It means an additional search through your wallet before cracking open a cold beer from the liquor vending machines most of us take for granted. But rest assured, it’s for a good cause.

A local resident inserts his driver’s license into an ID reader before buying a beer from a vending machine in Tokyo’s Arakawa Ward.

A growing number of the machines, criticized for years as abetting underage drinking, are being fitted with ID readers to curb alcohol abuse by minors. For those who do not have a driver’s license, stores can issue a card with a magnetic strip upon confirmation of age.

While gauging reaction to the new system, a man in his 50s was spotted fishing out his liquor card and almost unconsciously inserting it into the vending machine in front of a store in Tokyo’s Arakawa Ward.

He said that he buys beer from the machine every day on his way home from work, and that the ID scanning did not bother him a bit. “It’s more troublesome to go into the shop and get the attention of the owner just for a can of beer,” he said.

Yet, the store’s owner said sales via the vending machine have dropped by roughly 50 percent since the machine was put in place in early March.

Industry observers said sales of ID-reading machines have been strong since the start of this year, following the Dec. 31 introduction of tougher punishment for liquor store owners selling alcohol to minors.

Fuji Denki Reiki Co., a major vending machine manufacturer, said it has sold about 1,000 of the machines so far, with 200 units purchased in February alone.

The Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association said that about 7,000 such machines were installed nationwide as of the end of last year.

While this increase reflects store owners’ concerns over the tougher laws, it is also a symbol of their desperate efforts to secure higher ground in the battle against newcomers, especially convenience stores.

According to insiders, the liquor shop business used to be a lucrative operation, protected from potential rivals by a strict licensing system.

“The business used to be so profitable that sons with college degrees would quit their office jobs to succeed their parents,” one insider said.

Yet, their dominance over the 6.2 trillion yen liquor market has eroded in recent years, with the license system gradually succumbing to government deregulation efforts.

In January, regulations prohibiting the opening of new establishments within 100 meters of an existing store in urban areas were dropped entirely.

Rules limiting the number of stores according to population are also being relaxed, from one liquor shop per 1,450 people in fiscal 1998 to one per 1,100 in fiscal 2002 in big cities.

Such moves have opened the market to discounters and convenience stores, with the former having a competitive edge on the pricing front and the latter in terms of longer hours.

According to Distributing Business Study Co., a private think tank, mom-and-pop liquor stores held 76.2 percent of market share against convenience store chains’ 3.5 percent and discount stores’ 0.5 percent in 1983.

But by 2000, liquor stores were estimated to have a market share of 27 percent against convenience stores’ 22 percent and discounters’ 31 percent.

Alarmed, liquor store owners have argued that unchecked deregulation will leave the sale of liquor open to irresponsible business practices.

“In Europe and other countries, there are regulations on the sale of alcoholic beverages. Only Japan is moving toward allowing anyone to sell alcohol under the name of deregulation,” said Hideo Seki, secretary general of the All Japan Liquor Merchants Association, a group of 130,000 liquor store owners nationwide.

The association argues that only traditional license holders, well established in the community, can responsibly sell alcoholic products.

Its criticism focuses especially on convenience stores, where they allege that part-timers on late-night shifts — often minors themselves — inadvertently sell alcohol to underage customers.

To “prevent underage drinking and nurture a responsible liquor trade,” the association is calling for the establishment of qualified sales managers on the shop floor.

The industry’s parliamentary group, consisting of Liberal Democratic Party members, is currently planning to submit to the Diet a bill mandating such personnel.

Convenience stores vehemently oppose such a plan, saying it is an attempt by entrenched liquor shop owners to block new market entry.

“First of all, we don’t understand how ‘qualified sales managers’ can do any better in preventing alcohol sales to minors than shop clerks given strict instructions,” said Hideki Murayama, secretary general of the Japan Franchise Association, whose members include major convenience store chains.

The argument for moral correctness and social responsibility, however, seems to fall flat in the face of liquor vending machines that sit outside liquor shops.

In 1995, the liquor store association decided on a self-imposed time-limit to remove liquor vending machines from the streets by May 2000. Yet many store owners, heavily dependent on the machines, did not heed the call.

“We cannot do business without vending machines,” a store owner in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, said, noting the store’s three machines earn about 20 percent to 25 percent of its sales.

“It is a matter of life and death, for we cannot stay open 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said.

The franchise association’s Murayama said liquor store owners should fulfill their social obligations before criticizing others, adding that all its members removed their machines by the end of November.

While the ID-reading machines may appear to be one answer to the problem, their introduction has failed to win support on all sides. Seki of the liquor store association, for example, finds it difficult to hide his frustration.

“The machines are a symbol of the self-contradiction the industry embraces,” he said. “It is hypocritical to keep vending machines while calling for greater consumer protection.”

Yutaka Yoshida, president of Distributing Business Study Co., takes an even harsher stance toward store owners’ continued use of vending machines, which he calls “the root of all evil.”

He charges that machines with ID readers are a cheap trick: “The liquor shop owners cannot make any persuasive (moral) argument unless they get rid of the machines.”

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