I went to the post office this morning with several letters and cards to mail to the States. The clerk had a plastic stencil and held up each piece to it, checking the dimensions, making sure they would all fit through a standard mail slot.
One of them was a card from a stationary set from America, a small card about the size of a postcard. But not quite. As she held it up to the stencil she noted that one side of it was about 2 millimeters too big and the other about a centimeter too short for the standard postcard size. And it also didn't fit into the size and shape of the standard letter. She set it aside and I figured it meant it wouldn't be the standard letter fee. But no, it was being returned to me. It wasn't possible to mail it.
It isn't possible?? I asked her in disbelief. She said no, it couldn't be done. It wasn't small enough to be a "chisaii" (small size, category) but it also didn't fit into the letter category. But I mailed one of these before, I said to her. I used a 110 yen stamp; can't we just do that?
Of course she probably had far greater knowledge than I of how postal workers in Japan sort their mail as they transport it, something perhaps requiring very specific dimensions to fit in specific carriers (perhaps?). And the culture in Japan tends to inculcate a courteous adherence to rules without question. She had all this; all I had was a feeling of absurdity.
Are there rules like this in America? I don't recall discrimination of letter shape, but maybe there are such rules. I envision a scenario where they exist in order to protect the efficiency of mail delivery, but are foiled by desk workers who too easily overlook them in instances such as the one I had today. And then an oddly proportioned piece of mail clogs up a postal worker's organization and they sigh at the disregard of their co-workers and bemoan the fact that they must tote all the huddled masses of letters pushed upon them.
I felt bad at my surprise that my mail couldn't be sent for such a (literally) small reason. She finally had a conversation with her supervisor, and when she returned she sort of sighed and agreed to put a 110 yen stamp on it but she said she couldn't guarantee that it wouldn't be returned to me. OK, that's great. Thank you.
I understand I've probably compromised the postal system in some way. It is an incredibly efficient system, very fast and reliable. But I do come from a country that sacrifices efficiency for (at least an attempt) at inclusiveness. It's hard to leave that at the door. Of course it's just mail, but it's also the way rules are followed. Themes manifest themselves in many ways. Today, I came up against the absurdity of one of the postal systems rules at the same time that I benefited from an incredibly prompt delivery of an item I'd ordered. Hard to take one without the other, but with their kindness, perhaps I did. Thank you, Japan, now and again, for accommodating me outside the lines.