Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Vending machines are so ubiquitous in the country that many blend right into their surroundings.
As the vending machine capital of the world, Japan is well known for its dizzying array of grab-and-go options. Aside from drinks, you can buy everything from canned bread to batteries to full meals from the machines.
But what captured the attention of the Brooklyn-based French photographer Edward Way when he spent a month in Japan last year was the sheer number of these automated machines. Japan has at least 5.52 million vending machines country-wide, according to its official tourism board. That’s roughly one vending machine for every 23 people on the small island of 127 million inhabitants.
“The minute I arrived in Japan, it shocked me to see all these running machines,” Way tells CityLab. “They were everywhere, on every block.” They could be found along sidewalks, squeezed into nooks, and standing alone in empty lots.
“You’d walk anywhere and there would be a vending machines that was [seemingly dropped out of nowhere],” he says.
In Way’s series, “Jidouhanbaiki” (Japanese for “vending machine”), the machines he photographed don’t stand out much. None are particularly ornate or high-tech, and all of them sell drinks; nothing out of the ordinary. But that’s the point. “What they sell was not really the point of this project,” Way says. “I was more focused on how the machines were integrated into the background.”
The charm and allure of these photos comes from the machines existing in their surrounding environments. One vending machine blends right into the flower shop behind it. Flower pots hang from its sides, as if the machine is an extension of the shop itself. In another photo, three machines fit snugly next to the entryway of an apartment building as if the space had deliberately been carved out for them.
In one photo, a pair of white and red vending machines appear to be thrown into a mix of random objects with no relation to one another—a mountain in the background, a mysterious building to the machines’ left, and a lonely car to their right. In the center is a “huge building that also looked like it was dropped out of nowhere,” Way says. “Everything together was really strange.”
And yet, altogether, the machines appear as a natural part of the scenery.
Way’s photos capture a common attitude the Japanese have toward vending machines: They’ve been part of the city landscape for so long—since the 1960s, when Coca-Cola brought the first machines to the country—that most are barely noticeable anymore. As Japan-based reporter Brian Ashcraft wrote in Kotaku, these machines proliferated in part due to a desire for convenience. Companies wanted an easy, low-cost way to sell their products, and consumers wanted a hassle-free way to buy them. (The lack of reported crime and vandalism inside Japan may also help explain the omnipresence of clean, working vending machines.)
It was this symbiotic coexistence between humans and machinery that made Japan stand out to Way. Despite its love of these humble machines, he says, the country didn’t seem as eager to replace human jobs with robots as the U.S. and countries throughout Europe. (Though, as one report noted last December, half of Japan’s working population could be replaced by artificial intelligence within the next 10 to 20 years)
“Basically what I try to do in my work is photograph the places we live in,” Way tells CityLab. “I want to see how people reorganize their environment in the cities [to fit] our needs.”