How Edo and Meiji-period Japan embraced the telegraph and logged on to the Victorian Internet.
One hundred and fifty-one years ago, on 17 May 1865, representatives from eighteen European states plus Russia and Turkey met in Paris and signed a framework agreement at the International Telegraph Convention setting up the International Telegraph Union (ITU) to create common rules and standard equipment for international communication using the telegraph. It was the result of the realization of the need in international cable communications for a multilateral agreement rather than numerous bilateral agreements, although notable absentees were the two countries driving the telegraph revolution, the United States and the United Kingdom (the latter joined in 1871).
Remarkably, Japan sent a representative – Shioda Saburo (塩田 三郎) – as an observer to the third International Telegraph Conference in Rome (1871-1872) and three observers to the fourth International Telegraph Conference in St. Petersburg (1875). Japan fianlly acceded to the International Telegraph Convention of 1875 (St. Petersburg) and became an ITU member state from 17 January 1879, becoming only the 19th state to join after those initial founding states in 1865. If we look at the membership starting year of the United States (1908) and leading Asian countries — India (1869), Thailand (1883), the Philippines (1912), China (1920), Indonesia (1949) and Korea (1952) — the significance of Japan’s action regionally starts to become clear.
The 150th anniversary of the founding of the world’s oldest international organization thus offers a timely reminder of the truly remarkable speed with which Japan became closely connected to the rest of the world soon after its Tokugawa Shogunate government was obliged by the visits in 1853 and 1854 by Commodore Perry’s Black Ships to end its Sakoku (‘closed country’) policy that has been in place for over 200 years prohibiting, on pain of death, any interaction with the outside world beyond that via the small Dutch trading post in Nagasaki.
While the rapid modernization of Japan in the Meiji period in areas such as transportation, trade and industry is well known, the blistering speed with which the country adopted the telegraph and the telegraph’s huge impact on Japan domestically and internationally is not often highlighted.
In fact, it was a remarkable coincidence of fate that the opening up of Japan to the outside world in 1859 occurred just as the telegraph boom in the world’s leading countries was starting and just as companies were being formed to lay submarine cables worldwide to create the huge international communications networks which have been called the Victorian Internet.
Japanese fascination started with Perry’s present of telegraphs for the Shogun
When Commodore Matthew Perry made his second visit to Japan with his Black Ships in 1854, he brought two telegraph systems which he had set up and demonstrated in Yokohama before presenting them to the Shogun as one of the gifts from the President of the USA.
Perry’s Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan describes the demonstrations as follows: “The telegraphic apparatus, under the direction of Messrs. Draper and Williams, was soon in working order, the wires extending nearly a mile, in a direct line, one end being at the treaty house, and another at a building expressly allotted for the purpose. When communication was opened up between the operators at either extremity, the Japanese watched with intense curiosity the modus operandi, and were greatly amazed to find that in an instant of time messages were conveyed in the English, Dutch, and Japanese languages from building to building. Day after day the dignitaries and many of the people would gather, and, eagerly beseeching the operators to work the telegraph, watch with unabated interest the sending and receiving of messages.” The Narrative also noted that the Japanese “had learned how to manage the locomotive engine sent to the Emperor by the United States government but the magnetic telegraph was too hard for them.”
These demonstrations took place a little less than 10 years after Samuel Morse inaugurated the first commercial telegraph in the USA in 1844 with the famous “What hath God wrought” message and just three years after the first submarine cable was successfully laid under the English Channel in 1851. Laying long-distance submarine cables under the Atlantic Ocean proved more difficult and it wasn’t until May 1866 on the fifth attempt after four costly failures that a permanent communication link between Britain and the USA was made possible. This success catapulted to the forefront of the fledging industry the bold Scottish cotton merchant John Pender who had risked over 250,000 pounds on it and set off a mad rush to lay cables all around the world.
The first practical application of a telegraph system in Japan appears to have been that set up by the Satsuma daimyo Shimazu Nariakira in 1858 within the precincts of his castle in Kagoshima. There was also talk of linking Japan to the world by means of undersea cables.
In 1867 the Russian consul stationed in Hakodate approached the Tokugawa Shogunate proposing that Japan permit the trans-Siberian cable be extended to Japan and landed there and pointing out the benefits Japan could expect. However, the Shogunate was facing uprisings that would lead to the Meiji Restoration the following year and discussions were abandoned.
First telegraph line in the Far East
After the overthrow of the Shogunate, the new Meiji government immediately set about acquiring and deploying telegraph systems. The first one was an 800-meter link laid in 1869 in Yokohama between the Lighthouse department and the Saibansho government building by the engineer Richard Brunton who later wrote “I had come out as a lighthouse engineer, but I became unexpectedly the builder of the first telegraph line in the Far East.” Brunton explains that since he was one of the first foreign residents in Japan with a technical background “my advice was sought for from the most diverse directions.” He wrote that soon it was decided to build one-line wire between Yokohama and Tokyo and another between Kobe and Kyoto and that he was then authorized to “order the necessary material and appliances in England and the services of an expert to execute the work and instruct the Japanese.”
The equipment arrived with the English expert George M. Gilbert in September 1869 and first public telegraph service was launched on December 25 between the government building in Yokohama and the customs house in Tokyo using a Breguet letter-point telegraph system operated by moving a handle over a disc on which letters were written which had been adapted to handle the Japanese Katakana alphabet as well as English. This telegraph, unlike the print telegraph that used codes, was operated by pointing to letters on the disc which was easier for novices to work.
At first ordinary Japanese had difficulty understanding how the ‘magic’ of the telegraph worked and many were hostile. There was, for example, the famous story of an old lady who thought it could transmit a present to her son in another part of the country so she wrapped up some clothes for him and tied the package to the nearest telegraph wire.
In April 1870 the Japan Weekly Mail reported that “it has, at extremely small cost, admirably fulfilled its purpose.” A month earlier the paper quoted Brunton as saying the service was still not available for foreigners because of the lack of staff able to transmit messages in English but that more than a hundred messages a day were being sent from either end of the line. Brunton noted that the service for Japanese had an “absurdly low tariff.” Later the same year a line was laid between Kobe and Osaka.
Connecting to Victorian age Internet
Also in 1870, the Meiji government received a new proposal for the landing of a submarine cable from the Great Northern Telegraph Company (GNTC). This Danish company had been selected by the Russian government in October 1869 to lay the Japan and China extension cables to link up with the Trans-Siberian cable. GNTC beat out four competitors to win the extension contracts, including the powerful British firm owned by John Pender. It won mainly because of its connections with the Russian Imperial family and because Denmark was not aligned with any major power.
Initially, the GNTC demanded exclusive rights to Japan’s international telegraph business but the government’s negotiator Terashima Munenori when agreeing to permit the cables to be landed at Kogakura just outside Nagasaki managed to giving in provided that the government built part of the network to a tough tome schedule which it duly did. GNTC quickly completed the laying of the cable between Shanghai and Nagasaki in June 1871 and that between Vladivostok and Nagasaki in October of the same year thereby linking Japan to Europe, America and the world via Russia. From January 1st 1872 GNTC launched its London-Nagasaki service charging 4 pound sign and 6s. for 20 words with free postage to destinations inside Japan from Nagasaki. However, messages could not be sent internationally from Tokyo until a submarine cable was laid between the islands of Honshu and Kyushu and linked to both Tokyo and Nagasaki. The submarine cable work was carried out in 1872 becoming the first submarine cable laid by the Japanese Government.
Meanwhile, in 1871 the Breguet letter-point equipment was upgraded to Siemens Morse print-type equipment imported from Britain with attached relay which required less current though it required skill and training to operate. When building the link between Tokyo and Nagasaki the wire followed the Tokaido road between Tokyo and Kyoto with pine trees being often used like telegraph poles.
In order to regulate the expanding telegraph services in the country, the government put into force the “Telegraph Service Regulations” and this was followed by the enactment of the “Telegraph Bill.”
In April 1872 the domestic telegraph line was linked to the submarine cable in Nagasaki and telegram service was available internationally to Europe and the USA. There was a minimum charge for up to 20 words and security was also a problem. Codes were introduced as one means of addressing both these problems with expressions of several words being assigned a code of just a few letter and letter number combinations thereby reducing the length of the message. Such codes were already in use domestically. Regardless of such codes, the Victorian Internet was the preserve of the elite for some time. Even governments balked at the price – “The expense of telegraphing practically prevents me from communicating with the Foreign Office,” complained Britain’s senior diplomat in Japan Ernest Satow in the 1890s.
Nothing is greater than the telegraph
How important was the telegraph in the modernization of Japan? Most of the elite who governed the country had spent time in Europe and/or the USA, spoke English and fully understood the power of the telegraph in modernizing and governing the country, boosting the economy as well as its significance in case of war. The educator Fukuzawa Yukichi, who had already created the Japanese word “denshin” for telegraph in 1866, eloquently described the telegraph’s importance thus: “Although there have been many inventions in recent years, nothing is greater than the telegraph, … When the telegraph serves as the nervous system of a country, the Central Telegraph Office is like the brain, and branch offices elsewhere are like nerve ends. As Japan sharpens its new nerve system, its body gains new vitality.”
As Meiji Japan grew in military power, so did its aspirations to expand its influence overseas. Following the 1882 Imo incident and the sacking of the Japanese legation, Japanese troops were dispatched to Korea to protect Japanese interests and the building a telegraphic link between Japan and Korea was soon judged to be essential for controlling events in Korea. Being short of funds the Meiji government sought the help of GNTC and in order to compensate the company for laying the Pusan-Nagasaki cable in December 1882 it granted a new 20-year license giving GNTC a monopoly of the country’s international telegraph links that was to last until WW2. In 1883 Japan and Korea signed an agreement guaranteeing that Korea’s international telegraph would be only via this link but the Korean government soon ignored it and in the Sino-Japanese war China even managed to temporarily seize control of Korea’s telegraph traffic.
Symbol of modernization attacked in times of unrest
In the early days of the telegraph in Japan there was little opposition to the new technology which dramatically reduced the time and cost of delivering messages over distances and thus made the centuries-old delivery by horse a thing of the past. “Beyond a few of the poles being slashed by fanatical Samurai who must find some use for their swords, there was no evidence of opposition on the part of the people,” wrote Brunton. Others report that the wires were often being cut thus keeping the repairmen busy.
Nonetheless, after 1875 the government’s policies resulted in severe hardship for many including ex-samurai class and the farmers. Slowly unrest, protests and finally rebellions took place with rebels often rejecting all things modern including guns. They blamed the telegraph for their problems and and many local telegraph offices were attacked.
One such rebellion was Shinpuren Rebellion in Fukuoka prefecture in 1876. The rebels killed the garrison and the commander in chief and wounded the geisha Kokatsu who was with him. She managed to get to the telegraph office and sent a short Japanese language telegram to her family in Tokyo with the words translatable “My master is fatal and I am wounded”which became famous nationwide. These events were to become a famous scene in a Kabuki play and the subject of a song. However, in destroying the telegraph offices the rebels always effectively cut themselves off from other potential supporters and thus sealed their own grim fate.
It was soon after overcoming these domestic problems that the government decided to become a member of the ITU from 1879. At the time Japan had a network of 6,000 kilometers in total and operated about 60 offices. In 1885, the government decided to extend the telegraph network to all major Japanese cities and also to introduce a nationwide flat rate tariff. By 1891 there were 433 offices, 11,610 km of land lines and 387 km of submarine cables. In 1907 the number of domestic telegrams sent annually numbered 24,418,967 compared with just 20,000 in1871.
On September 19 1881 the president of the USA, James Abram Garfield, died months after being shot by an assassin. At that moment on the other side of world, the emperor of Japan was on a tour of northern Japan but he heard the shocking news almost immediately. Two days later Garfield’s successor in Washington received a telegram of condolence from the emperor, clearly showing just how closely connected Japan had become to the world only 14 years after the end of the Tokugawa shogunate.
* In 1934 the ITU merged with its wireless counterpart, changing its name in the process to the International Telecommunication Union. In 1947 the ITU became the first specialized agency in the United Nations, and today boasts 193 member states.
FOOTNOTE 1: Yokohama connections of the Bill Gates of the Victorian Internet
There was one country whose international telegraph business, John Pender, the Bill Gates of the Victorian Internet, was surprisingly unable to dominate directly and that was Japan. Although Pender owned over half of the world’s submarine cables he was unable to get a direct foothold in Japan due to the GNTC’s monopoly. However, Pender’s nephew James Pender Mollison lived in Yokohama, Japan from 1868 until his death in 1931 and became one of the town’s leading entrepreneurs as well as being the founder in 1868 of the Yokohama Cricket Club that survives today as the Yokohama Country and Athletic Club. He and his mother Margaret, John Pender’s sister, are both buried in Yokohama’s Gaijin Bochi.
FOOTNOTE 2: JAPAN STILL OFFERS TELEGRAM SERVICES BUT ONLY JUST
Japan’s leading telcos NTT and KDDI still offer telegraph services today in the age of SMS and e-mail, and data transmission at gigabit speeds. The service survives because of the continuing tradition of sending congratulatory telegrams to weddings and graduation ceremonies as well as telegrams of condolence. However, unlike the ITU which is going from strength to strength, the telegram service will struggle to reach its 150th anniversary because the number of telegrams handled by NTT East and West is heading gracefully towards the zero mark. It fell below the 10,000 mark for the first time ever in 2013 and general telegrams numbered only 290 — not that many more than the number being sent each day in 1869 when the first telegraph service started. Nonetheless, NTT has no plans to terminate the service and, indeed, on 25 April 2015 launched a new domestic telegram service called Cinderella Celebration Telegram!