Sending mail overseas from Japan can be a lot more difficult than anticipated. Strangely, one of the biggest problems that I had when I first came to Japan was actually finding the place! Asking for directions proved to be tricky as I kept using the word ポスト which usually refers to a postbox in Japan, not the post office itself!
If I had known better I would have used the Japanese word 郵便局 instead. Luckily this is one of those words that can be broken down to make others.
The 郵便 part of this word refers to the postal service and is found in mail-related words such as 郵便番号 (Postal Code) and 郵便箱 (A mail box). It can also help to learn the symbol for the post office in Japan which is written on maps like a capital T with a line on top of it, similar to the Japanese character テ.
When you arrive at the building itself, to start the conversation, you will need to tell the staff where you are sending the package. If you are sending the package to England, you would say: イギリスへ この小包を送りたいのです.
After that, you will likely be offered a confusing range of delivery options. Most post offices divide mail classes into:
普通郵便 ー Regular mail
船便 ー Surface mail
航空便 ー Air mail
速達 ー Special delivery
To send things abroad you will be likely be limited to either 航空便 or 船便.
Most people choose air mail, but interestingly, not all air mail is created equally in Japan. For those who are really in a rush, there is a luxury option called EMS in English or 国際スピード郵便 in Japanese. This service will send a package to most places in a speedy 2-4 days, but costs significantly more as a result.
Some post offices also have the option of Surface Air Lifted mail (エコノミー航空) . Surface Air Lifted is an option halfway between Air Mail and Surface Mail. As the mail is passed between land, sea and air carriers, it is a good middle ground between speed and expense.
At this point, you may need to buy some other things like a 封筒 (An envelope) or 切手 (A stamp). Don’t forget that the counter for stamps is 枚. So, if you needed two, one-hundred-yen stamps you would ask for 100円の切手を２枚ください.
A common question that tricked me up when I first started going to post offices in Japan are the extras that Japanese people ask you about. You may also be asked if you want 保険 (Insurance) for the package or 書留 (Registered mail). If you agree to 書留, the letter costs more, but there is proof that the mail was sent and the receiver will sign to show that it was delivered.
Another tricky question is 中身は何ですか (What are the contents?). This is often asked by the staff as Japanese delivery companies have lots of rules and regulations about delivering certain items. According to their official website, the postal service divides products into 5 broad categories: documents, letters, postcards, packages, and printed material (Such as books or magazines). Each has a slightly different pricing structure, so be prepared for the price to keep changing if you have a variety of things in the box.
Once you have negotiated all of these little niggles, all you have left to do is to confirm when the package will be delivered: イギリスにはいつ配達されますか (When will it be delivered to England?). People who are taking their Japanese Proficiency Tests this month should note that される, the passive form of the verb する, is being said here. This verb is used because the sender doesn’t know who will be doing the delivering in England!
And that is pretty much it. But, of course, this wouldn’t be Japan without some ways to make things a little more interesting. If you want to add a special touch to your mail, look out for the 周年切手, 日本国際切手, and 記念切手 packs which celebrate anniversaries and special events. Some of these stamps can be great fun for your relatives to collect and even adults will find themselves smiling when a stamp with Atom Boy, a Japanese monster or Kiyomizu Temple lands on their doorstep.
So as well as getting the job done, post offices are great places to learn some useful Japanese and let your inner nerd out with the crazy stamps and customization options. Who said a trip to the post office was a waste of time?