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Saturday, Dec. 20, 2008

JAPAN LITE

Mail from the countryside


I went to the post office today and was third in line. This is very unusual on our island of just 687 people. I've never seen more than two people in the post office at any time. Then it hit me: It's Daikon December. December is when the daikon radishes are harvested.

Indeed, the old lady in front of me had three large boxes of radishes she was posting to relatives on the mainland. Imagine that, posting radishes to those who had abandoned their country home towns, the radish capitals of the prefecture, and then getting this special daikon treatment.

No wonder the city folk don't come home to the countryside; we mail the countryside to them.

Yet if you dangled a daikon in front of their noses, they'd be back here in a second. Such is the power of the esteemed daikon.

Our post office, already hugely overstaffed with just two full-time employees, could not handle this rush of three customers. I could see the panic-stricken face of the postmaster when I walked in: My God, we're outnumbered!

This is because the people who work in the post office are not used to working very quickly. As a matter of fact, they're not used to working at all. I think that except during Daikon December, they lengthen the average person's visit to the post office by half an hour in order to stretch out their workday so they have something to do.

And the only reason they have two employees is to keep the other one company. One person would die of boredom in a phenomenon called reverse-karoshi, or death from underwork.

Suddenly, come Daikon December, these two are faced with the prospect of having to multitask. And it's not a pretty sight. The postmaster gets panicky and begins sweating. Easily befuddled, he has the nervous habit of scratching his belly, which admittedly, is always sticking quite far out there as if begging for a little rub-a-dub. He contorts his face at the wrong numbers that often come up on the scales.

The postmaster acknowledged my presence by saying "Just a moment." Obviously, he didn't mean just a regular moment, but a geological moment. It could be millions of years before I'd be waited on. This is why I always keep a copy of the "Tale of Genji" with me when I go to the post office. Because, despite the fact that he will be waiting on me, in reality I am the one who is waiting on him.

This inefficiency used to upset me, which earned me many gifts from the post office, which is not coincidentally armed with a stack of goodies to pacify disgruntled customers. But these days, nothing fazes me. I expect the imperfect. Besides, I have the "Tale of Genji" with me.

The post office is located right next to the ferry port, the cruelest placement of all because it gives the illusion that you can just post a letter or package on your way out to catch the ferry. But alas, you'd have to leave your house a week early in order to catch the ferry if you plan on stopping by the post office during Daikon December. I'd go as far as to say that you should get all your postal needs taken care of for the year by Nothing November rather than waiting until Daikon December.

The postmaster painstakingly writes out address labels for the obaachan, and attaches them to the three boxes for her, all the while talking to himself, spelling out the instructions, "Okay, this one goes there, and this one . . ."

I plodded through the "Tale of Genji." Halfway through the tale, I looked up. The postmaster was still busy talking out loud, instructing himself. But no one else was in the post office. He must have completely forgotten about me.

Oh, here comes another obaachan. This one's got a cart! She wheels the cart with four large boxes of vegetables on it into the post office.

I sidle up to the counter holding a simple letter to post overseas. It was one page folded inside an international envelope. The postmaster, who has a fear of anything international, takes the envelope and puts it on the scale. He scratches his belly.

Now, you and I both know that an envelope containing one page will cost the standard ¥110 to mail overseas. The postmaster knows this too. After all, he weighs envelopes all day long and must know when an envelope is over the limit. This one is a no-brainer. He doesn't actually need to weigh the envelope. But he does because he needs little victories.

Sure enough, the numbers come up correctly on the scale and a bright smile comes to his face. "Ah, ¥110, please!" he says, still beaming with accomplishment.



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