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GEE, I WISH I were in Japan so I could pop coins into a vending machine and have it reward me with a miniaturized bit of reality: an air conditioner, a water cooler, an O.L. (“Office Lady”). Here are tidbits from “A Tiny Gas Meter? The More Mundane the Better for Japan’s Capsule Toys,” by Ben Dooley and Hisako Ueno, The New York Times, October 8, 2021. 

A window air conditioner in its capsule made by Toys Cabin. This and the following images by Noriko Hayashi for The New York Times

Heritage. Vending machines have long been popular along Japanese streets. They sell anything from soft drinks to cigarettes to handkerchieves to underthings. Capsule toys are a relatively recent offering, the fun enhanced by random selection of the particular toy. What started as purely for the kids evolved into whimsical items for grownups. 

A Japanese Kerplunk. Dooley and Ueno describe: “Called gachapon—onomatopoeia that captures the sound of the little plastic bubbles as they tumble through the machines’ works and land with a comic book thump—they dispense toys at random with the turn of a dial. Hundreds of new products are introduced each month, and videos of gachapon shopping sprees rack up millions of views.”

Not only on street corners:. A store in Toyko’s Ikebukuro district offers the wares of more than 3000 gachapon machines.

The More Mundane, the Better. One of the capsule toys’ suppliers told Dooley and Ueno, “You want people to ask themselves, ‘Who in the world would buy this?’ “

“It’s a rhetorical question,” Dooley and Ueno say, “but in recent years, the answer is young women. They make up more than 70 percent of the market, and have been especially active in promoting the toys on social media, said Katsuhiko Onoo, head of the Japan Gachagacha Association. (Gachagacha is an alternative term for the toys.)”

The Fun of the Purchase. Dooley and Ueno report, ‘Novelty is a key competition metric for the industry. The pleasure of gachapon comes not so much from the toys themselves—they have a brief half-life—but the fun of buying them: the joy of encountering each month’s unexpected new products, the slot-machine thrill of not knowing what you’re going to get.”

A Covid Parable. “Isolated in their plastic spheres,” Dooley and Ueno write, “the tiny reproductions feel like a metaphor for Covid-era life. On social media, users—as gachapon designers insist on calling their customers—arrange their purchases in wistful tableaus of life outside the bubble, Zen rock gardens for the 21st century. Some have faithfully recreated drab offices, outfitted with whiteboards and paper shredders, others business hotel rooms complete with a pants press.”

Above, an office water cooler actually dispenses drops of water. Below, an ice maker, if one prefers iced refreshment. 

The O.L. Craze.. My favorites include a selection of miniature O.L. dolls in various poses. “O.L.” is Japanese slang for “office ladies,” prototypical young women attired smartly for secretarial/clerk duties. 

“Fuchiko, dressed like a Japanese office worker, set off a frenzy,” The New York Times writes, “when Kitan Club introduced the toy in 2012.” 

What fun to collect a bevy of them! ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021


  1. Bob
    October 10, 2021

    My second brother Jeff was born in Japan in ’48, when Dad was stationed there as part of our occupation forces. He’s one of the major collectors of … coin operated machines! Watch for him to soon be featured in the “American Pickers” reality TV show. The episode has been taped, and while the reality series may be faked, Jeff’s obsession is real. He has well over a thousand of those “weight and fate” scales that were part of most drugstores and department stores of our youth.

    Nature or Nurture? The other three family brothers were born on US soil, and are not kerplunk afflicted.

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