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Saturday, Sept. 22, 2001
Adhering to the law of the Japanese letter
By AMY CHAVEZ
The theme of today's Culture Quiz is "sending and receiving a Japanese letter."
Sending a letter is a simple matter of writing it, putting it in an envelope and sending it, right? Buu (sound of buzzer). A good letter is always hand-written, in kanji lettering, preferably lettering that you have spent so much of your life perfecting, it imbues a quality that shows you have labored through years of calligraphy classes. Your lettering should be so beautiful that the meaning of the individual letters is barely decipherable. No matter -- the real meaning is in the feeling the letters give the reader.
Just one piece of stationary is sufficient, right? Buu. Not enough! It is considered polite to use two pieces of paper when writing a letter in Japanese, the result of which is often a letter with one very lonely sentence on the second page. Using two pieces of paper strikes me as being environmentally impolite, but you can be assured the reader will consider you to be very polite.
Address the envelope and slap a stamp on it, right? Buu. How crass! Choose a nice, clean envelope (never recycle!) and write the name and address on it vertically in your best indecipherable kanji and, if possible, affix a commemorative stamp. When stamping the letter, keep your saliva to yourself -- use a sponge or a wet cloth.
Next, stick the letter in an envelope and seal it with a kiss, right?
Buu. Never! Japanese envelopes have flaps without seals, because like so many other things in Japan, this should be done manually, with care. Like any other event in Japan, closing a letter requires a closing ceremony. The post office provides a special block (usually orange or dark green) to rest the envelope flap on while you seal it with their complimentary glue. This is not nice clean glue from a glue stick, but globby glue that oozes out of hardened tips of glue bottles and which most likely causes the post office to go billions of yen over budget each year.
Apply glue to the flap by running the globby glue up and down over the flap several times while humming an "enka" tune and absorbing any extra glue into your skin. Then close the flap and smooth and press, smooth and press. Absorb. Make sure the glue is all the way up into the wee corners of the envelope and it is hermetically sealed. Smooth and press again, just to make sure there are no molecules left inside. Finally, take a ball-point pen and write an "X" over the sealed flap. Your letter is permanently sealed shut like a padlock to which the keys have been lost.
Receiving a Japanese letter:
When you receive a Japanese letter, first inspect it and take in its beauty: the quality envelope, the commemorative stamp, the beautiful kanji. The opening ceremony for the letter, however, is nothing like the calculated closing ceremony. It's more like a sumo wrestling tournament.
Round one: You try to open the letter by sticking a thumbnail under the corners of the flap. You try again, this time using the thumb and the index finger to start peeling the flap off. Defeated!
Round two: Letter opener poised, you attempt to insert the very tip of it under the corner of the flap. Dig and pry, dig and pry. Curse. You try again, this time using a sashimi knife. Defeated!
Round three: You fetch a pair of scissors to cut open the end of the envelope. Then you realize you're cutting the letter too, because Japanese stationary fits so tightly that it leaves no extra room in the envelope. Curse again. Defeated!
Round four: Go ahead, get the sledgehammer.
Contact Amy Chavez by e-mail at email@example.com.
"Japan Lite" -- Japan's Best Humor by Amy Chavez, from The Japan Times. To subscribe for free, go to www.amychavez.com.