Japan has amassed significant soft power, which I would argue is only increasing. Even those that have no real interest in the country can’t get around the increasing omnipresence of anime and will have heard of Samurai and Geisha. Those flocking to the country will likely know other famous cultural icons like ‘the great wave’ by Hokusai, the infamous Shibuya crossing, cosplay culture and zen gardens on tranquil temple grounds. All these icons serve as paragons of the Japanese image as projected abroad. Yet there’s also obscure wonders that are not as well known, unsung heroes of Japanese culture that only reveal themselves when one has spent time in the country. These are the heroes that cemented my gradual falling in love with Japan through small but meaningful experiences travel guides generally pass over, and it is time they have their moment in the spotlight.
Although we dived into the wondrous world of vending machines previously already, machines selling toys deserve special attention. They even have their own name after all: gachapon (or Gashapon), the union of the onomatopoeic words ‘gacha’ and ‘pon’ referring to the sounds made by cranking the handle and the falling of the toy respectively. Toy machines are not unique to Japan of course, nor are they even endemic to the country. All over the world you’ll run into cheap random toy dispensers at any given shopping mall. That’s about as far as similarities go, however.
According to the Japan Times, the roots of this cultural phenomenon are to be found in 1960s Tokyo, when the entrepreneurial ‘Ryuzo Shigeta’ got his hands on an American toy/candy dispenser. Deeming it unhygienic that the naked goods were spit out indiscriminately, he was the one to first package them in individual capsules that would come out one per pop. While this set the stage for the popular culture as we know it today, true revolution came when Bandai Namco burst onto the scene in the 1970s, transforming the industry from selling cheap throwaway novelties to pushing highly desirable collectables from famous brands like Gundam. Even daring to charge a premium, apparently they filled a void that no one previously was even aware existed in Japan, as people both domestic and abroad have gone crazy for the goods ever since.
Nowadays whole shops can be dedicated to little more than endless rows of different gacha toy machines. Catering to compulsive collectors, if you can think of it you can probably gachapon it and pray you get that specific specimen you want amongst myriad siblings. If you can’t think of it, they probably have it anyway and make you want to have it, too. Compared to their estranged Western cousins these randomized, machine dispensed toys demonstrate endless imagination and can be of remarkably good quality with a price to match. It does not stop with toys in the usual sense of the word either: if a store is of the adult persuasion, ‘toys’ of a different variety and even (used) garments may be won as well…
My own baptism by gacha was in Shin Sekai, where my colleagues took me during one of my first weekends in Osaka, primarily to feed me the famous food on sticks. A hall close to the central Tsutenkaku tower, which we’d just scaled, contained machines with obscure collectibles as far as the eye could reach and naturally, having never witnessed this spectacle before, I was enthralled. One of them blessed me with an astonishingly realistic-looking bookmarker shaped like a rotten banana peel that I use and treasure to this day. Another blessed my supervisor with a rather lude cup adornment that I spotted on his coffee mug in the office the very next Monday. That’s another beautiful quirk of gacha culture, perhaps what I love most about it: where they are generally aimed only at children anywhere else, in Japan everyone is fair game for these hungry machines.
This blog was contributed by Tom de Hoop on May 28, 2021.