As investigations continue into how a teenage girl was tricked into a man’s car two years ago and kept in confinement until her recent escape, one thing the case has brought to light is the role played by the humble pay phone in her rescue.
The girl, now 15, called 110 to contact police using a pay phone at a Tokyo train station after escaping from the man’s apartment nearby. Many Japanese following the case appear to have learned for the first time that it is possible to dial the police, fire brigade and emergency medical services for free from a pay phone.
In times of natural disaster, in fact, pay phones are given preference over other phones. They are also less affected by a power blackout because electricity is provided via telephone lines.
The advent of mobile phones and smartphones has rendered pay phones almost invisible on the streets of Japan. At their peak, there were 930,000 pay phones in fiscal 1984, but the number had dropped to 180,000 by the end of fiscal 2014.
A survey of elementary school students between 2008 and 2009 found that nearly half of them had never used a pay phone.
As the case involving the teenage girl has led many people to wake up to the usefulness of a pay phone in times of emergency, an official at a nationwide group that campaigns for pay phone awareness, which conducted the survey, said the group will keep plugging away. The case proves that “you can protect yourself with a pay phone,” the official said.
To date, the group has issued 870,000 handbooks to 7,600 elementary schools containing information on how to make emergency calls using a pay phone and explaining the 171 emergency messaging service available following a natural disaster.
Even though the number of pay phones has sharply decreased, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone East Corp. (NTT East) and Nippon Telegraph and Telephone West Corp. (NTT West) maintain a certain number of pay phones in their service areas based on Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry guidelines.
Part of mobile and fixed-line telephone fees are used to cover the maintenance and operation of pay phones.