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Rumblings of Discontent in Vending Machine Heaven

April 25, 1991

TOKYO (AP) _ Japanese of all ages can buy a slice of raw beef, roses, lingerie, fresh eggs, a Bible or dozens of other things from vending machines, amd most think it’s a good idea.

They also can buy pornographic magazines, hard liquor and tobacco, however, and some feel that is corrupting Japanese youth.

Japan is the undisputed vending machine capital of the world. It has 5.41 million vending machines, one for every 23 people, according to the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association. The U.S. ratio is one machine to 42 people.

Vending machines take in $4.15 billion a year and offer almost anything small enough that anyone would want to buy, including a pearl necklace or freeze-dried noodles with hot water and chopsticks.

Many of the machines even say thank you electronically.

But then there are those others that sell liquor, cigarettes or smutty magazines.

″I can’t think of another country with as few restrictions as Japan,″ said Susumu Asano of the Lawyers Group on Alcohol Problems.

The machines are required to have ″for adults only″ labels, but the law provides no punishment for unwitting sale of liquor or tobacco to minors.

″These machines have no brains; they don’t know who they are selling to,″ Asano said. ″This makes vending machines very good business.″

Japan has nearly 195,000 machines that sell alcohol. They are not allowed at freeway rest stops and are required to be inoperative from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m, but the rule often is ignored. There is no provision for a fine, although owners of offending machines can lose their licenses.

Takashi Kurosaki, spokesman for the manufacturers association, said authorities had used their discretion to ″substantially reduce″ the number of vending machines selling pornography.

″The police began a crackdown in 1987,″ he said. ″There is little that we can do as manufacturers, since we can’t always tell what will be put in our machines.″

Because machines are machines, they have the same problems in Japan as elsewhere.

Police report periodic attempts, sometimes successful, to outwit them with foreign money. Philippine pesos have turned up and, more recently, Soviet rubles.

In Japan’s cramped cities, vending machines often jut into streets and police have to order them removed.

Last summer, the government said the machines contribute to a budding energy shortage because of the electricity needed for their refrigeration and heating systems.

″One vending machine uses more energy than the average household,″ a columnist wrote recently in Asahi, Japan’s second-largest newspaper. ″It takes the equivalent of one large nuclear power plant to provide the energy needed just for all the vending machines selling canned drinks.″

Vending machines were introduced to Japan in 1904, caught on after World War II and are not likely to fade soon.

″Dealing with a machine is taken for granted″ in Japan, said Kurosaki of the manufacturers association. ″The Japanese feel no resistance to the idea at all.″

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