Throughout Japan, an army of workers stands ready to ensure important messages are delivered as quickly as possible. But they don’t work in data centers maintaining email servers. They deliver telegrams.
Staff from Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation (NTT), one of the world’s largest telecom companies, still drive around big cities and even board ships to remote Japanese islands hand-delivering telegrams from friends, loved ones and business partners.
The couriers are continuing a 145-year-old tradition, from 1869, when a government agency that preceded NTT began telegraphy services between Tokyo and the port of Yokohama.
Japan is one of the last countries in the world where telegrams are still widely used. A combination of traditional manners, market liberalization and innovation has kept alive this age-old form of messaging, first commercialized in the mid-19th century by Samuel Morse and others.
While they’re not exactly practical, telegrams today are easy to send in Japan. They can be ordered via the Internet or by phone, simply by dialing 115. (Telegram Day is observed on the corresponding calendar date, Nov. 5.)
Companies affiliated with the country’s three mobile carriers, NTT DoCoMo, KDDI and SoftBank, offer telegrams, which are sent via modern server networks instead of the dedicated electrical wires of the past (Morse telegraphy hasn’t been used since 1962), and then printed out with modern printers instead of tape glued on paper.
But customers are still charged according to the length of the message, which is delivered within three hours. A basic NTT telegram up to 25 characters long can be sent for ¥440 (US$4.30) when ordered online.
That the medium has endured so long takes many by surprise, and there have been premature reports about the death of the telegram at the hands of email, SMS and other modern communications.
But the telegram is alive and well in Japan. In fact, it’s enjoying something of a renaissance.
It's like Facebook Messenger, on paper
The catalog of telegram services for NTT East, serving Tokyo and eastern and northern Japan, is 33 pages long. It showcases one of the main attractions for today’s telegram writers: gifts. People can choose from a range of presents to accompany a heartfelt message, from Hello Kitty dolls to lacquered accessory boxes and bouquets of preserved flowers.
There’s even a telegram that comes with incense sticks to burn at family altars or graves for Japan’s Obon holiday in August, in which ancestors are remembered.
Indeed, another part of the appeal of telegrams is the fact that they often play a role in traditional customs and etiquette, which remains strong among older generations and in maintaining inter-company relationships.
“In Japan, there’s still the custom, related to manners, of sending telegrams on occasions such as weddings and funerals,” said Naoto Takumi, a spokesman for NTT East’s TelWel, which handles telegrams. “It’s like the New Year greetings cards that Japanese send at the end of the year.”
Enrollments, graduations and new job positions also call for congratulations, so the beginning of the academic and fiscal year in April sees a flurry of wires, Takumi added.
While the number of telegrams sent by NTT peaked roughly 50 years ago, customers still wrote over 10 million of them in 2012.
The tally falls by about 10 percent a year, but there’s a growing number of smaller companies offering telegrams and other delivery services in Japan.
That’s because Japan liberalized some mail and messaging services about 10 years ago when it launched plans to privatize Japan Post, a government corporation that controls trillions of dollars’ worth of customer savings.
Modern twists on an old medium
Postal privatization eventually sputtered, but the new entrants have gone from sending 420,000 telegrams and other kinds of messages in 2004 to nearly 4 million in 2012.
In July, Sagawa Express, a long-established courier company, began offering telegrams presented in stylish cards from ¥1,382. Another company offers novelty “Marshmallow Telegrams”—boxes of marshmallows made with edible characters that spell out a message.
“Some companies are trying to compete with NTT on price and offerings,” says Takeo Kiyokawa, a general manager at PS Communications, a SoftBank group company set up a few years ago to offer domestic telegrams.
The firm’s Hot Denpo service includes fancy gifts by fashion designers such as Junko Koshino, who created a gold and brown plastic clutch purse to enclose telegrams. It’s priced at ¥8,000.
It’s surprisingly stylish given that about 90 percent of PS Communications customers are businesses and 70 percent of the telegrams it sends are condolences. Yet Hot Denpo users are slowly increasing, Kiyokawa says.
“The telegram culture is continuing,” he said, “but I’m not sure what will happen 10 years from now.”
Younger Japanese may be unfamiliar with the medium, but gift cartoon characters are bridging the gap.
“I sent my mother a Doraemon telegram,” a 27-year-old Japanese model wrote on her blog for Mother’s Day, referring to the famous robot cat from manga and anime. The stuffed toy comes with a prerecorded greeting and thanks the recipient for working hard.
“She was thrilled! Thank you (Mom) for raising me.”