Photo/IllutrationRotating a handle inside a vending machine of Ito En Ltd. enables users to power up the machine and get a drink during an emergency. The photo was taken on Nov. 1. (Provided by Ito En Ltd.)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

To residents, a vending machine in front of the Michinoeki Okoppe roadside mall in Okoppe, Hokkaido, promised on a sign to “provide drinks even during power outages in the event of emergencies.”

However, a handwritten message, “Out of order due to power outage” was posted above the guarantee following a major earthquake in early September and power blackout.

A picture of the two contradictory messages on the vending machine in front of the Michinoeki Okoppe mall provoked misunderstanding and annoyance on Twitter.

Some tweeted, “This is not useful.”

Others commented, “The person who restocks the machine should keep the key” and some suggested on how to use the machine during an emergency saying, “There might be a way of generating electricity by rotating a crank.”

The reality was that the machine caretaker, a member of the chamber of commerce of Okoppe who keeps the key, said, “I made the assessment that it was not an emergency because water was still being supplied in the area and convenience stores were open despite the power outage.”

During the blackout, staff of Michinoeki Okoppe posted the notice indicating the machine was out of order.

DISASTER LED TO CREATION OF THE MACHINES

Following the Sept. 6 temblor, a power outage affected almost all areas of Hokkaido and the water supply was disrupted to about 68,000 homes. Amid such difficulties, many people pinned their hopes in finding relief in disaster-ready vending machines.

About 70,000 of the 2.13 million coin-operated can and bottle vending machines across Japan are touted as being able to provide drinks free of charge in disasters.

Otsuka Pharmaceutical Co., is believed to be the first company to develop a disaster-ready vending machine.

A company official said that it jointly developed such machines with vending machine manufacturers after the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, leading to installation of ones in 2001 that could provide beverages during an emergency by pulling wires.

Most such machines display a sign on the front promoting themselves as offering help in the event of a disaster.

But under the current system, people who are in charge of the machines decide when to employ the emergency function. The criteria for what constitutes an emergency varies.

Suntory Holdings Ltd. has installed almost 20,000 units of such vending machines across Japan including the one in question in Okoppe. The beverage company defines an “emergency” in which the functions should be used, as “the time when the transportation network to an affected area is paralyzed, and essential utilities, water and power cannot be supplied to buildings.”

It leaves the final decision up to the individuals in charge of managing the vending machines.

About half of the disaster-ready vending machines of Asahi Soft Drinks Co. in Hokkaido were utilized in the emergency mode after the September earthquake.

However, an official of the beverage company said, “We have not defined any unified criteria.”

An Ito En Ltd. official said, “Basically, a person in charge of each of the machines should judge (whether to use the function) when an evacuation advisory order is issued.”

USE IN DISASTERS VARIES

How to use the machines during an emergency also varies. Disaster functions of Suntory’s machines will be activated by pulling on an installed wire on some types. For other models of the company’s machines, an installed battery can be powered up by using a key or flicking a switch.

For the machines of Asahi Soft Drinks or Ito En, power can be supplied by rotating a handle, which is usually stored inside, by hand, and a button pushed to obtain a drink.

Coca-Cola (Japan) Co., whose number of vending machines set up across Japan is the highest of any company, can remotely control vending machines via computer to provide beverages free of charge and display letters to convey the disaster information on the electrical bulletin boards built in machines.

While the functions are useful, some of its machines cannot be used during a power outage.

Coca-Cola (Japan) is said to have set up Japan’s first vending machines for refreshing beverages in 1962. The company placed 880 units of machines in that year.

The total number of such machines set up across Japan in 2005 was 2.28 million units, the highest, compared with 2.13 million units in 2017 down by 150,000, according to the Japan Vending System Manufacturers Association.

“Machine sales are being greatly surpassed by convenience stores and other discount retailers,”said Takenori Kobayashi, vending machine consultant.

In particular after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, because of the public’s growing interest in energy conservation, the vending machine industry had no choice but to find ways to reduce power consumption. Some had the function to reuse exhaust heat, for hot drinks, that was created by the power to cool beverages, and others to turn off their lights for 24 hours.

As a result, the amount of energy consumed by all vending machines across the country in 2017 plunged by 62 percent compared with 2005.

Facing hardships, the industry is seeking new methods for disaster readiness, as a contribution to society.

A large vending machine can stockpile more than 700 cans of 190-milliliter beverages within its interior. An increasing number of such machines are being installed at public facilities and business offices. In many cases, drink manufacturers will bear the costs of the distributed products during emergencies.