TOKYO — When he got married this summer, Hiroshi Kanno, who works at a security services company in Tokyo, wanted to make a big statement that would impress his future in-laws.
So he asked the president of his company to send him a congratulatory telegram.
It arrived during the wedding party and was read aloud. “She really livened up the atmosphere,” said Kanno, 33. “I felt like a celebrity,” added his wife, Asuka, a 31-year-old office manager. They posted photos of that message and another wedding telegram on Twitter, along with his and hers Hello Kitty dolls that were delivered with the notes.
The telegram, a form of communication associated more with the Roaring 20s than the 2020s, has taken hold in Japan, where millions of messages still criss-cross the nation each year, with expressions of celebration, mourning and thanks.
Old friends send them to funerals. Politicians hand them over to voters. And companies use them to commemorate the retirement of valued employees.
Unlike the much-maligned fax machine, which is often held up as evidence of Japan’s stubborn resistance to the digital age, the telegram is a symbol of the nation’s love of property. (Yes, it is possible to send a telegram request by fax). For many Japanese of a certain age, the medium, extravagant, formal and nostalgic, is the message.
Kaoru Matsuda, a political consultant, said he believed telegrams had remained in use because they gave a “more polite impression”.
In business and politics, “a fax machine is used very casually and feels like a business,” he said. “When it comes to things like condolences, telegrams are.”
In recent weeks, the telegram has played an unlikely role in one of Japan’s biggest political stories in years.
After a gunman killed former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, allegedly over the political leader’s ties to the Unification Church, politicians across Japan were quick to explain their connections to the fringe religious group. Among them was then Environment Minister Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi, who over the years had sent congratulatory telegrams to church-affiliated organizations.
For Mr. Yamaguchi, it was business as usual: Politicians receive requests for telegrams “from all over the place”, he said, adding that “we send one to everyone who requests it”.
Japan is far from the only country where telegrams still exist. They remain a useful, if increasingly rare, method of communication in places where poverty and infrastructure limit access to mobile phones and email.
In wealthier nations, too, a telegram may still carry legal or ceremonial weight. When President Biden fell ill with Covid-19 this summer, Chinese leader Xi Jinping sent a telegram wishing him a speedy recovery. Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II on Thursday, world leaders sent their condolences by telegram.
But the days of the widespread use of telegrams are long gone. Western Union, once delivered with telegrams, ended its service in 2006. India, one of the last great national strongholds, shut down your state service in 2013 after 162 years.
The telegram services that remain have changed a lot since Samuel Morse’s invention of the telegraph put the Pony Express out of business.
Today, most messages are composed online and transmitted digitally before being printed and delivered in person. In Japan, senders can choose from a variety of fancy card stock and fonts, and select an accompanying gift from catalogs full of luxury goods and brand-name items: Disney and Hello Kitty are popular. Flowers or stuffed animals are common choices for weddings, incense sticks for funerals.
Payment schemes have also evolved: instead of being charged per character, as in the old days, customers are billed a flat rate for a fixed number of characters and pay extra if they go over.
However, the essence of the telegram has remained: a concise message printed on a small card and delivered (relatively) quickly.
The transformation of the telegram into a label container was a decades-long process. Telegram use peaked in Japan in 1963, when the medium, then considered the gold standard for urgent communication, was used to send around 95 million messages, according to a government report assessing the recent state of telegram. the industry.
By the 1990s, telegram traffic had almost halved. At the same time, the content of the messages had undergone an unexpected evolution: almost all conveyed congratulations or condolences.
In 2020, the most recent year for which data is available, more than four million telegrams were delivered in Japan. That makes it the third largest market for the medium behind Russia and Italy, according to statistics provided by International Telegram, a private firm that provides telegram services around the world. (In the United States, fewer than a million telegrams are sent annually, the company said.)
Most telegrams in Japan are sent by Nippon Telegraph and Telephone, known as NTT. The company, which was born as a state entity, obtained the effective monopoly of the telegram business when it was privatized in 1985. In exchange, the company had to guarantee that it would provide the service indefinitely.
Under the NTT monopoly, the industry stagnated and the company’s profits eventually disappeared. But as government reforms have opened up business to competition over the past two decades, a number of small businesses have sprung up, introducing innovations like online ordering that have helped the industry survive.
For these companies, telegrams remain a profitable business niche.
Keisuke Yamamoto, president of Roys International, founded his company 15 years ago. At the time, he was working on licensing and had noticed a growing demand for telegrams featuring popular brands and characters like Peter Rabbit and Paddington Bear.
At the time, the market was 45 billion yen, he said, or about $325 million in today’s money, and he realized that “snagging even just 1 percent of that would make a successful business.”
He set out to differentiate his company, he said, by combining messaging with giveaways that would appeal to a younger generation. “It worked,” he said. “NTT has stolen our ideas over the years.”
The pandemic has affected telegram traffic as people have avoided big events such as weddings and funerals, but customers are more likely to send telegrams with expensive gifts, said Toshihiko Fujisaki, who heads the corporate planning department at Sagawa Humony, a company that offers telegram services. .
The company has tried to appeal to young people, giving college students the opportunity to experience ordering a telegram. It is also working on a smartphone app.
“Young people don’t know about telegrams. They are used to smartphones,” said Fujisaki. But compared to receiving an email or text, “there’s a lot more excitement when you get a telegram.”
For those unfamiliar with the protocol, telegram companies offer online manuals on sending messages for a variety of occasions. For weddings, guests should avoid using punctuation as it could mean that something is coming to an end. Senders are also advised to notify the recipient in advance to avoid potentially unpleasant surprises.
Even though the broader market for telegrams has shrunk, they remain popular with corporate clients and politicians, who see them as important tools for maintaining relationships.
Politicians send them not just to constituents but to each other, said Mr. Matsuda, the political adviser.
“They are sent to them when they are unable to participate in a fundraising event or when their colleagues are appointed to an important position,” he said.
The Yamaguchi scandal, however, may have dampened that enthusiasm. During a recent talk show appearance, Toshinao Sasaki, a freelance journalist and political commentator, said the Unification Church controversy could finally end politicians’ love affair with the telegram.
“Times have changed,” he said, adding, “I think it’s the beginning of the end.”
However, for Asuka and Hiroshi Kanno, the telegram is still something to cherish. They proudly display her wedding telegrams in the living room, and Mrs. Kanno said that she planned to send one when her own future child gets married.
Still, the couple would never think of sending a telegram under other circumstances, he said. When it comes to events like birthdays, “I would probably go digital.”