Saturday, January 7, 2012

Two Weeks As A Postman

"郵便物はお客様の身になって
丁寧に扱いましょう" 
Mihama branch post office
daily newsletter

"Treat the customers postal items and mails as your own, by handling them with care."

While people were busy enjoying their ski trips, that was how I spent my winter break this time.

Many months ago, Japan Post sent out recruitment postcards to hire part-timers to help them in sorting and delivering out letters and New Year postcards. I applied for the job and about a couple of weeks later, I got a letter inviting me to an interview session. I was the only gaijin, a common term for foreigners in Japan, at the interview session, held at the Mihama branch post office.

It was a very simple interview session, as they just wanna know if I had past experience working part-time in Japan, and whether or not I have problems reading kanji characters. To be honest, it is not easy to read Japanese names written in kanji and even after almost five years here, my ability to read the Japanese names written in kanji is kinda limited.

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A special postbox to deliver New Year postcards at Mihama post office.

To support my application, I submitted a copy of my resume during the interview. It was actually from the leftovers I had from my job application earlier that year haha! Anyway, during the interview session, one of the interviewers said to me, "Based on your qualifications, I guess you should have applied for a better part-time job". I replied him, "Well, for your information sir, this is the one and only place I would ever wanna work at".

Talking about apple polishing at the highest level lol!

Fast forward to another few weeks or so later, my apple polishing tactic worked, as I got a letter confirming that I was hired haha wtf! We were required to attend a briefing session for them to explain to us the basics of our job. There was also one session where we saw a video about the consequences if we did not do our job properly, for example, stealing or hiding the mails away, and also the punishments we will get, which include being sent to the prison. Yes, it can get as serious as that.

I was assigned to the Masago-ichi post office, just a small post office in Miihama Ward. Anyway, it is not the nearest post office from my house, which is by the way, just thirty seconds bicycle ride from my home haha! My working place is roughly about 3.6 kilometers away from my place; so it takes about twenty minutes to cycle there.

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The usual route I take from my home in Kurosunadai (Point A) to Masago-ichi post office (Point B).

It is common for Post Japan to recruit part-timer, usually high school students to help them during the busiest time of the year - the end of December and the beginning of January, to sort out and deliver the New Year postcards, called nengajō (年賀状). The custom of sending out nengajō was to give tidings to their faraway friends and relatives about themselves and their family.

Japan Post usually accepts the nengajō from mid December and if they are sent within a time limit, usually a few days before the end of the month, they are guaranteed to be delivered on the morning of New Year's Day. The nengajō are distinguished from regular mails and postcards by the special mark of "nenga" (年賀) below the stamp. Nengajō are usually decorated with designs based on the year of the Chinese zodiac. For example, the nengajō this year is full of dragon motifs as it is the year of dragon for 2012.

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Masago-ichi post office, in Masago, Mihama Ward.

The most common type of nengajō are the pre-printed ones. The nengajō usually has spaces for the sender to write a personal message. However, plain and blank cards, where people can hand-write or draw and write messages on their own are also available. For people who has the time and prefer to make their own nengajō, they will get rubber stamps with conventional messages and with the annual zodiac animal at department stores and other outlets. 

One of the things that impress me the most is that even with the rise in popularity of email, the nengajō remains very popular in Japan. Another elements which is related to nengajō is the lottery numbers, each unique from the rests. The lottery's winning numbers are picked in mid or late January. The prizes aren't money but are various goods, such as electronics, stamps, and so on.

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Miihama Ward consists entirely of reclaimed land from Tokyo Bay; as such, the area is flat, and portions are below sea level.

Another important part of the etiquette is not to send a New Year's card to a family that has had a death in the family during the year. In this case, a family member usually sends a simple postcard called mochū hagaki (喪中葉書) from people who are in mourning from mid November, to inform friends and relatives that they don't take and send New Year's greeting cards, out of respect for the deceased.

On average, the number of nengajō delivered throughout Japan on the first of January is estimated to be approximately 5.2 million pieces! In Miihama Ward itself, there are about 147,000 nengajō delivered every year, averaging about 20 nengajō delivered per person, making it ranked seventh nationwide in terms of number of nengajō delivered.

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Masago, the area I was assigned in Miihama Ward, is an area which is comprises of mainly neighbourhood housing.

There were ten internal part-timers who worked at the post office this time; yet, we still worked overtime everyday. I worked for a total of eight days in the space of two weeks, excluding two days off during the period. Work starts at noon and suppose to end at four in the evening. However, like I have mentioned, there were just too many nengajō for us to sort them out, that had us work overtime until five or six on most of the days.

Now, I shall begin explaining about my job. Basically, there are seven different areas, called "ku" (区) covered by this post office, and I was put under the third area, or "san-ku" (三区). This area manages every mails delivered to Takasu 7-chome until 12-chome (高州7丁目〜12丁目).

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How our working place - Masago Sagyosho (真砂作業所) looks like.

At around noon, a staff from the Mihama post office, which is the main post office in Mihama Ward will bring in several containers full with nengajō. Most of these nengajō has already being sorted out according to city district, or chōme (丁目) by machines. Our job is to sort the nengajō into city block, called ban (番) and house number, or gou (号).  

I am kinda impressed by the ability of the machine, because most of the time, it can read the address on the nengajō right until the house number. These machines can process about 6,000 nengajō per hour, compared to 2,000 nengajō if done manually. The process of sorting out by machine is usually done throughout the night and they will be delivered to the respective post offices to be sorted out in the final stage on the next morning.


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Individual name tag for each of us.

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One of the first thing before we begin our job - putting in the "yubi-sakku" (指サック) or finger sack on both thumbs.

At noon, a few containers containing about 50,000 to 60,000 nengajō will be brought in. Most of them are already sorted out by machines, while some are not because the machines cannot read them. We will usually start off with the unsorted ones, putting them into their appropriate slots which looks like pigeon holes, according to different chōme (city district) and ban (city block). One thing to be aware is to avoid putting the wrong nengajō into the wrong slots as there are similar address, for example "4-chōme-11-ban" and "4-chōme-12-ban". Sometimes, when we sort the nengajō too fast, mistakes happen which we would realise it when we are sorting them out according to house number later.

The next step is to sort the nengajō from each slots according to house number. As the area I covered was mainly comprises of apartments, they are usually divided according to floors. So, each slots is for one floor. I will then sort the nengajō using a cardboard slot-box (年賀組立整理箱) while referring to the delivery ledger (配達名簿), which is a list containing the names of each household in order. 

Mistakes often happen here as well, because sometimes there are two or even three different person with the same surname living on the same floor. For examples, there might be two different Tanaka or Watanabe family on one same floor. Besides that, we will have to be extra careful not to include nengajō for person with the name marked with a red or blue tag on the delivery ledger because these people are no longer staying there. We will separate and re-sort them, which I will explain what we do with them later.

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The steel slots (区分函), where each slot is for one banchi.

The sorting out process ends at each house here. However, in other places like Miyazaki in Kyushu, where Kok Hong used to do the same job a few years back, they went one step further by arranged each nengajō according to the people living inside the house, as written in the delivery ledger. Father's nengajō cannot be below Mom's nengajō, unless Mom owns the house. Elder sister's nengajō has to be above younger brother's nengajō, and etc. Crazy, isn't it

While sorting out the nengajō, I encountered various kinds of things on the nengajō; interesting messages and drawings (even though we are not supposed to read the cards, but it was just a quick sight as I were sorting them out); one of them had a huge Angry Bird origami pasted on the nengajō lol!; and also errors made especially on the receiver's address. The most common one is mixing up the house number; 201 becomes 210, 416 becomes 716 and etc. That is when we have to check these kinds of nengajō individually on the delivery ledger. 

However, the best of all was one nengajō, which was written with only the receiver's name. Yes, ONLY name, without the address! I was like wtf, do you think we have super-human ability that we will know where to send that damn nengajō by just providing us the name of the person you're sending to? There are so many Hirakawa Masahiro (bukan nama sebenar) out there lar!

As the nengajō will only be sent out on the first of January, the nengajō which comes in everyday until the New Year's Day will be added to the stack each day. By the eve, the wooden racks (道順組立整理箱 or サオ) will usually get full. As one of the final stages, the nengajō from each bundle will be checked for one final time to avoid any mistakes. One bundle sometime has more than a hundred pieces of nengajō! They will then be put together with a red rubber band, having about five to seven smaller blue rubber bands, arranged and put into a bag, ready to be delivered on the next morning.

We could breathe a great feeling of satisfaction, because the hard work we have put over the past few days will be over, and the nengajō will finally be delivered to each house in a few hours' time, giving smiles to the receiver in the morning of New Year's Day.

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For Masago area, they still stick to the conventional way of delivering mails using these red modified mama-chari.

So, that was about what we, the part-timers do everyday. However, sometimes, we are also asked to do other job, and one of them is forwarding mails, called tensō (転送) to people who has moved to a new address, or someone who has died. There is a folder containing the names of the people and stickers of their new addresses. We just have to peel off the sticker and stick it over the old address of the mail and they will be delivered to the new address.


This is a very systematic and convenient service by Japan Post. Whenever someone moves to a new place, they just have to fill in a form with their old and new address, and state the date when they wanna start to have their mails forwarded to the new address. This service is provided free for a period of one year, and after that period, all mails will be returned to the sender. I don't think this thing exists in Malaysia, but please correct me if I'm wrong.
 
Besides that, we also sometimes helped out in dealing with "accident mails" haha wtf! Yes, I am not making up stories. They really call those mails with such name, or in Japanese, jiko-yūbin (事故郵便).  These kinds of mails are mails which names do not exists both on the delivery ledger and also the forwarding-mail name list. So, one important point to take note when you are sending out nengajō or mails, never try to be funny by writing nicknames, like "Justin Bieber" or "soh zai" even if you are trying to make fun of your friends. These nengajō will be returned to the sender because they are not found, or in other words, they are categorised as "accident mails" haha wtf!

I kinda like working with the "accident mails" because the job is kinda simple, as we just have to find the names of the unfounded mails inside the residency folder (住居), which I consider the post office encyclopedia because it contains the history of the people who had lived in a certain house for the past few decades haha! If the names are there, it means the person is no longer living at that particular address. So, I will use a red stamp and stamp on the nengajō, indirectly telling the sender that the name and/or address is not found because their mail has met with an accident haha wtf!

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On my final day working at the post office, I took a photo with the Big Mommas haha! Ando-san, whom was under the area I was assigned,
is the one in the middle with the peace sign lol!

Overall, I pretty love this part time job, because it does not require hard labour or awkward working hours. Besides, the pay certainly worth the simple jobs we have to do; sit down, sort the nengajō, while sharing light moments with the staffs once in a while during the break. The break is usually about fifteen to twenty minutes and the nice staffs (whom they call themselves mama-tachi (ママ達) or "Big Momma", while they call us kodomo-tachi (子供達), or  "Jibby" "the kids" haha!) serve us snacks and warm green tea.
 
It was kinda hilarious when I asked to have a photo with the mama-tachi. They were like, "Aiyo, we are so old grandmas already, you still wanna camwhore with us-ar?". I insisted and guess what they did in the end? They started adjusting their hair, rushed into the toilet to check out if their face look alright, and everyone was so excited lol! Even as I am typing this, I can never forget that funny moment haha wtf!

As a small token of appreciation, I sent a photo and a short thank-you note to the mama-tachi in Masago-ichi post office the next day.

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Hoping that this will give smiles on their faces when they receive this mail.

So, that is my story about becoming a postman in Japan, which I will one day tell my grandchildren haha wtf!

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