Why Japanese Post Boxes Are Red, the Origins of Japan’s Postal Symbol, and More 

Why Japanese Post Boxes Are Red, the Origins of Japan’s Postal Symbol, and More 

Here’s a truth: we tend to be equal parts amused/horrified at the stuff we uncover. (Not that this trivia is in hiding—just that it tends to be in Japanese, in PDFs, in archives, etc., you get the idea.) 

Today, discover the origins of why Japanese post boxes are red, the guy who created the nengajyou lottery, the mystery surrounding Japan’s postal symbol, Japan’s current global postal rank, and some trivia from our very own Mail office. 

Get ready for some nerdy delight for your brain to chew on. 

Note: Previously published on Linkedin but we didn’t want our blog readers to miss out. 🙃

Why are Japanese post boxes red?

In 3 words: “mistakes were made.” 

So, originally, Japan’s first mailboxes were painted black for a run of 30 years, from 1871 to 1901.

Japan's Mailboxes

But here’s the thing: public toilets were just becoming popular at the same time. 

The story goes, passers-by who saw the black mail boxes mistook them for toilets, misreading the sign 便箱 for 便箱.

Streetlights at night weren’t common back then, so we can see how someone in their cups might misread the sign on the mail boxes. (Not making this up.)

The switch to red mail posts came in 1901, when the color was changed from black to red to make the mail posts stand out—even at night! 

Sources: Postal Museum Japan; Wikipedia

Who created Japan’s New Year’s lottery?

Since 1949, Japan’s 年賀状 New Year’s postcards list lottery numbers on each card. (You knew that right?)

The man who came up with the big idea was, in fact, a private citizen.

Much ado is made about that fact—probably cuz we all know what it’s like to walk into a Japanese office and say, “Here’s something new to try.” 😑

Anyhoo. The story goes, Masaji Hayashi traveled to Tokyo (from Osaka) to present his idea to the Ministry of Communications (the Postal HQ at the time).

In prep, he had brought with him mockup postcards and posters he had painted himself. Side note: he was an amateur watercolorist as well as being a shop owner of Western goods. 

Japan being Japan, the idea didn’t take right away. But also, Japan being Japan, EVENTUALLY, some people in the ministry were persuaded! The result: today’s nenga lottery お年玉付き年賀.

For us, this story is worth sharing mainly because the man knew how to pitch:

1. We took a look at the mock-ups he prepared, and this is no walk-in-off-the-street-with-an-idea type of proposal. Mr. Hayashi thought of EV-RY-TH-ING.

2. He presented a prototype, posters to use as ads, price points, time periods, & ideas for the prizes. Plus, his plan targeted their fears re: a decline in postal use (for context, it was the end of World War II and no one was having a good time). 

3. He gave them reasons to care beyond cash: “A nation-wide lottery will lift the country’s spirits + the campaign will encourage people to get back in touch with friends and relatives separated during the war.”

Basically, he did all the hard work for them, so all t’was left for them to say was YES.

P.S.: Much of Mr. Hayashi’s play-by-play was followed, right down to his suggestion for the first-place lottery prize: a sewing machine. Also, check out the poster he included in his pitch, and then the poster the Ministry published! Pretty similar, right? 

Japan’s New Year’s lottery

Source: Postal Museum Japan (Japanese PDF

Where did Japan’s postal mark 〒 come from?

So the official origin story goes like this: At the time, the ministry in charge of the postal service was 逓信省 = “teishinshou.” And the phonetic kana reading of the first character is「テ」(te). So the postal symbol 〒 is said to be derived from the kana letter テ.

Japan's postal mark

Image: Postal Museum Japan

But actually, there’s a backstory to the official story.

It seems, originally, Japan’s postal mark was going to be the letter “T” for *T*eishinshou (the Ministry of Communications).

In fact, the ministry had published an announcement stating “T” as the postal symbol on February 8, 1887. Psst. If you wanna be really nerdy about it, Google 🔎 逓信省告示第11号(本省徽章ヲ創定ス)「自今 (T) 字形ヲ以テ本省全般ノ徽章トス」

However, after belated due diligence, the ministry learned that “T” was a mark used internationally for insufficient postage. So backpedaling, they posted an “oops” retraction on February 19, 1887. Where they said something that amounted to, “Ahem. We actually meant 〒 (totally our first pick).” 

So the debate boils down to whether it was originally supposed to be “T” but an error forced their hand to go with 〒. *OR* it was always originally going to be 〒 for テ and the first announcement was just a mistake. 🤷 

In any case, since approx. 1887, the postal symbol 〒 has been worn with pride on postal uniforms, letter collection boxes, and post offices, etc. 

Source: Postal Museum Japan 

Japan’s 2021 postal ranking: 4th out of 168

This year, Japan ranked 4th out of 168 countries in the Universal Postal Union's 2021 report (published in October of this year).

Japan’s 2021 postal ranking

Countries are measured against 4 pillars:

1. Reliability reflects performance in terms of speed and predictability of delivery.

2. Reach reflects global connectivity by evaluating the breadth and depth of the postal operators’ international network.

3. Relevance measures the intensity of demand for the full portfolio of postal services.

4. Resilience indicates the level of diversification of revenue streams, as well as the capacity to innovate and deliver inclusive postal services.

Countries with a score above 55 are among the top 20% in the world. Japan scored 90 to come in 4th place. 

Source: Postal Development Report 2021  

Statistics from TokyoMate's Mailroom

And while we’re on the topic of Mail Trivia, check out some interesting stats from our very own Mail office. 

(Before we get into the glorious details—a quick refresher on what TokyoMate Mail does: It’s a software service that allows you to check your physical mail from your phone—just like email.) 

TokyoMate MailRoom Statistics - You've Got Mail

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