machine knows you're allergic to peanuts

      December 1, 2011 at 11:15 am |
    • Person

      I'm pretty sure it just makes suggestions, it doesn't actually force you into buying anything.

      December 1, 2011 at 11:19 am |
      • me

        go with the chris farley answer to this...'for the love of god i dont speak japanese'

        December 1, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • JeramieH

      It's only a suggestion. It's not like it force-feeds it to you.

      I guess you have the same problem with a peanut billboard advertisement?

      December 1, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  20. CT

    Just so you all know, i've actually used this machine several times while living in japan and it only recommends items, it never makes you buy something.

    it really does work according to generic likes and dislikes by age and gender.

    My 67 year old dad was offered black coffee, vitamin drinks and teas. When i walked up to it (22 years old) it offered coffee with milk and sugar, sodas, and sports drinks. But just because it offers it doesnt mean your made to choose among the items.

    December 1, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  21. Ramin

    " In America or in Europe, it often happens that the purchased good isn't delivered properly. In Japan, that is simply unacceptable."
    they still go to mcdonalds though

    December 1, 2011 at 11:05 am |
  22. hamsta

    i already knew that brant.maybe u need to stop rotting ur brain jersey shore and change the channel to history or the military channel cuz the dod has a new toy that has been flying nonstop for 7 months.it is solar powered piloted by the gps system and is capable of low earth orbit.just imagine what that thing could do with a laser.

    December 1, 2011 at 11:04 am |
    • Ramin

      zap your mom?

      December 1, 2011 at 11:09 am |
      • Ramin

        in the butt?

        December 1, 2011 at 11:11 am |
    • ChicagoRich

      I figure that small automated shuttle would be useful for inspecting and if necessary disabling other nations satellites. You can learn a lot about what a satellites capabilities are if you can get a close enough view of them. For example if you know the diameter of the reflector in a visible light camera lens and its distance from earth, you could deduce what its maximum resolution would be on the surface. By examining the coatings on the lenses and such you might be able to deduce the part or range of the spectrum it is designed to examine. Perhaps not as practical as a high tech vending machine, but we do have our moments.

      December 3, 2011 at 8:53 am |
  23. Stephen

    When I saw the title on the main page, I expected that people would actually be able to personalize their drinks. For instance, they could order a Diet Coke, but with a little higher caffeine than the standard version, or even a mixture of flavors. This really was a non-article.

    December 1, 2011 at 10:47 am |
  24. Guestinator

    Meh. Been using a Coca-Cola Freestyle machine for a few months now. They rock.

    December 1, 2011 at 10:40 am |
  25. bdgfn

    I saw a soda vending machine at one of our local theaters that offers far more than the standard coke-sprite-dr pepper selection, offering as many as 10 different "flavors" of coke and diet coke, for example. It's a step in the right direction in my opinion.

    December 1, 2011 at 10:38 am |
    • Ramin

      a step in the right direction would be for you to stop drinking soda and start drinking water or green tea.

      December 1, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  26. Mary

    So does this mean that vending machines will become the dominant race? LOL

    December 1, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • Ramin

      no, it means that someday you'll be able to get a vibrator through a vending machine

      December 1, 2011 at 11:07 am |
    • Leo

      The Cylons are here... and they want to take your order.

      December 1, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
  27. Bill

    "Recomendations", eh? If you don't accept HAL's "recommendation", will the machine dither and pout like the GPS device we used on our vacation? Wait, web access, Google profile ... I'm not sure I'm liking this.

    December 1, 2011 at 10:15 am |
  28. sameeker

    Just what I need. A vending machine that tries to sell me something instead of just giving me what I want. "Wouldn't you rather have a value meal sir"

    December 1, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • Bob

      In my country a shiny new machine like that would be dust from all the little chitheads we have here, with tagging and god knows whatever else they can to carve their stupid idiotic names into. Roaches!!

      December 1, 2011 at 10:32 am |
      • bdgfn

        Angry much there Bob?

        December 1, 2011 at 10:40 am |
      • Todd in DC

        So YOU'RE the Angry Bob that Rat ( a character in the comic strip Pearls before Swine) bases his sketches on.

        I'll be no one knows what I'm talking about.

        December 1, 2011 at 10:47 am |
  29. hamsta

    they made the terminator movies for a reason.we give machines to much power.did u know they want to remove the pilot frome these drones they use in war.they want to trust a machine to know the difference between militia and civilian and between citizen and terrorist.if humans get that wrong sometimes what do u expect from a machine?it might decide all people are the enemy.

    December 1, 2011 at 9:48 am |
    • Brant

      Earth to hamsta....there are already no pilots in the drones....thats why they are called drones....a controller sits in a room and flies the plane remotely, that is how they decide targets....they are never going to allow a computer to pick a target on its own.....

      December 1, 2011 at 10:01 am |
    • JeramieH

      You're right, we should all fear the future of humanity because a vending machine suggests a flavor to us.

      December 1, 2011 at 11:21 am |
  30. scir91onYouTube

    they also sell used panties in these vending machines. a very nice feature of living or visiting japan!

    December 1, 2011 at 9:29 am |
  31. Colleen

    Is anyone else wondering if the beverage delivered will taste almost, but not entirely unlike tea?

    December 1, 2011 at 9:20 am |
    • B

      That's the first thing I wondered too!

      December 1, 2011 at 9:38 am |
      • Todd in DC

        Oh lord. I hate being old.

        December 1, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • bdgfn

      Nope. It's Japan. They'll get it right, first time, every time.

      December 1, 2011 at 10:41 am |
      • Colleen

        Pretty sure you missed the reference there.

        December 3, 2011 at 9:17 am |
    • Kat Kinsman

      Or if it can tell you the complete history of the East India Corporation?

      December 1, 2011 at 11:25 am |
  32. section8

    hmmm, so with face recognition software instead of dispensing a condom the machine will suggest viagra?

    December 1, 2011 at 9:17 am |
  33. Guest

    What if you like to drink pee?

    December 1, 2011 at 9:14 am |
    • JNessmith

      Then you are nasty, and you need help.

      December 1, 2011 at 9:57 am |
    • extra medium

      The Craigslist machine can help with that.

      December 1, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  34. Mike

    They needed one of these drink machines in the movie 'Anchor-Man'. "No Mr. Burgandy, its hot out today. Milk is a Bad idea."

    December 1, 2011 at 9:13 am |
  35. El guapo

    The hot pizza vending machines are better than sex. Cheaper and less messy too.

    December 1, 2011 at 8:48 am |
    • ndTimmy

      but are they as fun?

      December 1, 2011 at 10:03 am |
    • bdgfn

      Obviously, el guapo, you're doing it wrong...

      December 1, 2011 at 10:42 am |
      • Todd in DC

        bdgfn, ok, then where DO you pull a pizza out of a woman?

        December 1, 2011 at 10:48 am |
      • extra medium

        From her pie-hole, Todd. From her pie-hole...

        December 1, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  36. Melissa

    " In America or in Europe, it often happens that the purchased good isn't delivered properly. In Japan, that is simply unacceptable."
    This probably explains why their cars are better than others as well. Now I want to go to Japan just to see the vending machines.

    December 1, 2011 at 7:40 am |
  37. GB

    I live in Tokyo and have one at my station – was wondering how it "knew" what I liked...

    December 1, 2011 at 5:37 am |
  38. Naresh P. Ayar

    Hope to have vending machines in India very soon ufcource like Japan.

    December 1, 2011 at 5:20 am |
  39. Bat

    Damn... I wish we had vending machines giving french-FIRES in my country.

    December 1, 2011 at 4:41 am |
    • clinton

      good eye-sight, considering the time of your post is 4:41 a.m. The proof-reader should get a knock on his/her head.

      December 1, 2011 at 7:04 am |
    • Guest

      Its cheaper to hire people to work all night than to maintain machines

      December 1, 2011 at 9:15 am |
      • mario jones

        we are a global people when america goes back to work the world will work again am apart of that miracal god bless america we love her.

        December 3, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
  40. Pat

    I spent some time in Tokyo back in 1991 and I loved the machines that sold mini kegs of beer and even bottles of whisky, 24/7. Very practical. Plus they were solar powered. I'd image these machines would be vandalized all the time in other countries.

    December 1, 2011 at 4:25 am |
  41. CinJP

    Minority Report, anyone?

    I am convinced the Japanese researchers' hunger for this type of technology is going to be the end of mankind.

    December 1, 2011 at 4:18 am |
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