The Unique History of Japan’s Postal System

The Unique History of Japan’s Postal System

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Japanese post office
How the Japan Post's unique development and services improved the economy of a nation - its successes, its controversies, and the origin of that famous "T" symbol.

To most, the post office is seen as a simple system with the sole purpose of providing ease of communication and delivery throughout a nation and the rest of the world through mail and delivery services.

But would you ever consider for a moment to deposit your financial savings into a post office? Or buy life insurance from one? Exactly how big of a role does the post office even play in the economy of a nation as a whole?

Enter the Japanese postal service, officially called Japan Post Co. Ltd., offering not just mailing services but also banking and life insurance, and formerly the largest financial institution in the world.

How exactly did an institution such as this manage to achieve such huge economic growth? How did it develop, and what role does it play in Japan socially, politically, and economically?

The story of Japan’s uniquely structured postal system and how it came to be goes back hundreds of years, and includes several episodes of structuring and restructuring, adding and subtracting services, and changing names, logos, and ownership.

The Feudal Postal System of Japan

The Japanese post is believed to have gotten its start in the feudal age as an actual system during the Tokugawa Period. With Japan still in relative isolation (鎖国; sakoku) at the time, the development of communications and transportation within the country unfolded in a rather unique way. With international contact restricted by the Tokugawa regime to a few select ports, and likewise no new influences or imported technology coming in, Japan’s communication systems advanced in a different way compared to its Western counterparts.


The nation was connected via five main highways known as Go-kaido, which extended from the then-capital Edo, where the Shogunate Government was established. Under the management of the Central Government, post stations were set up all along the routes, which were responsible for supplying travelers with relay men and horses, the main method of communication over distances of that time. They also provided accommodations, such as lodging.

As large vehicles had not been employed as a method of transportation/communication yet, all travel was carried out either on horseback, via palanquin, or simply on foot. Despite being a system of expansive highways, all activity was most likely to be via foot traffic. Oddly enough, the mail-delivery part of the system (called kikyaku, literally “flying leg”) were not provided horses at all, so all mail deliveries were carried out on foot. Also, as the concept of home-delivery had not come about yet, all letters and packages were dropped off at a location specified on a map at each post-station, where the villagers would gather to greet the courier and receive their parcels. As for outgoing mail, the villagers would prepare their items ahead of time to hand to the courier when he came with the day’s deliveries. In some Edo post stations, a straw bag was attached to Nihonbashi Bridge before the courier’s arrival where villagers would deposit their mail items to be picked up by the courier (similar to a mailbox). Also, as stamps did not exist yet, postage was paid by attaching a coin to the piece before handing it over.

Eventually, the services offered by this system expanded to include money remittance for traders, which grew in necessity and importance as the postal system evolved more and more, and involved more and more businesses. This set-up would become the basis for the modern Japanese post system as we know it today, which also includes financial services similar to a bank.

Another unique fact about this feudal “postal service” was the way in which it was managed by the government. Not only were post-stations exempt from taxation, the officials who were employed by these stations received various benefits, such as an allowance of money or rice. They were also allowed to provide various labor services to the town in place of paying taxes, which is said to have come about from the policy of the Shogunate – which, despite having control over the highway system, did nothing to maintain the towns serving as post-stations.

However, this complex system would not carry on for long, as eventually, Japan would see a day when contact with the outside world would eventually come in and change everything.

The Meiji Restoration and Improved Postal Systems

Maejima Hiskao, one of the founders of the Japan Post
A stamp of Maejima Hisoka, one of the founders of the Japan Post as we know it today.

Japan’s initial contact with the West brought in all kinds of new information and technology, many of which would go on to influence the development of the Japan Post as we know it today. Many of these technologies came in the form of new methods of transportation, which in turn created new ways to deliver packages and services.

The first locomotive vehicle entered Japan in 1865. Around this time a French Minister also came around and addressed the economic status of Japan under the Bakufu, and suggested they remodel their postal system according to that of the French to increase their revenue. Though this did not happen right away, with the coming of the Meiji Era and the Meiji Restoration, Japan would indeed find its postal system being restructured, and sure enough, it would included influences from not just the French system, but several other European systems, and would indeed be used as a new way to improve the economy.

A few years leading up to the Restoration, some Edo and Yokohama commissioners set up a union and began a steamer service operating between both cities, a service which lived on into the Meiji Era as a “new type” post, and would later become a forwarding agency.

日本郵便の父・前島密 明治維新の理念を”郵便事業”で実現|明治の日本 新時代を切り開いた男たち

近代日本に郵便が創業したのは、明治4(1871)年3月のこと。 “日本郵便の父”と呼ばれる前島密が、わずかな歳月で実現した。 …

(JP) Link: The Father of Japan Post, Maejima Hisoka, Actualizes the “Postal Business” Concept of the Meiji Restoration

The Restoration brought about many improvements, and not just to transportation and communications. A central mail and traffic office was also established as the country’s first modern postal service in 1871. Horse-drawn carriages and rickshaws (and later, bicycles) were finally employed. Pre-paid postage in the form of stamps also came about in the same year, doing away with the old, bulky system of attaching physical coins.

All in all, the government now worked with various private companies to continue this expansion in a way that not only met the transportation and communication needs of the people, but also allowed for large profits, eventually becoming a key player in the development and improvement of Japan’s economy as a whole.


日本郵便株式会社(にっぽんゆうびん、Japan Post Co., Ltd.)は、 東京都 千代田区に本社を置く、郵便事業の運営と 郵便局の運営を行う 日本の会社である。 総務省所管の 特殊会社で、 日本郵政株式会社の100%子会社。愛称は「 日本郵便」(英語表記の愛称は、旧郵便事業と同一の JP POST )を使用する。 コーポレートカラーは、「ゆうびんレッド」だが、現在でも郵便局店舗看板に関する表記については、 ゆうゆう窓口 設置局や郵政グループビルに設置された局、日本郵便発足後に開局(あるいは、移転・新築)した拠点を除けば、従来の「ゆうびんきょくオレンジ」と同じオレンジ色を用いる場合がある。コーポレートスローガンは「そばにいるから、できることがある。」。 郵政民営化方針の一部見直しに伴いがを 吸収合併し、商号を 日本郵便株式会社に変更、日本の郵便事業で ユニバーサルサービスの義務を負うこととなった。これに伴い従来の郵便局会社の拠点と郵便事業の支店・集配センターは、いずれも「郵便局」の名称となった。郵便局店舗とは独立した旧郵便事業側の拠点の一部(主に郵便局と郵便事業支店が民営化後に分離されたケース)は、名称が変更(大阪支店→ 大阪北郵便局など)あるいは「○○郵便局郵便分室」・「○○郵便局集配分室」となった。集配センターの統合先は合理化や地域事情などを考慮して分かれており、所在郵便局と統合されたケースや設置者の旧郵便事業会社支店統合先の郵便局と統合されたケースもある。後者の場合、郵便物追跡サービスにおける局名表記は「旧郵便事業会社支店統合先郵便局名(旧集配センター設置先郵便局名。但し「郵便局」の表記はせず)」となる。 民事訴訟法及び 民事執行法により送達は、日本郵便職員が送達するものとされており、内容証明郵便物の認証業務に従事する 郵便認証司とあわせて みなし公務員 とされている。 日本郵政を含むグループ主要4社の中で唯一、 指名委員会等設置会社の形態を採っておらず、また日本郵政を含むグループ主要4社の中で唯一、となっている。取締役11人のうち、 社外取締役 が6人を占める。 日本郵政が2017年3月期に のれん代など約4000億円の減損損失を計上する元となった オーストラリアの物流子会社 トール・ホールディングス は、直接的には日本郵便の子会社であり、同件のプレス発表は日本郵政の連結ベースのものである。 郵便記号(〒)とは、日本の郵便事業を表す記号である。 郵政民営化以降も、 日本郵政グループのブランドマークとして、「〒」を継続して採用。詳細は 郵便記号を参照。これに 合わせてJAPAN POSTの頭文字である「JP」の文字を取り入れた各種ブランドマークが 2007年 10月の 郵政民営化以降、新たに使用されている。 グループ・ブランドマークは 「JP 日本郵政グループ」とし、 日本郵政株式会社、 株式会社ゆうちょ銀行、 株式会社かんぽ生命保険を含むグループ4社にて同様のものを使用。コーポレートブランドマークは、旧郵便事業と同じ 「JP POST 日本郵便」とし、全社的なロゴマークとする。また、旧郵便局会社の「JP NETWORK 郵便局」から、色とNETWORKの文字を変更した 「JP POST 郵便局」の郵便局マークも存在し、これは主に 郵便局 でブランドマークとして使用される。

(JP) Link: Japan Post Co., Ltd.

The Economy and Politics of the Post Office

Until recently, the Japanese post boasted the title of the largest financial institution in the world, thanks to its available financial services which competed largely with actual banks. In the mid 1960s, the post office had approximately three trillion yen worth of deposits, about 15% of Japanese household savings, and by year 2000, this number catapulted to about 260 trillion yen, or 40% of savings.

The original Postal Services Agency (郵政事業庁, Yusei Jigyocho) was replaced on April 2, 2003 by a new, government-owned postal corporation, the Japan Post (日本郵政公社, Nippon Yusei Kosha). From 2003 to 2007, it existed as not just the nation’s largest employer, with nearly one-third of Japan working for one branch or another of the Japan Post, but also acted as the largest bank in the world, offering not just mailing services, but banking services including deposit, and even life insurance. With such high involvement in the finance and savings of Japan, the organization saw numerous ups and down, and even experienced several periods of near-bankruptcy, which they were able to have the government bail them out of.

While in the beginning, such involvement may have played a role in improving the economy in post-war Japan, after it fulfilled its purpose, it was believed by some to be no longer necessary to operate as a state-run entity, and would do more harm than good in the long run if allowed to continue. Some saw privatization as the answer, stating that without the government backing them in such financial distresses as mentioned above, they would have been more thoroughly monitored and examined in order to remain profitable and keep capital at a reasonable level. This apparent lack of market discipline is what lead former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to seize the first opportunity he got to reform the postal system once more.

The Privatization of the Postal System

In September of 2003, then-Prime Minister Koizumi proposed privatizing the government-owned organization and splitting the Japan Post into four separate companies – a bank, an insurance company, a postal service company, as well as a fourth to handle retail for the other three. Despite much opposition and a failed first attempt, in 2005 Koizumi got his wish, and winning that election, abolished the Japan Post, breaking up its branches into a shareholding company, the Japan Post Network, and began the process of privatization, a process that has been gradually unfolding over the course of the last 10-plus years.

Koizumi’s reasoning was the fact that the Japan Post as a government-owned organization had already lived past its days of being a necessary part of economic development, and was now corrupt and bloated. Privatization, he reasoned, would do away with (or at least greatly reduce) this economic corruption, and allow for more efficient used of funds by curbing government spending and the growth of the national debt. Many citizens, however, argued against the loss of jobs that would come with the movement, and the inevitable reduction in efficiency, as many postal branches were located in rural areas and run by civilians of those towns.

郵政民営化法とは 金融2社株、売却期限なく

▼郵政民営化法 小泉純一郎政権が行政改革の本丸として始めた。郵便貯金を入り口とする非効率な財政投融資の改革や公務員の削減、利便性の向上を掲げた。まず2003年に国営の郵政3事業(郵便・郵便貯金・簡易生命保険)を引き継ぐ郵政公社が誕生。さらに05年に成立した郵政民営化法に基づき、07年に 日本郵政 グループが発足した。 当時は持ち株会社の日本郵政と郵便事業会社、郵便局会社、 ゆうちょ銀行、 …

(JP) Link: The Postal Service Privatization Act: Two Shares of Financial Company Selling Without Deadline

Koizumi’s legislation provided a 10-year transition period for savings and insurance companies to be fully privatized while the government continued to be involved in the three other companies, and that the shares of Japan Post Bank and Japan Post Insurance would be made available to the market several years later. It was finally privatized in 2015, and the support for the movement continued with the election of current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his political ideals of “Abenomics,” a set of policies established to boost Japan’s economy through monetary policy, fiscal consolidation, and growth strategies. However, Abe remains fully aware of the doubts and criticisms of the general population:

「郵政事業の民営化後、10年余りが経過しました。この間、株式上場や政府保有株の売却が行われるなど、郵政民営化は着実に進展してきました。他方 … 日本郵政グループの真価が問われています。」

Over 10 years have passed since the privatization of the postal system. In this time, the privatization of postal services has seen steady progress through the listing of stocks and the sale of government shares. However… the true value of the Japan Post Network is being called into question.   In a January 2019 report with the Postal Service Privatization Committee, Abe expressed his strong expectations for the Japan Post Network to improve its convenience to users, increase corporate value, and revitalize the nation.
(JP) Link: January 18, 2019: Postal Service Privatization Committee Headquarters

The Postal System of Japan remains a topic of political and economic debate to this day, as the two major parties of Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party (back under power under Prime Minister Abe) and the Democratic Party, continue to butt heads over opposing views on how to best use the postal system of Japan for their highest perceived good.

However, before bringing this historical examination of one of the most important organizations of Japan to a close, let’s look at a couple of other unique parts of the Japanese Postal System.

The Japanese Mailing Address System

Worth mentioning here because of how different it is from what many of us are used to is the Japanese addressing system. If you’ve ever visited Japan, or even simply tried to mail a letter there, you likely noticed some of these differences. And it isn’t just a matter of being a different country. To make things more complicated, this address system even has other variations within the same country!

This is because, historically, it has been found that many place names conflict between regions such as Hokkaido, for example, with place names in the rest of Japan. In order to solve this, several regions in Japan have developed their own variations of the standard address system by including extra information (such as the infamous “agaru” (上) and “sagaru” (下) often seen in Kyoto addresses, which refer to whether the building is up or down the street indicated).

The standard written format begins with the largest geographical area down to the smallest, in the following order: country, prefecture, district, city, street, building, floor, apartment number. It is a slight modification of the format originally established during the Meiji Restoration. (Note that in the case of writing Japanese addresses in English, it is acceptable to reverse the order into the conventional Western format, which typically begins with the building number).

In addition to the address, a hyphenated, seven-digit postal code is also included, and is indicated by the unique postal mark, 〒, which was introduced in 1887, and is still used to this day.

The Japan Post Mark
“What does it MEAN?!” Turns out opinions differ. (Picture: takagix / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

So what exactly is this strange, “T” resembling symbol? Representative of the Japanese postal system, it is called the yubin kigo (literally, “postal mark”). Though some claim it stands for the “t” in “teishinshou” (the Ministry of Communication and Transportation, which was in charge of the postal system at that time), thought there has been debate as well as several theories about exactly how and why it was decided.

The story goes back to 1884, when a red circle with a red line through it was adopted as the logo after a period of having been used unofficially. However, three years later, (and two years after the above-mentioned Ministry of Communication and Transportation was formed), it was announced that the logo would be changed into a “T.” Several days after that, another announcement was made that the symbol had been misprinted, and should have been 〒, the actual symbol used today, and not a “T.”

There was some confusion as to what caused this series of mistakes. Was the T really a misprint? Or was that story made up to cover for the fact that they realized only after their announcement that a T shape would conflicted with the already-existing T-shaped symbol indicating insufficient postage? (This was a universally recognized symbol, so it’s suspected they simply wanted to spare themselves embarrassment from admitting to that mistake).

Regardless of the reason, once the 〒 was established as the “real” official logo, it was accepted, and has remained as such for over 130 years.

Other Sources

Mitsui, Baron Takaharu. “The System of Communications at the Time of the Meiji Restoration.” Monumenta Nipponica, vol. 4, no. 1, 1941, pp. 88–101. JSTOR,

Kinoshita, Nobuyuki. “The Economics of Japan’s Postal Services Privatization.” Center on Japanese Economy and Business Working Papers, no. 263, 2008, pp. 22–24. Colombia University in the City of New York,

Gary Robinson (2017) Pragmatic financialisation: the role of the Japanese Post Office, New Political Economy, 22:1, 61-75, DOI: 10.1080/13563467.2016.1195347

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Krys Suzuki

Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native speaker currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher, Krys now works full time as a J-to-E translator, writer, and artist, with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture. JLPT Level N1. Shares info about Japanese language, culture, and the JLPT on Twitter (SunDogGen).

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