Wednesday 29 April 2020

Parcel Delivery, Flying Legs, and Giant Post-Boxes in Japan

As the state of emergency rolls on in Japan, the postal system has become a lifeline for many. The government has even entrusted Japan Post - the national mail service of Japan - to deliver two cloth masks to each household (a widely ridiculed policy that has hit a number of problems). Before the privatisation process of Japan Post began in 2007 - it is now officially called Japan Post Holdings - it was the nations's biggest employer accounting for a third of government employees (though it should be pointed out that 13 years later full privatisation has still not occurred). Regular post is usually delivered on small motorbikes (pictured) or mini-vans rather than bicycles.

Japan Post has a unique symbol which looks like a capital "T" with an extra line on top and this adorns delivery bikes and vans as well as post-boxes and post-offices - and also prefaces post-codes. For example, the postcode for the National Diet is written 〒100-0014: the first three digits are for the prefecture or metropolis (cities in Tokyo range from 100 to 208 - see here for a full list). Explanations for the origins of the symbol vary. The conventional explanation is that it is a variation of the katakana character "te" (テ) created in 1887 by the new Ministry of Communications and Transportation (Teishin-shō) - teishin is an old term meaning communications. This site, however, suggests that the logo was co-opted from the mark for the NYK shipping company which is two bold red lines, apparently a pun on ni-hon (meaning two lines but also Japan!). Whatever the true story, today it is a unique symbol that is found only in Japan and even has its own unicode number and smiley face emoji (〠). Note that addresses in Japan are written biggest (prefecture) to smallest (house or flat number): see here for an example.
Home delivery service share
In contrast to the UK, the post office is not the main player in the parcel delivery business: door-to-door home delivery services (takuhaibin=宅配便) are the main way Japanese send and receive parcels. Takuhaibin - now more commonly called takkyūbin, a term coined by industry leader Yamato - is incredibly cheap, efficient (usually next-day delivery), and easy to use. They will pick parcels up from your house or you can send or pick up from your local convenience store. Moreover, you can usually specify delivery times down to the nearest hour or two and if you miss a parcel it is easy to arrange re-delivery for a specific time (usually with an automated phone call). Japanese use the service all the time: for example, for sending luggage ahead to a hotel or airport or ordering frozen food. Yamato (known as kuro-neko or black cat) is the biggest takkyūbin company and has a detailed site in English about how to send parcels.
New (left) and old (right) Sagawa Express symbol marks
Their biggest rival, Sagawa Express, used to have the traditional red loin-cloth wearing foot courier known as hikyaku (飛脚="flying legs") as their symbol mark before changing it in 2007 to a more modern version (both pictured). These symbols are not just for show: the delivery drivers do actually run! See here for a fascinating video on a (slower than I'm used to seeing) day in the life of a Sagawa delivery worker. As the video shows, push trolleys are the preferred method of delivery in the city (the UK too has seen a switch from bicycles to trolleys for regular post in recent years).

Like many industries in Japan, all delivery services have struggled to hire and retain workers given the relatively tough physical nature of the job. This is one reason for the upcoming end of Saturday deliveries by Japan Post. But it is the poor working conditions of takkyūbin workers that has received most attention in recent years, particularly lack of breaks and unpaid overtime. After a mountain of bad press highlighting the "black" nature of such companies, Yamato raised its fees for the first time in 27 years in 2017 and paid retrospective overtime to drivers. Today, though, amid the rise of "stay at home shopping" (sugomori-shōhi=巣ごもり消費) during the Covid19 crisis, there are similar stories of overworked drivers. Another concern for these workers is infection: it is now common to ask delivery personnel to leave parcels outside the door (okihai =置き配); Uber Eats, which has recently exploded on the Japanese scene, even has an option for this when placing your online order.

As a final, local, aside Kodaira City in Western Tokyo is said to be home to the highest number (32) of old-fashioned vermilion (shu-iro =朱色) cylindrical post-boxes which have been largely phased out elsewhere (see here for a list of all 32 plus 5 decorative non-functioning ones dotted throughout the city). To commemorate its unique position, a giant cylindrical post-box was set up near the station in 2009 which, standing at 2.8m, is the tallest in the nation. Luckily, there are two slots so if you can't reach the 2.1m higher one (which I just about did!) you can always pop your envelope into the 1.4m slot.