Vending machines in Japan were first introduced in 1888 and sold cigarettes. But their proliferation has been astounding and the country now has an estimated 5.5 million vending machines nationwide. Its penetration rate is the highest in the world with roughly 1 vending machine for every 23 people. In fact, they’ve become so ubiquitous and common that they blend in with Japan’s landscape. Maybe that’s why it takes an outsider to shine a light on them.
In 2012 German photographer Benedikt Partenheimer visited Japan on a residency program and captured, among other things, a series of eerie photographs of vending machines quietly glowing at night. Devoid of any human behavior, it felt as though the machines existed alone in some post-apocalyptic world.
The work was presented in an exhibition at the Hara Art Museum in 2014. “You can find them on almost every street corner,” says the artist. “Especially at night they become a visible reference of energy consumption and likewise emanate an absurd surreal and sad beauty.”
In the wake of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster and the ongoing debate over Japan’s energy policy, Partenheimer’s work was meant to raise public awareness on energy usage. “Japanese vending machines [as a total] consume about as much energy as one nuclear power plant produces,” says the artist. “Do we need all the machines we create and do we want to live in a world that is becoming more and more ‘convenient’?”
It’s worth noting that Japan continues to make progress in energy efficiency. And vending machines in more populated regions of Japan are consistently swapped out for newer versions. In 2014 Suntory announced that it had developed a vending machine that consumes roughly half the electricity of its conventional counterparts.