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History of the development of telecommunications infrastructure in Japan

Le développement des infrastructures de télécommunications au Japon
Yoshio Arai


Le Japon possède l'un réseau d'infrastructures télécom les mieux développés au monde. Ceci est dû à un assez long processus d'équipement qui est décrit dans cet article, depuis l’introduction de la technologie télégraphique à la fin du XIXe siècle jusqu’à l’expansion récente du haut débit mobile. L'article rappelle ainsi les différentes routes empruntées. Tout d'abord, à l'international avec une route vers l'ouest, c'est à dire vers l'Europe, puis une route vers l'est reliée directement aux États-Unis. Au début des années 2000, des réseaux de télécommunications transpacifiques à très haut débit ont été construits correspondant au développement rapide de l'Internet mondial augmentant encore davantage l'importance prise par la liaison vers l'est. En revanche, à l'intérieur des frontières nationales, le développement des télécoms s'est réalisé en gardant une même configuration géographique identiques à celle tracée à l'époque des réseaux télégraphiques nationaux.

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The author thanks Dr. Yasukazu Satake, Lecturer of Kochi University, for his assistance with completing this paper. And the author also thanks the anonymous referees who gave apposite comments.


1Various aspects of the informatization of Japanese society are the focus of this issue. Seamless connections among all information systems across diverse locations are fundamental to the informatization of today’s society, not only in Japan but also in all countries. However, such comprehensive telecommunications environments have only been established relatively recently, even in developed countries. Japan has one of the most well-equipped telecommunications infrastructures in the world. Almost all of the information service providers and users are satisfied with the Japanese telecommunications infrastructure.

2However, the Japanese telecommunications infrastructure was not completed in a day. The rich Japanese information environment is the result of a long telecommunications infrastructure construction process. The history of Japanese telecommunications including telegraph and telephone can be dated to that time when Japan became a modern state with the establishment of the Meiji Government in 1868. After that, telegraph networks first and then telephone networks had been constructed. These networks have been enhanced by adopting new telecommunications technologies such as radio technologies, satellite communications and optical fiber. The rapid expansion of the Internet since the 1990s cannot be discussed separately from the development of telegraph and telephone infrastructure, which has been constructed for more than 100 years. The construction of telecommunications infrastructure requires huge investment and a long period of time. No telecommunications infrastructure is built as a completely new system even though some new core technologies are adopted. The present characteristics of the telecommunications infrastructure can be understood only by examining its construction process in a historical context. Here, I would like to trace the development of Japan’s telecommunications infrastructure as a historical process from the introduction of telegraph technology at the beginning of the Meiji Era to the recent expansion of mobile broadband.

3The historical development processes of telegraph and telephone infrastructure have been argued in some English literature such as Ahvenainen (1981) and Headrick (1991). However, there are a few academic works focusing on the development of Japan’s telecommunications infrastructure, e.g., Ohno (2012). Because Japan’s telecommunications services had been provided solely by a national monopolistic enterprise, the source material about this issue was limited to its official history and the articles published by persons connected with this enterprise. I will trace the historical process of Japan’s telegraph and telephone networks reviewing these materials. For the telecommunications infrastructure since the introduction of the Internet, the statistics published by the Japanese Government and the concerned organizations will be analyzed.

4International telecommunications have been important to the development of Japan’s telecommunications because of its geographical location. Japan is far away from Europe and North America, which are the core regions of the world. For the Meiji Government, which was forced to place great significance on its political/economic relationships with overseas developed countries to establish a modern state, the construction of telecommunications infrastructure for efficient communications with remote countries was a pressing need. Since then, connections with international telecommunications networks have been an important issue for Japan. In addition, Japan has required long overseas telecommunications routes to access the international telecommunication networks because of its insularity. Huge investments are needed to form international telecommunications routes and there are many technological difficulties. The construction of international telecommunications infrastructure with enough capacity has always been a national task and has been affected by the national telecommunications policies at those times. Therefore, I will discuss mainly the infrastructure for international telecommunications.

Development of telegraph and telephone networks in Japan1

  • 1 An early version of this chapter was presented at the 2015 International Conference on Mobility and (...)

5First, I will overview the construction process of Japan’s telegraph and telephone networks.

Early telegraph networks

6Telecommunication technologies arrived in Japan just before the establishment of the Meiji Government in 1868 (Nippon Denshin Denwa Kohsha 1960). In 1871, a Danish telegraph company, the Great Northern Telegraph Co., completed submarine telegraph cables connecting Vladivostok, Russia, Nagasaki in Kyushu, Japan, and Shanghai, China as part of a telecommunications network between Europe and the Far East via Siberia (Great Northern Telegraph Company 1969 ; Ahvenainen 1981). The Meiji Government hurried to complete domestic telegraph lines from Tokyo to Nagasaki via Nagoya and Osaka to connect to the Great Northern lines (Nippon Denshin Denwa Kohsha 1971).

7Once the local lines were completed, telegrams could be sent from Japan to European cities such as Moscow, Paris and London through the Great Northern lines. A British international telegraph network (called the “All-Red Route”) already included Shanghai by this time, so communications with Southeast Asian, Indian and European cities could be made via the British network (Headrick 1991).

8Communication records reveal that more than half of the international telegrams passing through Nagasaki in 1892 were transmitted from the Tokyo area, especially Yokohama. The Osaka area, an alternative economic center of Japan, transmitted merely one-third of the international telegrams (Table 1). This suggests that the globalization of Tokyo far preceded the other Japanese cities with respect to international communications (Ohno 2012). The same records also reveal that cities in the United States sent/received only a small portion of all telegrams. Clearly, the absence of communication routes across the Pacific Ocean created a bottleneck.

Table 1. Incoming and outgoing international telegraph traffic in major Japanese cities, 1892

Place of sending
and receiving

Number of telegrams


Counterpart country

Number of telegrams



5 651



29 648



36 677



13 624



42 328



4 706



10 551


United Kingdom

12 828



16 918



4 286



27 469



3 290



9 434



1 453



3 602


United States

8 843



82 833



4 155



82 833


Source : Ohno (2012).

9Although the first trans-Atlantic submarine telegraph cable was completed in 1866, the installation of a trans-Pacific cable was delayed (Headrick 1991). An American company installed submarine cables connecting San Francisco, Hawaii, Guam and Manila in 1903. The Japanese Government installed a submarine cable in 1906 from the Japanese mainland to Ogasawara, which connected to a branch line from Guam. Thus, a direct communication route crossing the Pacific Ocean from Japan to the United States was established (Nippon Denshin Denwa Kohsha 1971).

10The communication routes between Japan and the world were doubled through a westward route via Nagasaki and an eastward route from Tokyo. As mentioned below, a new international communication route directly from Tokyo to the United States had a similar configuration to a recent communication route established in the Internet age that uses optical submarine cables. Thus, the trans-Pacific telegraph cables were pioneers for today’s international Internet networks (Arai 2017).

11In parallel with the construction of the international telegraph networks, the Japanese Government continued to construct the domestic telegraph networks, and telegraph services reached throughout Japan by the early 20th century. The Japanese Government required the telecommunication networks connecting every region throughout the national lands to maintain the domestic sovereignty system. Because the domestic networks were connected to international networks, it was possible to send and receive international telegrams throughout almost all of Japan by this time. The domestic telegraph networks could also be used as telephone networks and domestic telephone services were widely diffused after World War II (Nippon Denshin Denwa Kohsha 1960).

International radio telecommunication networks

12Early in the 20th century, long-distance radiotelegraphs using long-wave technology were developed, and radiotelegraph stations were also built in Japan (Headrick 1991). In the 1930s, international telephone services using short-wave radio were launched (Denpa Kanri Iinkai 1951 ; Kokusai Denki Tsushin Kabushiki Gaisha Shashi Henshu Iinkai 1949 ; Kokusai Denshin Denwa Kabushiki Gaisha 1979 ; Ohno 1976). The technologies for long-distance telephone services were implemented at that time and domestic telephone networks were expanded (Nippon Denshin Denwa Kohsha 1960). International telephone services using radio technologies were started by connecting the domestic long-distance telephone networks to the international radiotelephone stations.

The use of submarine coaxial cables and international satellite communications for international telephone networks

13The rapid economic growth of Japan in the post-World War II period brought a sharp increase in demand for international communications. To meet the expanding demand, high-capacity submarine communication networks using cable technology were planned. The Trans-Pacific Cable 1 (TPC-1) connecting Tokyo and the United States mainland was completed in 1964. The TPC-1 connected to the Commonwealth Pacific Cable (COMPAC) network at Hawaii and the South East Asian Commonwealth Cable (SEACOM) network at Guam (Kokusai Denshin Denwa Kabushiki Gaisha 1979). Both COMPAC and SEACOM were part of the around-the-world cable systems built by the British Commonwealth (Baglehole 1969). Similar to the age of telegraphs, Japan was included in the two international communication networks, one led by the United States and the other by Britain (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Trans-Pacific and East/Southeast Asian coaxial submarine cables, 1964–1984

Figure 1. Trans-Pacific and East/Southeast Asian coaxial submarine cables, 1964–1984

Formal name of each cable is shown in the text.

Source : Kokusai Denshin Denwa Kabushiki Gaisha (1979), Kishi (2015) and others.

14From the end of the 1960s through the 1970s, the international short-wave radiotelephone lines were replaced with coaxial submarine cables, one after another (Kishi 2015 ; Kokusai Denshin Denwa Kabushiki Gaisha 1979). Japan’s international communications again relied on submarine cables. By that time, new high-capacity domestic telecommunications networks using microwave technology had been completed throughout Japan, and international coaxial submarine cables were connected to the domestic microwave networks (Nippon Denshin Denwa Kosha 1960).

15Commercial telecommunication services using communication satellites were launched in 1964 (Kokusai Denshin Denwa Kabushiki Gaisha 1979 ; Snow 1987 ; Ueda 1973). International satellite communication lines were used for the growing international telephone services and international television relays. These services helped to develop the global awareness of the Japanese people and grounded their global communications in the Internet age.

Optical fiber communications

16Optical fiber communication technology, which was developed in the 1970s, enormously impacted the world’s telecommunications. Optical fiber technology and digital telecommunications technology were introduced in domestic Japanese telecommunications networks in the 1980s, and these technologies reduced telecommunication costs dramatically (Shinohara 2006). The first trans-Pacific optical cable, TPC-3, was installed in 1989 (Hikari Kaitei Keburu Shippitsu Iinkai 2010 ; Kokusai Denshin Denwa Kabushiki Gaisha 1989).

17There was deregulation in telecommunications businesses, which began in the United States earliest in the world, in the background of these rapid penetrations of new telecommunication technologies (Stone 1989). Telecommunications businesses were liberalized in 1985 in Japan. The Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Public Corporation (Nippon Denshin Denwa Kosha), the previous monopolistic telecommunications carrier, was broken up by privatization. Several new private telecommunications businesses were established (Naoe 1994).

Telecommunications infrastructure in the Internet age

From analog telecommunications lines to broadband access

18The construction of telecommunications infrastructure established the conditions for access to telecommunication services throughout Japan, as described above. However, for almost all users, telecommunication services were only used for voice telephone calls.

19The emergence of the Internet changed this situation. Commercial Internet services were launched in the early 1990s and diffused widely to ordinary users. Because fixed public switched telephone networks had been completed, dial-up access to the Internet through analog telecommunications lines was available in most areas in developed countries early in the Internet expansion. However, broadband access is indispensable for advanced Internet services because of the large data transfers required to download software and multimedia content such as pictures, sounds and videos (Arai and Naganuma 2010).

The penetration of fixed broadband in Japan

20Telecommunications technologies for broadband services, such as digital subscriber line (DSL), cable modem and fiber cable connections to homes were developed in the 1990s. In Japan, Internet access services using cable modems for network television connections were launched around 1998. Then, DSL services began to penetrate the market. As shown in Figure 2, DSL connections surpassed cable modems in 2002 and were used for most broadband access (Arai et al. 2012).

21Although DSL led the penetration of broadband in many developed countries, the penetration of DSL in Japan was delayed. Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT), which had a substantial monopoly on fixed telephone service, had a negative attitude toward DSL services and this may have delayed its implementation (Ina xDSL Riyo Jikken Renraku Kyogi Kai 1998a, 1998b). In contrast, the Japanese Government, which has been eager to promote broadband services for all citizens, required NTT to open its telephone lines for DSL services in 2001. Following that edict, DSL services were rapidly diffused throughout Japan (Somu Sho 2008).

22Cable modem services began to diffuse at almost the same time as DSL services in Japan. In the early stages of the diffusion, cable television networks were installed mainly in urbanized areas with high population densities. The installation of cable television networks in less-populated regions was delayed due to its poor profitability. However, the Japanese Government promoted the installation of digital cable television networks in sparsely populated regions. The government’s policy was prompted by the need to ensure that terrestrial digital television broadcasting could fully replace traditional terrestrial (analog) television throughout the country. Cable television operators with new digital networks were actively encouraged to provide Internet services to their users. Therefore, the penetration rate of broadband largely grew where digital cable television networks were installed (Arai et al. 2012).

23From the early 2000s, NTT, which holds almost all domestic wired telecommunications networks, has deployed optical fiber cable networks connected to homes throughout Japan (Shinohara 2006). The initial installation of optical fiber cable networks progressed slowly because of the huge costs involved. Relatively few subscribers switched from DSL to optical fiber (Sunada et al. 2011). However, fiber cable service areas have increased tremendously since the middle of the 2000s. By 2017, the penetration of ultra-high-speed fiber-based broadband services had exceeded 50 %. The household penetration rate of fixed broadband services, which exceeded 70 % in 2013, has continued to grow and is now near 75 % (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Diffusion of fixed broadband services in Japan since 2001

Figure 2. Diffusion of fixed broadband services in Japan since 2001

Source : Somu Sho (2018) and others.

The penetration of mobile broadband in Japan

24Mobile phone-based Internet services were first developed in Japan. The first mobile phone Internet service was i-Mode, which was launched in 1999 by a mobile phone subsidiary of NTT called NTT-Docomo. i-Mode service used second-generation (2G) mobile phone technology, which had slow communication speed and was not suitable for digital content such as pictures or sounds. However, service based on third-generation (3G) mobile phone technology was launched in 2001, which improved the communication speed enough to allow relatively large Internet content (Arai 2006). 3G mobile phone Internet services were diffused earlier in Japan than in other countries because Japanese mobile phone companies rushed to adopt 3G services. By 2008, the percentage of mobile phone service provided by 3G technology reached nearly 90 % (Denki Tsushin Jigyosha Kyokai 2008).

25Although the first smartphone in the world was not sold in Japan (due to Japan’s distinctive mobile communication system), 3G mobile phones such as iPhone and Android phones appeared in 2008 and were sold in Japan. Starting in 2012, fourth-generation (4G)-compliant mobile phones using services such as long-term evolution (LTE) and worldwide interoperability for microwave access (WiMax) were sold. These services can provide sophisticated and large volume content for 4G mobile phones, and mobile broadband services became competitive against fixed broadband services (Nakamura 2015). Subscriptions to mobile broadband services have increased rapidly. At present, the penetration rate of 4G services in the Japanese population is almost 100 %. There are very few subscribers to 3G or older-generation services remaining (Fujinami 2014).

26At almost the same time, public Wi-Fi services and broadband wireless access (BWA) services providing Wi-Fi access and WiMax access through many geographically fixed access points have been spreading (Figure 3). Because smartphones automatically access these services, most users are unaware when their phones have made such connections (Kobayashi and Lai 2017).

Figure 3. Diffusion of mobile broadband service in Japan since 2005

Figure 3. Diffusion of mobile broadband service in Japan since 2005

Source : Somu Sho (2018) and others.

International telecommunications infrastructure since the launch of Internet services

27The diffusion of commercial Internet services in the 1990s brought an explosive increase in the demand for international communications. Japan needs overseas telecommunications networks to correspond to its Internet use. Ultra-high-capacity telecommunications networks connected with the United States, the core of the world’s Internet services, were needed.

28As described above, optical submarine cables across the Pacific Ocean were first laid at the end of the 1980s. After the development of the new generation of optical communication technologies at the end of the 1990s, older-generation optical submarine cables were replaced with additional ultra-high-speed optical cables. Most of the new-generation trans-Pacific fiber cables, such as PC-1, JUS, Unity and FASTER, take direct routes between Japan and the United States/Canada. Other cables connected to Japan as a part of the China/Korea/Southeast Asia and the United States/Europe (SEA-ME WE3, APCN2) networks have been installed (Hikari Kaitei Keburu Shippitsu Iinkai 2010 ; PriMetrica 2015) (Table 2 ; Figure 4).

Table 2. Typical optical submarine cables across the Pacific Ocean and to East/Southeast Asia since 1999

Opening year


Formal name






South-East Asia-Midle East
-Western Europe 3)


Korea, China,
Southeast Asia

connecting the cables to Europe



Pacific Crossing 1


United States

Direct connection to the American continent



Australia-Japan Cable



connecting at Guam



Japan-US Cable Network


United States

Connecting at Hawaii



Asian Pacific Cable Network 2


Korea, Taiwan, China, Southeast Asia






United States

Direct connection to the American continent





United States

Direct connection to the American continent

Source : Hikari Kaitei Keburu Shippitsu Iinkai (2010), PriMetrica (2015) and others.

Figure 4. Typical trans-Pacific and East/Southeast Asian optical submarine cables since 1999

Figure 4. Typical trans-Pacific and East/Southeast Asian optical submarine cables since 1999

Formal name of each cable is shown in Table 2.

Hikari Kaitei Keburu Shippitsu Iinkai (2010) and PriMetrica (2015) and others.

Geographical conditions of Japan and the development of telecommunications infrastructure : concluding remarks

29There is a long history underlying the recent sophisticated telecommunications environment in Japan. The historical process of the development of Japan’s telecommunications infrastructure suggests that the geographical conditions of Japan, which is far away from world core regions such as Europe and North America and is an island country separated from the continents, have affected the development process of Japan’s telecommunications infrastructure. The construction process of the international telecommunications infrastructure shows the feature of Japan’s telecommunications.

30In the early stage of the telegraph network construction in the late 19th century, the submarine telegraph cables were built prior to the domestic networks. The establishment of a communication route with European and North American countries was a pressing need for the Japanese Government, which was in a hurry to construct a modern state. First, the westward route to European countries was constructed. The submarine cables connected at the west coast of the Eurasian Continent to the overland telegraph lines across the continent. At that time, there was only a route via Europe and the Atlantic Ocean to communicate with North America. This route could not meet the potential communication demand with the United States. A trans-Pacific submarine cable was built in the early 20th century and the eastward communications route connected directly to the United States was opened.

31An efficient geographical configuration for Japan’s international telecommunications has been sought in its development process. However, the domestic telecommunications infrastructure had been constructed through a rather simple process. Japan’s domestic telecommunications demand had concentrated on the route connecting the three large metropolises, Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. The domestic telecommunications networks connecting these three metropolises with the international submarine cables could meet the major part of both domestic and international telecommunications demand. The domestic telegraph networks had been steadily expanded to local cities and telegraph services penetrated to every region throughout Japan in the early 20th century. The domestic telephone networks using coaxial cables and microwave technology inherited the geographical configuration of the domestic telegraph networks. Even the recent optical fiber networks maintain a similar configuration.

32Short-wave radio technology was used for international telephone services in their early days in the 1930s. After World War II, coaxial submarine cables, which have higher capacity and stability, were installed for international telecommunications. The combined use of the westward and the eastward telecommunications routes similar to the early international telegraph services was retained.

33When broadband services were started corresponding to the rapid diffusion of Internet use in the early 1990s, the telecommunications business in Japan was deregulated from the national monopoly to multiple private businesses. New telecommunications technologies for broadband services, e.g., DSL and optical fiber, were installed. However, these new services are limited to the use as the communication tools for the so-called “last mile” connections. The optical fiber networks that originated in the domestic telephone networks are used for the backbone networks beyond the access point of broadband services. The geographical configuration of domestic telecommunications networks has been essentially unchanged even in the recent mobile Internet services as smartphones and tablets.

34A large configuration change corresponding to the expansion of Internet use is found in the international telecommunications infrastructure rather than the domestic one. The rapid growth of access to large-size content such as movies in the penetration of broadband services brought the huge telecommunications demand between Japan and the United States as the world hub of Internet services. Newly required ultra-high-speed trans-Pacific telecommunications networks were constructed by emerging telecommunications ventures mainly from the United States.

35Thus, Japan’s domestic backbone telecommunications networks have been constructed/operated by a substantially monopolistic enterprise and the international telecommunications networks have been constructed/operated involving foreign international enterprises of the time. This fundamental structure of Japan’s telecommunications infrastructure has been considerably unchanged since the earliest period in Japan’s telecommunications.

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1 An early version of this chapter was presented at the 2015 International Conference on Mobility and Multiculturalism in Global City at Ewha Womans University, Seoul, Korea.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Trans-Pacific and East/Southeast Asian coaxial submarine cables, 1964–1984
Légende Formal name of each cable is shown in the text.
Crédits Source : Kokusai Denshin Denwa Kabushiki Gaisha (1979), Kishi (2015) and others.
Fichier image/jpeg, 84k
Titre Figure 2. Diffusion of fixed broadband services in Japan since 2001
Crédits Source : Somu Sho (2018) and others.
Fichier image/jpeg, 72k
Titre Figure 3. Diffusion of mobile broadband service in Japan since 2005
Crédits Source : Somu Sho (2018) and others.
Fichier image/jpeg, 68k
Titre Figure 4. Typical trans-Pacific and East/Southeast Asian optical submarine cables since 1999
Légende Formal name of each cable is shown in Table 2.
Crédits Hikari Kaitei Keburu Shippitsu Iinkai (2010) and PriMetrica (2015) and others.
Fichier image/jpeg, 76k
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Yoshio Arai

Department of Regional Economics, Faculty of Economics, Teikyo University, Toyosatodai 1-1, Utsunomia, Japan. E-mail :

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