Going Postal

For the past couple of days I’ve briefly mentioned my recent encounters with the Japanese postal system. Today you get the complete report. Or as complete as I can make it given my chronically sleep-deprived state. This is a rant of sorts, but a mild one.

The short version of the story is that according to Japan Post, Canadian customs regulations are the strictest in the world so they require extremely detailed declarations on all shipments.

And now the long version.

The forms we get for sending parcels larger than the small packet rate are like a standard courier bill of lading. There are multiple copies interleaved with layers of carbon paper. In addition to the sender’s and recipient’s addresses, there is an array of checkboxes and such. Plus the fearsome beast know as the customs declaration/contents listing.

The space is small—less than two inches tall—and has many columns. We’re required to list the item, quantity, weight, and value. But for Canada, we have to do this on a per-item basis. So instead of shipping 50 pieces of used clothing totalling 14kg and worth $100, we have to list 17 sweaters, guess their weight, and provide a total value. Ditto for the 6 t-shirts, 8 pairs of pants, and whatever else there is. On a box that contained only personal papers—various documents we’re sending back for storage, plus a whole bunch of Jarrod’s notebooks and workbooks that we’ve kept as memorabilia of his time in the Japanese school system—they actually wanted us to estimate the number of sheets of paper.

You can imagine the creative ways we managed to group items into categories so that we’d be able to fit all of the pertinent information. I mean really, in a shipment of used household goods do the customs people really need to know that there are 3 stuffed toys, 14 die-cast cars, a transformer (plastic toy, not electrical device), approximately 83% of 9 LEGO sets, a dictionary, 12 books, 8 back issues of magazines (yoga, not porn, though to Japanese people there may not be a difference), 2 jigsaw puzzles, 14.5 pairs of socks as filler, an ocarina, 14 children’s drawings, a raincoat (possession of which is not related to the nonpornographic yoga magazines), 3 wool scarves, 45 letters and cards from friends, 2 Japanese-style floor cushions, and some crumpled paper? And do they need to know the individual weights and values for each?

I don’t remember Canadian customs being so strict but before coming to Japan I hadn’t had to ship anything into Canada. But Japan Post—or at least the Tobata branch of Japan Post—is in such fear of this strictness, that they’ll actually come to your door—or your school—and get you to fill out the necessary paperwork.

Two examples, one relating to the above-mentioned clothes. A couple of months ago we shipped a box of clothes to Canada. We’d itemized it by clothing type, but hadn’t declared values or weights for each of the categories. It got past the initial screening at our local post office—the Tenraiji branch—but the guy from Tenraiji came to our door a few days later to let us know that the main Tobata Post Office had rejected it and could we please provide more detailed information. He had a photocopy of the shipping form and wanted us to complete it. I told him I’d send Lia down to do it the next day, since she had a better idea of what was in the box. I can just imagine a group of postal workers lifting the box upside-down onto their photocopier to make that precious copy of the shipping form. I’ll grant that the guy from our post office was very courteous and apologetic for the inconvenience.

The second example didn’t really happen to me, but to Lia and our neighbours. It’s basically the same thing, except that in this case it was the postal workers from the Tobata main post office with two big boxes that had been sent by our neighbours, who are from Southern Ontario. And while Ontarians may think they are a country unto themselves, they are, in fact, part of Canada. In any case, the postal workers had assumed that the only person in our area who would ship stuff to Canada must be Lia. So they showed up at Lia’s school with the boxes, wanting her to fill out the paperwork. It was a revelation to them that there might be *gasp* another Canadian in the city. After they recovered from the shock, the headed down the street to our neighbour’s school. This time there was no mere photocopy—perhaps the boxes had been too big for the copier—and the workers had to lug the boxes around, though I’d guess that they had a van. It turns out that our neighbours had failed to itemize the vaguely named “used clothing.”

That’s it for tales of postal paperwork. What follows is a hopefully brief description of our final batch of parcels home. Yesterday was the big visit to the post office. We had four more boxes of stuff to ship home. Actually, two—one was about 14kg and the other double that—going home to Canada, and two—each weighing about 16kg—headed for England. And then there were the prizes and assorted other gifts, which added up to ten small parcels and an envelope. All told it cost a sufficient amount to make the maybe-soon-to-be-privatised postal system happy.

As soon as I walked in the door, they got out the measuring tape to ensure that my biggest box was within the regulations. I already knew it was, both in terms of weight and size, but just barely. It was 20cm smaller than the maximum dimensions, and just over 1kg lighter than the maximum weight of 30kg. They had to weight it on their tiny counter-top scale. The other boxes happened in waves. Though the post office is only a few blocks from or apartment, our only means of transporting the parcels was on our bike racks. So we made a total of three trips.

Luckily for everyone, the customs forms on the 11 small parcels of prizes and gifts—yes, 11 for a contest that was only supposed to have 5 winners—didn’t require individual weights. While packing them I’d made notes of the contents and tried to guess individual item weights, but my guesses proved to be way off. And only 9 of the packages were prizes. The other two were for other nefarious—but legal—purposes.

But that’s enough postal madness. I think the moral of this story, as with most dealings with Japanese bureaucracy, is to be aware of the lengths to which bureaucrats will interpret rules to the letter. Of course, it didn’t really help that we had significant language barriers. And it saddens me a bit that, now that I’ve finally gotten good at dealing with the post office here, I’ll be leaving. But I’m not saddened enough to extend my stay.

Did I mention that the customs declarations on the parcels to Britain were given only a cursory glance? Or that there was no attempt to check for valid destination addresses? And the rule against sending letters in parcels? I guess it wasn’t the end of the postal madness. Lemme rant some more. Every time we’ve sent a parcel—after the first one—we’ve made sure not to include any letters. If we do, and admit it to the postal workers, they automatically apply some sort of premium fee which is sure to double the cost of shipping. The first time we’d heard of the policy we actually opened up the box, extracted the letter, and then re-taped it shut. Sent the two items separately and saved ourselves maybe 400 yen.

So those of you who’ve received packages from us—and all the lucky recipients of prizes who will get stuff in the coming weeks—if you’re wondering why there are boxes of stuff without explanations, it’s because we’ve been following the rules. And in this case, it’s not just for Canada-bound parcels. Various friends we’ve talked to ignore the rule and just say “no” when they’re asked if there are letters inside. But we’ve received enough mail that’s been opened by customs to wonder whether there’s someone in the basement of a postal warehouse in Yokohama whose sole duty it is to open packages to check for contraband letters.

What about insuring parcels? It turns out that the local post office can’t insure the parcels, only the main Tobata branch can do that. This, despite the fact that our tiny local post office is also a bank, has a staff of 3-5 people on duty at any given time, has a English-Japanese bilingual ATM, and in addition to accepting parcels and letters for shipment all over the world, is capable of bank wire transfers internationally, and has a photocopier able to withstand the rigors of the incomplete paperwork on big heavy parcels.

And that, dear readers, really is the end of this rant. For today.

3 thoughts on “Going Postal

  1. Okay, I am going to really miss reviving all those insane memories when you are no longer sending blogs from Kitakyushu. Will you continue to send pics and commentaries for a while after you leave? And when are you leaving? Will you continue with “blogs from Britain” (which will produce other, more long term memories for me!)? More info, please….

  2. Yes.
    Now I know what occassioned the small parcel of mysterious Japanese foods which arrived ..at least I assume it is food…perhaps we have been eating shoe polish ?
    Well, whatever…thank you for the treats, which we are sharing with the artists wo come to visit the CARFAC office in Regina.

  3. Patrick, I’m pretty sure all of it was food. I don’t remember sending any shoe polish, and heaven forbid that Japan Post think I’ve accidentally made an incorrent declaration on the customs form. Out of curiousity, was it one of the items in the photos I posted here?

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