The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- A telegram is a serious document in Japan

The government of Japan passed a telegraph law on October 1, 1900. It made a telegram a serious document: the sender could not recall it unless the government passed an ordinance; nor could it be delivered anywhere other than to its address without an ordinance. If he paid too much, he could get back the excess only after an ordinance; if he paid too little, he could be proceeded against as if he had not paid his taxes and his property could be attached.

The sender had to buy stamps equal to the charge for the telegram and stick them on it; he could not pay cash unless the government passed an ordinance.

He could ask the telegraph office for credit by giving it with his seal (the Japanese often use a seal like a rubber stamp except that it would be made in ivory once and plastic now instead of a signature) to the clerk. If he did, he had to pay by the 20th of the next month. If he changed his seal, he had to apply to the telegraph office to be allowed to do so. He could, in exceptional circumstances, send a telegram to be paid for by the receiver; but if the receiver did not pay, the sender had to.

The government anticipated a situation where a telegraph-carrier found a road blocked. If he did, it authorized him to pass through private property on the side of the road as long as he did not climb a wall or a stockade. If he damaged the property, the government would pay damages, but the sufferer had to ask for it. If, on going further, the carrier came across a river, he could ask the ferrier to ferry him across, whatever the time of day or night. He did not have to pay the toll for the ferry. A ferrier who refused to take him across had to pay a fine of 30 yen. If, however, the carrier or anyone else opened, damaged, concealed or threw away a telegram or gave it to someone other than the addressee, he could be sent into penal servitude for three years and fined up to 500 yen.

So could someone who interfered with the construction, repair, inspection or measurement of telegraph or telephone lines; but the maximum fine he had to pay was only 200 yen. And if he hung his clothes on a telegraph line or tied his cow to a telegraph pole, or even dirtied it, he could be fined 10 yen.

However, if he happened to be in water, he could get into really deep water. If he moored his raft to a telegraph buoy or a marine cable, or entered the area where a marine telegraph line passed and fished or collected seaweeds or even dug in the sand, he could be fined up to 1,000 yen. Actually, it did not matter whether the cable was there or not; he could get into the same trouble if the telegraph office had put up a notice saying it was going to lay a cable.

A telegram could not be accepted unless it had a text; but for some reason, foreign language telegrams could be sent with just a signature. The telegram could be in Japanese or a foreign language; the two could not be mixed. If in Japanese, it had to use one of 50 letters, two phonetic signs, ten figures and four punctuation marks. Phonetic signs could not be used separately from words. If in a foreign language, it had to use one of 26 Roman letters, ten figures or nine punctuation marks. Letters and figures could not be mixed up in a single word in a foreign telegram unless they represented train or flight numbers, addresses, market quotations, meteorological observations or forecasts. Two words could not be combined into one unless they were verbs, nouns or other words combined with their prepositions or auxiliary verbs, or unless it was normal to combine them. A foreign-language telegram could be written in Japanese but then it could not include words written in a foreign language unless they were names of persons or words in common use in Japan.

A telegram had to bear the address of the person it was meant for; but if he was in a train, it had in addition to include the number of the train, its destination, whether it was going up or down, the class in which the addressee was travelling, the time when he boarded the train and when it would pass the station where he was to be given the telegram. If the addressee was on a ship, the sender could ask for the telegram to be delivered to him by boat; but then he had to pay the ferrying charge. If he did not pay enough, the addressee had to cough up the difference.

After 1907, the government allowed wireless telegrams to be sent to or from a ship; but they could only concern its passage, a signal or a distress signal. A telegram to a ship could not be reply-paid. It had to specify the name of the ship, its nationality, the name of its owner or lessee, the name of the lighthouse it would be passing by, and whether it would be passing from left to right or vice versa.

A telegram to the resident of a city could be sent for delivery within a particular hour; that hour had to be at least five hours after the despatch of the telegram and between 8 am and 8 pm. If the sender was not sure where the addressee would be, he could send a telegram to pursue him. He could give a series of addresses where the addressee might be; the telegraph office would keep taking the telegram to address after address until it found the addressee. The charge for such a telegram was the multiple of the charge for a single telegram and the number of addresses. Whether he was in a train or on land, someone who received a telegram by mistake must write so on it and return it immediately to a telegraph office. If, however, it was sealed, he had to seal it again and give a reason why he opened it. If a telegram was not delivered, the originating telegraph office would inform the sender. But if he wanted it back, he had to make an application within 30 days.

A telegram in Japanese was charged by the number of letters. A punctuation sign or a phonetic sign counted as a separate letter. In telegrams in a foreign language, however, every five letters counted as a word; any word with more than five characters counted as two words. The sender could not save money by using abbreviations; if such abbreviations were contrary to common usage, the clerk could spell out the words in full and charge them accordingly. The clerk was the final judge of how the word should be spelt. Every punctuation sign was counted as a separate word; but the sender could ask that they should not be transmitted in which case he was not charged. Just why he should put in punctuation signs and ask them not to be transmitted is a mystery that can no longer be solved. Those who have any remaining doubts may write to the Japanese telegraph office; I would be very interested in the reply they receive.

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