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Saturday, July 17, 2010


At post offices in Japan, it's case by case

"Hello, this is the city post office on the mainland," came the voice on the other end of the phone. "Um, about that international package you sent from the island today . . ."

"Yes," I said. He was referring to a large manila envelope with board shorts in it that I was sending to a friend in the U.S.

"Is it explosive?" he asked.

Now, imagine for a moment a gaggle of employees at the post office using the latest electronic dictionaries to look up the Japanese word for "board shorts." Finding only definitions for board and shorts, they must have deemed short boards "possibly explosive."

"They're shoto pants," I said, giving the Japanese-English word for "shorts."

"So, they're not explosive?" the man confirmed. This "possibly a terrorist" relationship with the post office started a few years ago when Japan came up with new rules for posting correspondence abroad, including anti-money laundering laws for international money transfers. While the real terrorists are merely sending their weapons and money via the black market now, things are much tougher for the average sod like me who merely wants to send a gift abroad or send some money to a savings account back home.

I repeatedly get calls from cheerful employees at post offices asking me detailed questions about why I am sending money home. This is after I have already filled out the forms for an international money order, paid for it and have successfully dropped it in the mail, all under intense post office supervision.

I use the plural post offices because I have canvassed all the post offices near me to find the ones with the most hassle-free policies. The forms to fill out to send international money orders are the same at all the post offices, but the rules for how to meticulously fill them out vary depending on the branch and the person's perception of you as "possibly a terrorist."

All of these women in back of the counters at the P.O. remind me of my old gym teacher in school, Ms. Jackson, who would make us jog around the soccer field three times if we did something slightly out of line. Little did Ms. Jackson know, she was just preparing me for life in Japan. They make me jump through so many hoops just to send a money order that by the time I finally leave the post office an hour or so later, I am just as exhausted.

Every time I go into the P.O., I can expect to have to jog around the soccer field three times for "wrongful filling out of forms." And sometimes they make me do 100 sit-ups in front of everyone in the post office, just for good measure. Being that they constantly change the rules for filling out forms, I'll soon be in good enough shape to play professional soccer.

And I still get personal phone calls from cheerful post office employees "just following up." Recently, when I went back into the post office to send an international money order, the woman behind the desk said, "You can't use this form anymore. You need the new one with a box to tick saying 'Not sending money to or via North Korea.' " One hour, three soccer fields and 100-sit ups later, my money order was sent off.

Armed with the new form now, and a super set of abs, I went to the post office again the following week. This time I was told that I would have to rewrite my form because I was sending more than $2,000. My crime? I had not written my name in all capital letters. The form has to read exactly as your gaijin card is, which is all caps. But only if you're sending over $2,000. Excuse me while I take a few laps around the field.

Call me ignorant but I didn't know that once a monetary amount reaches $2,000, small letters can no longer be trusted. They're just too small to handle it I suppose. Or maybe the Japanese are confusing lower case with lower caste, and are thus extending this bias to the smaller letters deeming them untrustworthy.

If you've lived in Japan for a while, you've probably noticed that the Japanese prefer the upper case as if it is a superior form of the alphabet. Many Japanese people write English words, and especially names of famous people or places, in upper case.

If they can distinguish between honest and dishonest letters, do they have an equal method of judging the honesty of numbers? Perhaps it's the numbers over 2,000 that are untrustworthy, not the letters. What would happen if, say, I wrote out the whole money order in Roman numerals? Do they have a criminal history?

On the other hand, maybe the Japanese have a point. When you think about it, typos are almost always lower case. And what about the havoc "r" and "l" cause the Japanese when they try to use the Roman alphabet? One thing is for sure, whether they are right or not, the people at the post office have certainly made their case.

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