TOKYO (dpa) – On the streets of Japanese big cities they dispense hot drinks, steaming noodles, bunches of flowers, sacks of rice and even ladies’ underwear.Self-service vending machines cater for almost every need in Japan and on nearly every corner they hum and glow, offering refreshment to passers-by. Assorted cool juices are on offer in summer and in winter every variety of iced coffee along with scalding hot mugs of coffee.Of the country’s more than 5.5 million self-service automats – one for every 23 Japanese – some 50 per cent dispense drinks. They generated a turnover in 1999 of some 27 billion U.S. dollars, according to the economics magazine “[email protected] Inc.”.Now the dispensing machine manufacturers are getting ready to upgrade their equipment to enter the electronic age and soon most of the dispensers will be hooked up to the Internet or mobile phone networks, says the magazine.Electronic giant Sanyo has developed a system whereby customers pay for their can of soft drink using their mobile phone connected to the Internet. A customer logs in on the drinkmaker’s web page and keys in an identification number, followed by the number of the automat and the product.The price of the soft drink appears later on the customer’s mobile telephone bill, reports financial newspaper “Nikkei Weekly”. Another company, Sanden, is working on a system whereby the price can be deducted from the customer’s account online.Newer types of automat are more a cross between an automatic bank teller and a cyber kiosk. According to [email protected] Inc, these will be installed in banks, neighbourhood markets and train stations by the end of 2001. The new generation of automats in Japan will be able to be fed with news, advertising and video and audio files via mobile networks.At the same time, deliveries to the machines and systems for maintaining them are being improved too. One example is a dispenser which generates an e-mail automatically when it is in need of repair.The e-mail contains not only the information that the machine is defective, but also which spare parts are needed. This new generation of machines will also be able to tell owners via a radio network how much stock is still available and how many coins have already been inserted.Manufacturers hope that by using such high-tech methods they can counter the increasing number of forged coins and vandalized vending machines. The low crime rate in Japan was what helped the machines become so popular in the first place and vending-machine crime is now a big issue.Japan’s association of self-service automatic manufacturers is said to have developed a system which, according to the Nikkei Weekly, reports any machine abuse directly to the police via the Internet.