TOKYO — When he got married this summer, Hiroshi Kanno, who works at a security services firm in Tokyo, wanted to make a big statement that would impress his future in-laws.
So he asked for his company’s president to send a congratulatory telegram.
It arrived during the wedding party and was read aloud. “It really pumped up the atmosphere,” Mr. Kanno, 33, said. “I felt like a celebrity,” added his wife, Asuka, a 31-year-old office administrator. They posted photos of that message and another wedding telegram on Twitter, along with the his-and-her 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 kept a foothold in Japan, where millions of the messages still crisscross the nation every year, carrying articulations of celebration, mourning and thanks.
Old friends send them for funerals. Politicians deliver them to constituents. And businesses use them to commemorate the retirement of valued employees.
Unlike the much-maligned fax machine — frequently trotted out as evidence of Japan’s stubborn resistance to the digital age — the telegram is a symbol of the nation’s love of propriety. (Yes, it’s possible to fax a telegram request.) For many Japanese of a certain age, the medium — extravagant, formal and nostalgic — is the message.
Kaoru Matsuda, a political consultant, said he believed that telegrams had stayed in use because they made a “more polite impression.”
In business and politics, “a fax is used very casually and feels businesslike,” he said. “When it comes to things like condolences, telegrams are it.”
In recent weeks, the telegram has played an unlikely role in one of the biggest political stories in Japan in years.
After a gunman killed former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, reportedly over the political leader’s ties to the Unification Church, politicians across Japan scrambled to explain their connections to the fringe religious group. Among them was the environment minister at the time, Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi, who over the years had sent congratulatory telegrams to organizations affiliated with the church.
For Mr. Yamaguchi, it was business as usual: Politicians get requests for telegrams “from all over the place,” he said, adding that “we send one to everyone who asks.”
Japan is far from the only country where telegrams still exist. They remain a useful, albeit increasingly rare, method of communication in places where poverty and infrastructure limit access to mobile phones and email.
In wealthier nations, as well, a telegram can still carry legal or ceremonial weight. When President Biden was sick with Covid-19 this summer, the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, sent a telegram wishing him a speedy recovery. After the death of Queen Elizabeth II on Thursday, world leaders sent condolences by telegram.
But the days of mainstream use of telegrams are long past. Western Union, once synonymous with telegrams, ended its service in 2006. India, one of the last major national holdouts, shut down its state-run service in 2013 after 162 years.
The telegram services that remain have changed greatly since Samuel Morse’s invention of the telegraph put the Pony Express out of business.
Today, messages are mostly composed online and transmitted digitally before being printed out and hand delivered. In Japan, senders can choose from among a variety of fonts and elegant card stocks and select an accompanying gift from catalogs full of luxury goods and branded 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 by the character, as in the old days, customers are billed at a fixed rate for a fixed number of characters, and pay extra if they go over.
The telegram’s essence, however, has remained: a concise message printed on a small card and (relatively) swiftly delivered.
The telegram’s transformation into a vessel of etiquette 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 the industry.
By the 1990s, telegram traffic had nearly halved. At the same time, the messages’ content had undergone an unexpected evolution: Nearly all of them 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 worldwide. (In the United States, fewer than a million telegrams are sent annually, the company said.)
The bulk of telegrams in Japan are sent by Nippon Telegraph and Telephone, known as NTT. The company, which started life as a state-owned entity, was given an effective monopoly on the telegram business when it was privatized in 1985. In exchange, the company had to guarantee that it would provide the service indefinitely.
Under NTT’s monopoly, the industry stagnated, and the company’s profits from it eventually vanished. But as government overhauls opened the business to competition in the past two decades, a number of small companies sprang up, introducing innovations like online ordering that have helped the industry survive.
For these firms, telegrams remain a moneymaking niche business.
Keisuke Yamamoto, the president of Roys International, started his company 15 years ago. At the time, he was working in licensing and had noticed a growing demand for telegrams that featured 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 pairing the messages with gifts that would appeal to a younger generation. “It worked,” he said, adding that a competitor had even “stolen our ideas.”
The pandemic has hurt telegram traffic as people have avoided large events like weddings and funerals, but customers have become more likely to send telegrams with expensive presents, said Toshihiko Fujisaki, who heads the corporate planning department at Sagawa Humony, a company that offers telegram services.
The company has tried to bring young people onboard, giving university students the opportunity to experience ordering a telegram. It is also working on a smartphone app.
“Young people don’t know telegrams. They’re used to smartphones,” Mr. Fujisaki said. But compared with getting an email or a text message, “there’s a lot more emotion when you get a telegram.”
For those unfamiliar with the protocol, telegram companies offer online primers on sending messages for a variety of occasions. For weddings, guests should avoid using punctuation, because it could signify bringing something to an end. Senders are also advised to notify the recipient in advance to avoid any potentially unpleasant surprises.
Even as the broader market for telegrams has shrunk, they have remained popular among corporate clients and politicians, who see them as important tools for keeping up relationships.
Politicians send them not just to constituents but to each other, said Mr. Matsuda, the political consultant.
“They send them to each other when they can’t participate in a fund-raising event or when their colleagues get appointed to an important post,” he said.
Mr. Yamaguchi’s scandal, however, may have cooled 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.”
For Asuka and Hiroshi Kanno, though, the telegram remains something to cherish. They proudly display their wedding telegrams in their living room, and Ms. Kanno said she planned to send one when her own future child gets married.
Still, the couple would never think to send a telegram under other circumstances, she said. When it comes to events like birthdays, “I’d probably go digital.”