Perhaps no other country has embraced the vending machine like Japan. The country currently has about 3.8 million machines – one machine for every 34 people – installed, with roughly two thirds selling drinks and the rest offering random stuff like handmade gyoza and Buddhist bodhisattva figures.
For those visiting or living in Japan, vending machines are often the backbones of our daily lives, diligently standing guard and providing access to beverages in snow, rain, heat, and gloom of night.
However, the average person may not know these majestic beasts’ many secrets. So, let’s learn more together through a fun little five-question quiz about Japanese drink vending machines.
Let’s start with some basic information:
Which of these things do all vending machines have in common?
A: Their size
B: Their vertical coin slot orientations
C: The direction the bottles or cans face when they fall out
D: The warm drinks all have a little curvy hyphen (～) on the “warm” signs, like: あったか～い
If you answered A, you’d be close but wrong. Vending machines do have a standard height of 183 centimeters, with a few exceptions of 200.7 centimeters, but their widths can be as long or as short as the manufacturer desires. 183 was adopted because it’s about the traditional height of a Japanese house’s eaves.
D is also quite common and a good guess, but that’s more just a popular way of writing “warm” to make it sound more friendly like: “Waaaaarrrrrm…”
The vertical coin slots are considered superior for the simple fact that the coins fall into the machine faster and more smoothly. Unfortunately, many drink vending machine inner designs leave little room for vertical slots, so horizontal ones are mostly used instead to conserve space.
So that leaves C: The direction the bottles or cans face as the correct answer. Japanese vending machines are consistently and meticulously loaded so that bottles and cans drop down facing the optimum direction for a person to pick up with their right hand.
How is your friendly neighborhood vending machine lying to you?
A: When the display says “sold out” (売切), it’s not really sold out
B: They actually do accept 5-yen coins and 10,000-yen bills, but don’t say so because that kind of money is troublesome
C: It’s not the same machine as when you first met, because they are replaced every six months
D: All of the above
You know that annoying feeling you get when you go to buy your favorite drink or shrimp bisque, only to find that orange “sold out” light (売切) on the button? Well, you’re about to be even more irritated to hear that A is correct and the machine is not actually sold out. There’s one drink remaining, but you can’t have it.
The reason for this is that when filling the machine, time is needed for the drinks to become either hot (about 55℃/131℉) or cold (5℃/41℉). By keeping one in the chamber, anyone buying a drink right after the machine is refilled, won’t be bummed out with a lukewarm beverage. I’ve guess they’ve gotten some complaints about this in the past.
Now all this talk of discrimination and lies might have you thinking twice about Japanese vending machines, but they’re about to look a whole lot better in this next question:
In what way are many Japanese vending machines designed to help out in times of disaster?
A: They have addresses printed on them to help emergency workers find locations quickly
B: They are remotely set to dispense drinks for free in disaster-hit areas
C: Their digital signs may begin broadcasting emergency information when needed
D: All of the above
Like anyone, vending machines have their character flaws, but deep down are really swell little boxes. That’s why D: All of the above is the correct answer!
From 2003, more and more vending machines have begun offering free drinks when areas are badly affected by earthquakes and typhoons. Just walk up and push the button without paying and a bottle or can ought to drop down. Coca-Cola is said to have given out about 88,000 drinks this way during the 2011 Tohoku earthquake.
In 2005 an industry standard was agreed upon between vending machine makers and rescue workers to have addresses printed on every machine. This helps them find where they need to go quickly, but can also help out anyone lost in an unfamiliar area.
▼ The address is often found near the coin return.
Knowing their true character, we should now look at an all too common situation: You go to buy a drink with a bill, but upon inserting the money, the machine coldly spits it back out at you.
It’s a frustrating incident that may cause you to lash out at the machine for being too finicky or busted to read your perfectly good legal tender. However, this is often just a problem of miscommunication. Let’s learn more:
What should you do first if a vending machine doesn’t accept your bill?
A: Smooth out all the wrinkles
B: Just keep trying and trying until the machine gets it
C: Kick the machine and hurl profanities at it
D: Wipe the bill on your sleeve
I admit, until only very recently B and C were my go-to moves. But thanks to Dr. Sally Wexler, now I realize that I had never taken the time to view the problem through the eyes of the vending machine, literally.
When a bill is inserted the machine scans portions of it and detects a combination of things including size, color, and translucent watermarks.
▼ For example, the 1,000-yen bill has a translucent Hideyo Noguchi with a much better haircut.
People tend to assume that the wrinkles cause the interference but the main culprit is really our own greasy fingers.
If your overactive sebaceous glands coat your money in a thick enough ooze, then the machine cannot recognize the watermarks properly and will assume you’re one of those people who like to try buying things with toy money or memorial service props.
In the above animated gif, I forced the machine to reject my bill by rubbing my fingers all over it in the name of science. Looking at the full version below, we can see that I could get the bill to work instantly by simply wiping my human juices off poor Hideyo Noguchi and onto my T-shirt.
So D, giving your bill a wipe down, is often the best way to overcome this failure to communicate. You can also try just turning the bill a different direction. Since the machine only scans sections and not the entire bill, you might get lucky with a different orientation depending how greasy your money is.
Alright, just one more question, but be warned this is a really tough one…
Imagine you’re walking by a vending machine and you spot a bottle sitting in its lower compartment, as if someone had accidentally left it behind. You might think this is your lucky day, but wait…
What should you be most worried about if you find a bottle or can left behind in a vending machine?
A: A curse
C: Getting charged with theft
D: Ending up on a hidden camera show
Taking a drink from a vending machine that another person had purchased and left behind is technically a crime called embezzlement of lost or mislaid property (senyu ridatsumono oryozai). However, to make such a charge stick it would have to be proven that you didn’t buy the drink yourself and took it with the intention of doing something other than turning it to the nearest police box.
Since both things are extremely hard to prove for such a minor crime, your chances of getting nailed for it are virtually nil. B: Poison, however, is a totally different story and the correct answer.
In Japan, in the 1980s a string of poisoned drinks left in vending machines killed 10 people, and as recently as seven months ago, a beer that had fertilizer injected into it was found in a vending machine in Akita Prefecture.
Granted, with all the YouTubers out there looking for content, D is probably statistically more likely these days. However, death is still a bigger concern overall, especially since we can’t rule out a misguided aspiring YouTuber poisoning your drink on hidden camera as well.
And that will do it for today’s quiz. If you managed to get all five of those questions correct, congratulations! You are truly a veteran of automated sales in Japan and also highly resilient to assassination by poison – in other words, an inspiration to us all.
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