Japanese "terehon kaado" (telephone card) refers to pre-paid, magnetically encoded, disposable cards which take the place of actual currency at many NTT and other pay phones in Japan.
Introduced in the early 1980s, they became one of the great marketing success stories of the late twentieth century. They are, of course, very convenient. More so than many similar systems subsequently introduced elsewhere in the world. More importantly, a bizarre phenomenom occured which fed on itself until it grew to immense proportions.
Shortly after the first cards came out, some people, general collectors mostly, decided to grab some and stash them away, unused, to commemorate this new technology's debut in Japan. News that such cards might be valuable to collectors spurred others to join in and begin accumulating them in their back drawers.
The phone company realized it had stumbled onto something and began publishing various lovely photos as well as promotional material to keep the new collectors happy. After all, it was pure profit for the company if people were buying thousands upon thousands of those cards and then not using them. Other companies jumped on the bandwagon, paying to have advertisement put on the cards which would then be hoarded by potential customers.
My own phone card habit began innocently enough when I was told of this hobby by a friend in Sayama (outside Tokyo) who collected used - i.e. 'empty' - cards for his son. Keeping an eye out for the occasional discarded empty, I one day decided these would make great keepsakes and began accumulating them for myself. I had about a hundred by the time I returned to Canada. It took me a week before I'd stop instinctively glancing at Canadian phone booths to see if someone had left some there.
In the years since the collector craze began, the range of subjects covered by these miniature post-card want-to-bes exploded.. Nowadays, not only general interest cards are available, as well as advertisement-spouting cards (see samples reproduced above), but there are also specialized ones ranging from anime-related cards to ones featuring pop idols such as Nishida Hikaru, or even fancy, full colour holograms, all at twice, to five times the going rate for 'standard' cards. Anime fans will find three or more cards which, when bought and placed together, create a larger, composite image. There are even custom-made cards on which people put wedding, graduation or other photos and then hand out to friends or co-workers.
Inevitably, other businesses took them up. Train companies use them, the Post Office, convenience shops, golf clubs, even McDonald's. All now offer pre-paid cards to use in lieu of cash.
Card collecting has become big business, with shops dedicated to selling the things, and conventions cropping up where collectors buy, sell or trade with each other. This craze, which not only shows no signs of diminishing, but has spread to many other countries. This is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it means more and prettier designs to collect - an amateur in the field, I already have over a thousand, each different from the last.
Unfortunately, it also means that, with everybody collecting them, or at least aware of their potential value, it has become much harder to find as many of them littering phone booths as it was a few years ago. When first I began looking out for them in 1991, finding a dozen or two in a day wasn't that unusual. A few years later, I'd consider myself fortunate indeed if I found as many as three or four in a day.
Following up on Japan's success, several other countries introduced 'pre-paid' phone cards. Different areas used different designs. All were roughly the same shize and shape, but the technologies used varied widely. Some, such as the United Arab Emirates, employed systems virtually identical to the one in Japan. Others, such as France, use an imbedded microchip with no visible means of determining how much time or money was left on the card. Canada uses the clumsiest system I've run into to date. One has to dial a 1-800 number, followed up by a twelve-digit number unique to the card, and then dial the number the caller wishes to reach. The Canadian cards even have an expiration date built-in, severely limiting their usefulness. (NB: Canada has recently adopted a second system using imbedded chip technology, though, as with France, it doesn't show remaining time or value on the card itself.)
A woefully incomplete list of other countries which have adopted pre-paid phone cards includes Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Holland, Hong Kong, Ireland, Mexico, Singapore and the United States. There are, I'm sure, others, though I've yet to obtain samples from them.
Click here for a mosaic of Japanese telephone card images <75kb>
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