Japan's declining birthrate, aging population, and lack of immigration have contributed to make labor both scarce and costly, according to William A. McEachern, an economics professor at the University of Connecticut.
In his 2008 book on macroeconomics, McEachern points to Japan's vending machines as a solution to this problem, by eliminating the need for sales clerks.
Robert Parry, an economics lecturer at Japan's Kobe University, also pointed to high labor costs as a reason Japanese retailers have so enthusiastically embraced vending machines in a 1998 essay on the subject.
"With spectacular postwar economic growth, labor costs in Japan sky-rocketed ... Vending machines need only a periodic visit from the operator to replenish the supplies and empty the cash," wrote Parry.
2. High population density and expensive real estate
The population density has unsurprisingly led to high real estate prices for decades, forcing city-dwellers to live in apartments that would make New York apartments feel spacious. Though urban land prices dropped during Japan’s economic decline in the 1990s, they’ve gone back up since.
High population density and high real-estate prices has meant that Japanese people don’t have a lot of room to store consumer goods and that Japanese companies would rather stick a vending machine on a street than open up a retail store.
“Vending machines produce more revenue from each square meter of scarce land than a retail store can,” Parry concluded.
While there has been some debate over why Japan’s crime rate is so low, one thing that is readily obvious is that vandalism and property crime are rare. According to the Japan National Tourism Organization, vending machines are “seldom broken or stolen,” despite having tens of thousands yen inside and being frequently housed in dark alleyways or uncrowded streets.
Comparatively, in the US, as Parry writes, “American vending machine companies don’t even consider operating stand-alone, street-side units” due to fears of vandalism and property crime.
If there's one other aspect of Japanese culture that stuck out to me, it was a heavy reliance on cash.
In the US, I use debit and credit cards for almost every purchase besides visiting a hole-in-the-wall cash-only restaurants. In Tokyo, not even the train stations accepted credit cards to purchase subway tickets. Major chains took credit cards, but lots of stores did not.
The practical effect of this is that you are always carrying around a considerable amount of cash, and not just paper bills, but coins. Coins in Japan come in high denominations like 50 yen, 100 yen and 500 yen ($1 = 112 yen). By the end of my trip, I had fashioned a makeshift coin purse to corral the money weighing down my pockets.
As I discovered, dropping a single coin into a vending machine for a drink was a convenient and useful way to get rid of the change jangling around in my pocket.