In Japan, Overpouring Combini Coffee Could Mean Prison, Job Loss

In Japan, Overpouring Combini Coffee Could Mean Prison, Job Loss

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Combini coffee
Picture: NOV / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Japan's facing a minor crime wave of people pouring more combini coffee than they bought. And combinis are responding - with arrests.

Coffee has long been popular in Japan. You can buy it at your local combini (convenience store) for cheap. However, the low cost hasn’t stopped some people from trying to get more than they paid for. Now, combini chains are responding to this petty crime – by pressing charges.

Press wisely

Self-service coffee machines at convenience stores have become a go-to for busy people, but they’ve stirred up trouble too. With incidents of theft making headlines nationwide, some have faced arrests or lost their jobs due to misuse of these machines.

The process is simple: customers select their desired size at the counter and pay accordingly. Naturally, larger sizes come with a higher price tag. Once payment is made and the cup is received, it’s all up to the customer at the machine. There’s no oversight to ensure customers only dispense the size they paid for or refrain from adding unpaid extras like milk.

Or so it seems…

Convenience stores are on high alert for such incidents. In January, a junior high school principal in Hyogo Prefecture lost his job for ordering a regular-sized drink priced at ¥110, only to fill a large cup worth ¥180. He repeated this “mistake” at least seven times. In April 2022, a man in his 70s was arrested for repeatedly ordering a ¥100 small coffee but sneaking a medium one worth ¥150.

One year earlier, a 60-year-old government office worker in Kumamoto Prefecture faced a similar fate. He was caught red-handed pouring a large-sized café latte priced at ¥200 into a regular-sized cup costing ¥100. Admitting to the act, he said he had learned from an acquaintance that different cup sizes held the same amount of beverage. This mistake cost him his job on the spot.


You might find it surprising that such severe consequences stem from just a few yen, right? But in Japan, theft is theft, no matter the sum.

Tiny deeds, major fallout

Man drinking iced coffee and eating a sandwich
Picture: kotoru / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

The incidents are a stark reminder that even the smallest thefts could lead to serious consequences, regardless of their scale. Back in 2012, the Osaka High Court handed down a one-year prison sentence for the theft of a single 10 yen coin.

When it comes to theft, Article 235 of the Penal Code lays down the law, specifying the essential conditions for its classification. Among these, intent is key to determining liability. Essentially, the perpetrator must demonstrate the intention to acquire and use the item unlawfully. In the case of self-serving coffee mishaps, the crucial difference lies between accidental button presses and deliberate actions.

Yet, even an innocent mistake can take a serious turn if not addressed promptly. In the case of inadvertently pressing the wrong button, failing to rectify the error could turn a simple mishap into an act of theft.

In short, a simple button slip won’t lead to handcuffs. It’s an easy oversight, understandable for newcomers or those preoccupied. But repeating the mistake without telling anyone? That’s where the trouble starts.

A national hit

7-11 coffee

Convenience stores have been in the coffee game for quite a while. When Ikeda Katsuhiko joined 7-11 in 1977 as head of the product department, coffee sales were already part of the picture. However, the process was far from perfect. Coffee was brewed behind the counter and often left to sit for hours before being served, resulting in compromised taste and lower sales. So, Seven switched gears.

Seven Café made its debut in January 2013, aiming to shake up the coffee scene. From selling 450 million cups annually at the start, it surged to over 1.1 billion by the fiscal year 2018. Today, stores average nearly 130 cups sold per day. Not wanting to be left behind, Family Mart, Lawson, and other mini-markets quickly jumped on the coffee bandwagon.

Self-serving coffee, particularly popular in office settings, caters to the bustling pre-work and lunchtime crowds. Yet, its appeal extends beyond mere time convenience. Over time, its taste has been refined, infusing the air with the rich aroma of freshly ground beans. The machine’s closed doors ensure that tantalizing scent is preserved until you lift the cup. Plus, it’s the perfect accompaniment to nearby snacks, all without the hassle of changing locations.

But the impact went beyond just the stores themselves. The entire Japanese coffee market saw a remarkable uptick. According to the All Japan Coffee Association, annual coffee consumption in Japan surged from 428,000 tons in 2012 to 470,000 tons in 2018. Plus, the weekly cup count per person rose for regular coffee, from 3.2 in 2012 to 3.69 cups in 2018. The rise of self-serving coffee likely had a big impact on those numbers.

Edging out the competition

Self-serve coffee at Family Mart
Self-serve coffee at Family Mart. (Picture by Jay Allen)

Self-service coffee revolutionized the market, welcoming everyone with open arms to enjoy their favorite brews. The strategy didn’t just win over convenience store regulars. It also drew in older adults and female customers who were new to the scene.

Yet, it did more than expand its audience; it enticed customers away from competitors. Before self-serving machines, vending machines were the primary choice for a caffeine fix on the go. However, by 2016, canned coffee sales saw a noticeable decline, with the number of vending machines nationwide dropping below 5 million. The main challenger? Combini coffee — freshly brewed and more budget-friendly.

Public sentiment strongly reflects the overwhelming appeal of self-serving coffee. The 2024 results of Co., Ltd’s annual internet survey on convenience store coffee confirm its escalating popularity. Out of 9,510 respondents, nearly 60% admitted to grabbing convenience store coffee in the past year. Around 40% indulged weekly, while 80% of those did so three times a month or more.

When asked why they favored self-serving combini coffee, 40% cited its wallet-friendly price. Others raved about its superior taste, freshness, and enticing aroma compared to canned or bottled alternatives. Respondents also shared common scenarios when they opted for self-serving coffee, such as savoring it during their commute, while picking up snacks, or simply satisfying a sudden craving for freshly brewed coffee.

Self-service coffee is both tasty and convenient. Just make sure while you’re in Japan to pour exactly what you paid for. The coffee police are watching.


レギュラー買ってラージ注いだ…コンビニコーヒー「窃盗」で懲戒免職の元公務員「犯罪者を出さない仕組みにならないか」 Yahoo News Japan

なぜ詐欺ではなく万引きなのか…コンビニで110円コーヒーを買って190円カフェラテを注ぐことの犯罪要件 PR Times

コンビニコーヒー飲む人が超激増した根本原因 東洋経済

【コンビニコーヒーに関する調査】コンビニ利用者のうち、直近1年間にコンビニコーヒーを購入した人は6割弱 PR Times


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