On Not Walking While Drinking Soda in Japan

Why doesn’t anyone in Japan drink soda while walking?

Google results are unsatisfactory. Is it considered rude? Dangerous? Had it never occurred to anyone that they could drink while walking?

Japanese friends answer with a shrug. “We just don’t, I don’t know why.”

People don’t walk and drink in Japan. They huddle around the vending machine, finish the beverage, dispose of the can or bottle, and then continue walking. I don’t condone stereotypes in this blog, but it’s fair to say that if you see someone crossing the street while drinking a Coke, they’re Korean.

The mystery steeped in the back of my mind until I stumbled across the term Vendo buried on Wikipedia’s Japanese food etiquette page. Vendo isn’t anywhere else on the Internet, leading me to suspect that this is a clandestine Wikipedia edit that went unchallenged.

But it works. And it helps me articulate what’s so fascinating about Vendo, “the practice of standing around a vending machine to finish the beverage.” It’s a collective habit. No one knows why they do it, they just do.

Vendo: The Victimless Faux Pas
No one I know is offended by it, though I’ve heard rumors that “some old people in Kyoto” might be, which makes me wonder if there was some soda-collision crisis in Kyoto back in the 1950’s.

The Theories
Here are the explanations I’ve heard:

Theory 1: “We just worry that you aren’t enjoying your food,” one friend told me. “If you are walking while eating, I just wonder why you don’t wait to eat until you can sit and relax.”

Certainly, Japan likes food, and eating it is heavy with ceremony, but clearly the nation hasn’t collectively avoided walking with soda simply because a few people might think they aren’t enjoying it.

Theory 2: “You might spill it on somebody.”

This makes a certain amount of sense. Except for one thing: Walking with ice cream is socially acceptable. Ice cream, which is far sloppier than a sealed plastic container of Coca-Cola.

Theory 3: “There aren’t any trash cans anywhere.”

This one is kind of chicken-and-egg. There’s no need for trash cans because no one walks with their trash. No one walks with trash because there aren’t any trash cans. But I question this, too. I think there would be greater need for trash cans if people walked with soda. Store owners would have to deal with the occasional litter somehow.

Theory 4: “They used to sell drinks, like coffee milk, in glass bottles. When you finished, you returned the bottles to the store. So walking around with bottles was a sign that you’d stolen the bottle. It’s like wandering around with a handful of a restaurant’s table dressings.”

This theory is mine. I can’t use it for sure because no one who is actually Japanese has offered it up as their own.

A Comprehensive Theory of Vendo
The truth is that walking with food or beverage is not considered “rude.” It occupies a shadow sphere of etiquette reserved, in America, for something less extreme than farting and just around  biting one’s nails.

It isn’t rude, it’s undignified. It lacks that mysterious air of elegance. When you see someone walking while drinking a soda, or chowing down on fast food, they look bestial. Ketchup smeared across their lips, a greasy bag in hand, a soiled napkin sharing space with soon-to-be-eaten french fries.

Vendo’s “do” ending means “the way of,” and puts vending machine loitering in the category of martial arts: Bushido, Kendo, Kyudo, Vendo. In Kyudo – the art of Japanese archery – every action has for a specific purpose. I attended a two-hour Kyudo class dedicated entirely to walking.

When you stand next to a vending machine and consciously enjoy your beverage – and not walk with the beverage in your hand, sipping while talking or dodging traffic – you simplify your movements, become more conscious of your food and the surroundings. You take part in the moment instead of moving through it.

It’s the elegant way to swig.

American Vendo
I come from a land of trucks emblazoned with cartoon characters peeing on the logos of rival trucks; a state united in its patriotic display of testicles descending from their trailer hitches.

In these places, elegance is untrustworthy. Americans are skeptical of elitism and elegance blows your cover. Voters want to know if you eat arugula.

Nonetheless, we have a form of Vendo in America: the smoke break.

Smoking isn’t elegant – not since the ’60s – so it’s trustworthy. Not to romanticise tobacco, but the culture of the cigarette break shares a lot with vendo. You’re huddling communally around a doorway, gazing out at the moment, really letting that shit seep into your body before you head back in to whatever spiritual abattoir feeds you on payday.

I know many smokers who quit, only to yearn for the five-minute smoke break. There’s something crucial about that 5-minute reprieve, something that, back in the day, put smoking so firmly into the realm of ballsy men who hurry for no one and classy dames who know how to break them.

You won’t see Japanese people drinking while walking for the same reason you’d never see John Wayne or Marilyn Monroe smoking on a bike: It just doesn’t look right. 

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11 Responses to On Not Walking While Drinking Soda in Japan

  1. Travis says:

    This brings back fond memories of my first day in Fukuoka when you enlightened me on the vendo concept :-)

  2. Blue Shoe says:

    I have seen (Japanese) people drinking and/or eating while walking, but you’re right, it is very rare. I don’t know about drinking, but I have heard/been told that eating while walking is kind of rude, because “people around you don’t know how to react.” As if seeing someone eating while walking requires some kind of reaction!

    • owwls says:

      The day after this post went up I saw a kid with a Coke can (it always seems to be Coke) walking and drinking at the same time. But he also had an American flag hat.

      It occurred to me, though, that this walking-drinking prohibition might be more useful in densely populated cities such as Japan’s.

  3. Emily says:

    Although there are no garbage cans anywhere but conbini, every single vending machine has a bin for empty cans/bottles. I guess this promotes the vendo concept as well?

    And oooh, you started Kyudo? How is it going?

  4. Richard says:

    I decided to carry out a highly scientific study by looking at a couple of Japanese pages I found via Google. First page asks the question: are you good at drinking soft drinks from a can while walking?
    http://kotonoha.cc/no/41603
    There are many opinions. Loads of people say they can’t do it and it spills. Only a couple of people say it’s bad manners. However, a surprising number say they both can and do – maybe these net-savvy youngsters have lost contact with traditional Japanese culture. “I was surprised when I saw my friend stopping and standing,” one says. “I can eat bread too,” another boasts. One person is more regretful. “I used to ride my bicycle with bread in one hand and a can of juice in the other. Now I think of it, it must have been extremely bothersome.”

    On another page, someone asks a question to the Japanese equivalent of Yahoo! Answers (Chiebukuro – the bag o’knowledge).
    http://detail.chiebukuro.yahoo.co.jp/qa/question_detail/q1214500337
    “My friend can’t drink while walking. She always stops to drink. Is this kind of person unusual?” The people answering make comments about worrying about spilling the drink, or it being difficult to walk, drink and lift their face [when making conversation presumably]. But the question is interesting, right?

    I’m not sure what to make of all this. I do see Japanese people walking and drinking, but not a whole lot. Maybe there are more walking drinkers in the big cities. For those that don’t it seems to be a version of your Theory 2, although I think a lot of people are just as worried about spilling drink on themselves as other people. I guess it’s a vicious circle where many Japanese people don’t practise walking and drinking, so they never get good enough to do it without spilling. :)

    “Vendo’s “do” ending means “the way of,” and puts vending machine loitering in the category of martial arts: Bushido, Kendo, Kyudo, Vendo.” I feel a bit idiotic pointing out you should have a ウ at the end of ヴェンド at the top of the page. But maybe you should.

    • owwls says:

      Thanks for that Richard! Fantastic research. :) It never occurred that the walking-drinking prohibition may be accountable to lack of skill.

      As for the ウ ending – as Homer Simpson would say, ドウ! I simply translated the wikipedia spelling directly, but I like yours better.

      For the record, I have never boasted about my dismal Japanese abilities. :)

  5. David says:

    I wouldn’t know where you’re from, the very fact you’re asking this question would tell me.
    Because the real question is not “why doesn’t anyone drink and walk in Japan?” but:
    “Why do some nationalities *cough* Americans *cough* can’t consider eating or drinking an activity in itself and they always feel the need to do something else at the same time as if eating or drinking was a waste of time?”. :-)

    • amanda says:

      Because we “Americans” feel our time is wasted on only doing one thing at a time. Why not listen to music, cook dinner, and blog all at the same time. ;)

  6. Laura says:

    Have you ever tried to drink soda and walk at the same time? Burp city, with a heightened risk of upchuck.

    Enjoyed this entry. And damn right I miss smoke breaks.

  7. Pingback: On Inventing Yourself in Japan | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

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