Okinawa suffers a form of communications schizophrenia which it is only recently recovering from. The two worlds of this small island, on-base and off-base, each have their own ding-a-ling system, and if one of us who resides on-base were to call our home from off-base, we would have to dial a 10-digit number just to get the base commercial operator, to whom we must then give another 5-digit number to get our party on the line: 098 (area code)-938 (exchange number)-1111 (base operator), then ask for 35332, for instance. But even the local off-base population has to dial a 10-digit number including the Okinawan area code, just to call their neighbor. Worst of all, I can’t call an off-base number from on-base, or at least not officially. This is frustrating.
However, I had not been here a week when I was told by a very friendly local that not only dialing off-base is possible, but dialing anywhere in Japan for free was common practice from base phones. One only has to have plenty of patience and a little “know how.” The speed and rhythm of dialing is important, but only consists of an initial 9 for off-base, then any area code and number in the country. An operator never interrupts to ask, “what the hell you think you’re doing?” And the worst that happens is that you sometimes get cut off by a busy signal. Unbelievably risk-free.
I suppose that people everywhere know and pursue ways to “beat” the telephone establishment, just as IT&T has gotten fat “beating” the public. Still on many telephones today one can click the receiver button down rapidly for as many times as the number, say 6, that he is dialing, then pause, then click it down again however many times for the next number and so on until you have gotten the other party by simply using the sound that the phone makes when it is hung up in place of the signal that the dial sends out when it is correctly turned. The simple computer that “understands” your dial of 6, let’s say, by the six emitted sound pulses that the fingerhole sets off while returning to its original position next to 6 after you’ve dialed it, also “understands” 6 timely pulses from the click of your receiver button in the same undifferentiating way. Knowing this gimmick was especially handy when you didn’t have a dime for a telephone booth call, and had to make do with the receiver button instead of the dial, which took a dime to get going.
As I mentioned, timing is important, because there are gross differences between phones. Some, when you’ve dialed them, fly back around to their position before you’re ready to stick the ol’ finger in the next choice hole. Others are so slow in setting up for the next number that many a user has forgotten the whole number sequence in the menacing pause. Tokyo’s phones are fast and your party is on the line in no time. Osaka’s dials crawl back like the prodigal son. U.S. phones are usually between these two. When you cheat by using the receiver button tapping method, you must know the dialing interval of the phone you are tampering with. Especially hard are dials of 9 on Tokyo-like blitz phones, where you have to click the button down 9 separate and distinct evenly-spaced times in an interval that doesn’t seem divisible by even two. Osaka phones, on the contrary, aren’t much of a challenge to the phoney phoner (practiced). But alas, the phones being installed now are more finely fangled, so this is a dying art.
I hadn’t been at Expo long when I got a call one dreamy morning from a girl near Tokyo who was an operator for her company. and who took advantage of this calling to talk long and distant whenever she had the notion, which came to be everyday. She claimed that the phone bills were never questioned.
21 April 2017
Okinawa Diary, 1975: Telephones
My late brother worked as a guide at the U.S. Pavilion at the Ocean Expo in Okinawa in 1975. While there he typed up many pages of observations about people, places, and words of interest there. I scanned and edited the pages, added Japanese kanji for some of the words, and publish them here as a series.