What people see: For Japanese people, the presence of vending machines (jihanki) is as natural as the air around them—of course they’re everywhere. There’s nothing in particular they see or seek in vending machines; they can be found in any town, and there’s always one around if you get thirsty. Rather, the lack of a vending machine in the vicinity is what causes a surprise. Still, the fact that there are several of them installed even at the summit of Mt. Fuji will surprise Japanese people who find out for the first time. There’s always been some debate about the plusses and minuses of vending machines, but they are always around in areas where people live or visit.
There are cold drinks during the scorching summers and warm ones for the frigid winters, all in one machine and available 24 hours a day. You can buy items at them with bills as well as coins (ones that accept all denominations of yen bills are not that rare) and they almost never miscount inserted money or dispense incorrect change. They aren’t broken into or left inoperative, and if there is some kind of problem, the maintenance line is listed on the machine. If you call it and describe the issue, such as money not being returned by the machine, a few days later, you’ll receive that money in the mail (they will never ask for proof). All of this is “common sense” in Japan, but usually categorized as “going overboard” in most countries. People from overseas that have come to live in Japan are often surprised at first by the qualities of the country’s vending machines, and later appreciate the convenience they bring.
If you take into consideration the way Japanese people think of and use vending machines, it’s not an exaggeration to say that they are an item very typical of Japan that reflects the country’s craftsmanship mentality and omotenashi (Japanese hospitality), and they are also a key to a better understanding of Japan’s societal and cultural values.
In short: Jihanki is the common abbreviation in Japanese for jidou-hanbaiki (literally “automatic sales machine”). These are of course, not unique to Japan, and are used all over the world, but Japan has a reputation as a world leader when it comes to aspects like the functions, reliability, technology and area coverage/saturation of its vending machines. The most commonly found machines are for beverages, but you can find ones for cigarettes, snacks like gum, and food, including but not limited to ice cream, candy, ramen, udon and soba noodles, grilled onigiri (riceballs), takoyaki (cooked dumplings with bits of octopus), bread, hamburgers, hot dogs and French fries.
Some background: The world’s first-ever automatic vending machine was created in Ancient Egypt for dispensing holy water at temples. Their use became widespread in England in the 19th century, and then the United States in the first half of the 20th century. The first automatic vending machine in Japan was built in the 1880s after the Meiji Restoration. Japan’s full assimilation and subsequent pioneering of vending machines started from the latter half of the 20th century, when the country’s rapid economic growth began to shift the title of the “World’s Factory” from the United States to Japan.