Remnants of a bygone era reveal the quirks of a previous payment system.

Japan is well-known for having vending machines on practically every other corner, providing people with a range of hot and cold beverages to choose from at any time of the day or night.

For those wanting an alcoholic form of refreshment, there are vending machines that provide that too, and while they’re not as ubiquitous as their non-alcoholic counterparts, they’re often found outside small liquor stores, standing as a testament to time with an old, weatherworn look.

What these ageing machines lack in modern looks they make up for in nostalgia, warming the hearts of people like our Japanese language reporter Takashi Harada, who’s always had a fondness for them. However, Takashi’s interest in these machines extends beyond their worn appearance because he’s always been keen to solve one of the mysteries connected to them.

You see, when you look closely at one of these machines, you’ll find there are three ways to operate it. You can either put your driver’s license into the slot marked in red near the top of the machine to verify your age, and then insert coins or cash into the slots marked out in blue, or you could use something called a “Sake Pass Card”.

▼ The slot for the “Sake-Pass” (sake is used as a blanket term for all types of alcoholic beverages in Japan) is written in Japanese and English on the machine.

Takashi recently came across one of these machines outside a small liquor store, and when he saw it had a slot for the sake pass card, he wanted to talk to the owner about it. Unfortunately, it was a public holiday so the store was closed, and after going home to search the Internet for more information about the card, he found that very little was known or written about it.

What he was able to gather from his research was that the card could be used by people who didn’t own a driver’s license as a way to verify their age. Once it was inserted into the machine, the user would have to enter their personal identification number on the keypad before being able to select and pay for their purchase.

These days, it’s common for people to use a similar style of I.D. card called “Taspo” (once known as “Tobacco Card”) to buy cigarettes at vending machines in Japan, but Takashi had never met anyone with a “Sake-Pass” before. The lack of information about them and the fact that a lot of people in Japan had never seen one had Takashi’s curiosity piqued; owning a Sake Pass became one of Takashi’s new life goals.

He returned to the store when they were open so he could speak with someone who worked there. As luck would have it, the woman he ended up speaking to had been working there for a considerably long time so she could give him — and us — a bit of an insight into the mysterious Sake Pass.

Let’s take a look at their discussion below.

Takashi: “Excuse me – I’d like a Sake Pass card, is it possible to get one?”

Store clerk: “Sorry, what’s that? What do you mean?”

Takashi: “It’s a card written on the alcohol vending machine; does it still exist?”

Store clerk: “Oh, that’s right. The card reader is broken and can’t be used. Right now, you can just use regular money to buy things at the machine.”

Takashi: “Oh, it’s that style” (At this point he laughed nervously, hoping she wouldn’t think he was weird for being so interested in the Sake Pass)

Store clerk: “Yes – that’s how it works.”

Takashi: “By the way, is it not possible to get a Sake Pass anymore?”

Store clerk: “We’ve never used one. I think they’ve disappeared; it’s a very old machine.”

Takashi: “Just to be specific, how many years ago was it installed?”

Store clerk: “Well, it was a long time ago, maybe 15 to 20 years ago.”

Takashi: “Oh I see – that’s quite a while ago! But at that time you could buy things from the machine with a Sake Pass, right?”

Store clerk: “Yes, however

Takashi: “However…?”

Takashi now gulped in anticipation, hoping she would drop some important insider information

Store clerk: “The slots for 1,000-yen (US$9.11) bills and the Sake Pass card are close to each other so there were quite a few people who put the card in the wrong slot by mistake. I remember that well.”

Takashi: “Did the machine take the card even if it was in the wrong slot?”

Store clerk: “That’s right. I had to call the maker each time and I couldn’t get it out; it was hard work.”

Takashi: “So such an era existed. Can this Sake Pass card be found all over the country?”

Store clerk: “As far as I know, they don’t exist anymore.”

Takashi: “While we’re on the topic, alcohol vending machines are also pretty rare. Are they becoming fewer nationwide?”

Store clerk: “There aren’t many of them around. The one we have is old so I wonder how much longer we can use it for. But we’ll use it for as long as we can.” 

Takashi thanked the lady for sharing such useful information with him and helping to shed some light on the phantom Sake Pass. While he was happy he could learn a bit about the card, he can’t deny he felt a little down after coming to the realisation that he may never get his hands on one of these mysterious passes.

While he yearned for a time gone by when Sake Pass cards still existed, he decided to be grateful instead that these machines even exist today at all, complete with the now-defunct payment system attached. For now, though, the Sake Pass remains a phantom. If you own one, hopefully one day Takashi will be able to run into you…and solve the mystery of what they looked like once and for all!

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[ Read in Japanese ]