It is known as the “vending machine problem” — where the appearance of a world-beating technological nation masks a country that retains some surprisingly low-tech ways.
While Japan is ahead of its rivals in robotics, factory automation and sensor, for example, its banks and insurers lag behind in using information technology.
Laggard status may be manageable in finance so long as Japanese customers — a third of whom are over 65 — do not complain. However, for swaths of Japanese industry, government officials warn of a gap opening up with the US, Germany, China and South Korea.
The size and scope of Japan’s industrial economy mean it has more than one type of competitor: in autonomous driving, it is Germany and Silicon Valley; in internet-of-things machine tools, the rival is China, says the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (Meti).
In this instance, Japan’s massed ranks of vending machines are one of the more uncomfortable examples. Of Japan’s 4.9m vending machines, 2.5m sell drinks. The industry’s trade association says that if these were networked it could gain a big-data view of how choice, price and impulse interact.