November 07, 2013

Heaven-blessed NTT


A recent Peter Payne post ties into my previous comments about phone cards and  Nippon Telegraph and Telephone.

The phrase "天下の" (tenka no) literally means "under heaven." In a historical context, it referred to a warlord receiving the blessing of Heaven and the emperor (having killed or subjugated everybody else competing for the job):

During the Warring States period, that's what the various warlords were trying to do: win enough power that they could go to the emperor in Kyoto and receive his blessing to become the designated military ruler of the country (shogun).

Yet even after bribing everybody in sight, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) only won the title of regent. He was a commoner by birth and class is a far more precious commodity than wealth. So he invaded Korea instead.

After Hideyoshi died, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) wisely exited Korea, wiped out Hideyoshi's allies at Sekigahara in 1600, and did get it (he doctored his family tree to make sure).

These days, a more cynical Japanese public attaches the phrase "tenka no" to pedestrian institutions like NTT. "Tenka no NTT" thus means "the company anointed by heaven to provide telephone service to the Japanese people."

Like the court officials frustrating Toyotomi Hideyoshi's dreams of aristocratic respectability, NTT demands a healthy gratuity to do its job. Along with doctors and landlords.

In rental housing, it's called reikin (礼金) or "key money." It dates back to when the housing market was very tight. Now it's not and reikin is fading. But in a country where tipping is practically unknown, tipping doctors isn't.

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