BlogTV: The Black Phone

BlogTV presents another fascinating look at a Japan in a time of technological change. This story (5min44sec, Japanese subtitles only) comes from FujiTV, and the video is of fairly good quality.









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Our video starts with an intriguing question from little Satomi, age 11. She writes to FujiTV inquiring, “what’s a kurodenwa, a black telephone?” So a reporter is dispatched to investigate the question. Japan is a land of rapid technological development, perhaps nothing has evolved as quickly as the telephone. In the past, telephones were only available from the national phone company NTT. Phone functions were easily distinquished by their color, for example, green phones were pay phones, and even today most pay phones are green. But what was a kurodenwa?

We start by investigating Satomi’s home, where we see her family’s phone is a huge modern multifunction phone/answering machine/FAX device with a big radio antenna, presumably it also has several wireless extension phones. The reporter starts her search for a kurodenwa at a local electronics shop. We see dozens of variations on modern desk telephones, some of the phones are colored black, but the salesman admits that he does not have any kurodenwa. Obviously it isn’t the color that makes a phone a black phone.

Let’s go straight to the top. Our reporter interviews a corporate executive at NTT who says that kurodenwa were discontinued 18 years ago, long before little Satomi was even born. An executive at NEC brings out the modern equivalent of the kurodenwa, an ugly reddish-beige phone with a touch-tone dial. Even the NEC executive admits this isn’t what we’re looking for.

Our reporter, as usual, sets out for some man-in-the-street interviews searching for a kurodenwa owner. She searches from morning until night before finding an owner, and long after the sun has set, we follow him back to his restaurant in search of the phone. He climbs up and rummages around a storage cubbyhole, and pulls out a plastic bag containing a dirty, discarded kurodenwa. And now we see the distinguising feature, what makes it a kurodenwa, it has a rotary dial. The reporter fondles it and seems to recoil at the dirty, greasy surface of the ancient artifact. But this phone isn’t in active use today, we see the restaurant’s phone, it’s just like any other modern phone.

Let’s search a little harder and try to find a kurodenwa in active use. Our reporter shrieks in delight as she discovers another kurodenwa at another old restaurant, this one is hooked up. We hear the feeble ring tone of the ancient relic, yes, this phone actually works! The owner asserts the old style of phone resists the grease that inevitably clogs up machinery in any restaurant. We see the cash register, completely wrapped in plastic to keep the grease out, they just don’t make machines like they used to. Some middle-aged restaurant patrons express their love for the old kurodenwa, it makes them nostalgic for the old days when everyone had one. But as the cook scrambles to answer the phone for an order, we can see we are intruding into their busy work schedule, so we take our leave of this establishment, and set off to find another kurodenwa.

In another interview on the street, we find a kindly old lady, aged 79, who admits she still uses a kurodenwa. The reporter arranges for little Satomi to visit and experience the old woman’s phone firsthand. She says you have to take your time using the old dial phones, so you don’t make any mistakes, this isn’t a phone for people in a hurry. When Satomi is brought into the room to see the phone, she seems to be in shock, she can only mutter sugoi, sugoi! (it’s cool). Satomi tries to phone her mother at home, and on her first attempt, dials a wrong number. Oops! On the second try, she connects, and tells her mother honto ni, kakerareta, she really dialed the phone. Satomi says honto ni mawashitara kakerareta, it really rotates when it dials, and also expresses her surprise that it has a real bell when it rings. The kindly old lady laughs in amusement that her plain old telephone is such a curiosity to the modern generation of kids. The young girl, the old woman, and the reporter all give a short bow towards the phone, expressing their respect for this antique kurodenwa that has given faithful service for decades.

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