A brief comparative essay extolling the virtues of Japanese vending machines.
The Humble Soda Machine: Technological Marvel and Cultural Barometer
Having lived in Japan for six years, folks ask me sometimes: how is it different? After a lot of careful thought on the matter, I have decided that the most basic difference between the Japanese mindset and our own here in the States is embodied in the most unlikely of places: the humble soda machine. American innovation had no idea what it was in for when it ran smack into the perfectionist Japanese.
We Americans tend to value reliability, practicality, and innovation…but sometimes get ahead of ourselves. Our vending machines are plagued by mechanical problems so regularly that, like many pieces of old Soviet technology, they have become almost anecdotal examples of inefficiency and mechanical failure. Many times, they either won’t take a customer’s money, or they do nothing else. Products jamming inside the machine after a purchase has been made are not at all uncommon, either. It may be days or even weeks at a time before these machines are fixed, only to suffer the very same problems again and again. At the other end of the reliability spectrum (if there were such a thing and I hadn’t just made up the term on the spot), their Japanese counterparts function so flawlessly that finding an exception to the rule could take an entire weekend of searching back-alleys and desolate train stations far from civilization. Why, one might ask? Excellent question! When an American machine suffers a mechanical fault, the guy who restocks it has to call the repair man, who comes along a few days later and fixes the problem…but may or may not fix what caused said problem in the first place. In Japan, the guy who restocks the machine is also the repair man and the guy who collects the money, refills the change drawer, and fixes the machine if it’s broken. If he can’t fix the problem on the spot, he replaces the machine that very same day and sends the faulty machine back to the factory for a complete overhaul till they find out what is causing the problem and get it fixed properly.
Speaking of change, I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve gone in search of a little ‘pick me up’ only to see the dreaded red words: Exact Change Only. When I have a wallet full of dollar bills and the drinks are all sixty five cents each, the math points to heart-break and frustration. Japanese machines are restocked a minimum of once daily, however (and often twice or even thrice daily in high-traffic areas like schools, airports, and train-stations), so they are almost always carrying plenty of product to sell and plenty of change to give, as well. And while American machines tend to accept only a paltry assortment of coins and/or bills (from nickels up to five dollar bills in most cases), Japanese machines accept every coin and bill up to ten thousand yen notes (basically a hundred dollar bill)! And while most folks only need to make a single purchase at a time, anyone who has ever tried to buy drinks for the office knows what a pain it is feeding the machine their money, making a selection, fetching the change from the little tray, and feeding it in again time after time. Whoever designed the Japanese vending machines obviously put a little thought into this, because they had a brilliant idea: let the machine hold the change till the customer asks for it back, or they don’t have enough left for another purchase. Ingenious!!
That brings me to perhaps the most astounding feat of soda machine engineering in the last hundred years: temperature control. Even the Coke machines at NASA seem to struggle with this simple conundrum: how do you keep hot things hot and cold things cold in the same machine? Even the plain old soda machines here in the States (in which all of the contents are supposed to be nice and chilled) tend to keep them tepid at best. Not so, the Japanese model. Nope, someone, somewhere along the line, managed to figure out the solution to this ancient riddle in The Land of the Rising Sun. Vending machines bearing prominent blue and red labels with bold white lettering proclaiming the price are common features of nearly every vending machine in Japan, and when they say ‘hot’, they aren’t kidding! Coffee (usually sold in a steel can when bought from a vending machine) will be hot enough to scald the unprotected flesh of the unwary. Troubling to those of meek temperament, to be sure, but pure heaven on a cold day! One can warm his gloved hands around the piping hot can of brew and still benefit from all the joys of nice, hot coffee…and still purchase an ice-cream sandwich from the very same machine (and often receive it with frost still on the wrapper) regardless of the outside temperature! Try finding THAT little perk in an American vending machine.
We here in the US tend to see a problem, come up with a solution, and move on to something else. We invented the soda machine, figured it was good enough, and moved on to air conditioning and S.U.Vs. The industrious Japanese are never satisfied with ‘good enough’, constantly striving to make improvements to even the most basic conveniences often taken for granted. The American and Japanese cultures are very different from one another, but this key difference is at the root of it, I think, and the humble soda machine casts it into bold relief.