Tuesday, June 9, 2009

There's no rule, but...

...you can't do it anyway.

I had the most frustrating experience a brief while ago at a Japanese post office. I'm trying to send a box with two 500 ml. PET bottles of green tea Coca-cola to Hawaii. I put the bottles in a Ziploc bag. I bubble-wrapped the hell out of them so they are immobilized, and I dutifully put the proper customs tag on it with details of the contents.

When we offered the box over to the people at the counter in the post office, they read the tag (which honestly listed that there was Coke in it) and then started sucking air between their teeth and clucking amongst themselves. Once they got through with that, they kept looking at a chart on the wall which listed all the things you can't send like, oh, poison, toxic chemicals, etc. There was nothing on their wall chart which said you can't send Coke.

After we tried to tell the two hens who were frowning and acting like we were trying to mail a ticking bomb that it was just a few bottles of soda, they called over a MAN to handle it. After all, if a Japanese man tells you something, the sway of his testosterone-fueled masculine authority will make the barbarians at your gate stop quibbling with you and go away.

The man, who was just your usual scrawny Japanese dude, but I guess Japanese women think anyone with a penis gets respect, insisted that there was this horrible risk of the bottles exploding in transit because of the air pressure changes on the plane if the box is sent by airmail. We told him that they were in a plastic bag. Even if they exploded, the bag would catch any leaked soda. He essentially said that we couldn't send them by air because of this risk.

At any rate, we asked the man if there was a rule about not sending carbonated beverages. He said that there was no rule, but they essentially didn't want to do it. That means that there isn't a word on any book anywhere about not sending these things and it is not listed as a restricted item, but because he's imagined some problem which there has been no case of to date, he won't allow us to mail our package.

Now, folks, I try hard to be balanced about cultural differences, but this experience is where I've freaking HAD IT with the Japanese "case by case" crap and the way in which they "take responsibility". The truth of the matter is that much of the way Japan works is with people making decisions based on what helps them avoid responsibility for anything. Generally, that means being ridiculously timid so that they can't be held accountable if the most obscure and moderately troublesome (not catastrophic, not devastating, not even annoying) possibility happens to take place.

That "man" wasn't concerned with doing his job according to what the job allows or requires. He was only concerned with some extreme possibility where the bottles rupture *and* leak through the bag *and* this is actually a problem for anyone *and* they look at the post mark and trace it back to their particular post office and someone then calls them on the carpet for sending a parcel which contained items which weren't restricted in the first place.

This sort of thinking is exactly why Japan changes at a slower pace than a glacier. It's the reason their economy has been on a 20-year decline with no end in sight. It's why they have greater debt per capita than the United States. It's why their inept and corrupt politicians keep getting re-elected. It's why they have a tendency to embellish and polish what other people have success with rather than invent their own unique ideas. No one wants to take a damn risk of messing up and then having to take responsibility.

On the bright side, the people working at my local post office are now at no risk of having to commit seppuku in the unlikely event that the bottles of soda I'm trying to send rupture en route *and* leak out of their Ziploc bag *and* it ends up being a problem for someone. On the not so bright side, I can't help out someone who has been really helpful to me and who I really want to help.

I'm going to change the customs tag so it says something vague and try another post office tomorrow. I know other people send this stuff abroad all the time. I'm not only talking about J-List and whatnot, but I've heard of people who just send their friends bottles of Pepsi Cucumber or Pepsi White or whatnot. There must be a few postal workers out there whose testicles are big enough to take on the great risk of sending a couple of bottles of pop. :-p

Oh yeah, anyone who has a problem with my little rant. I advise you to keep your comments to yourself because I'm in no mood for fingers being waggled at me by people who haven't had to put up with the ridiculous crap I've had to for the last 20 years. There's reasonable judgment, and then there is abject bullshit. This my friends, came directly from the ass of a male bovine.


badmoodguy (Бадмўдгуи) said...

That's curious...air pressure changes are small, actually, because mail cargo planes are pressurized just like passenger planes. It was just a convenient excuse to not have to process your package.

PonkyCatuta said...

Oh geez, I totally feel your pain! (and so does my computer screen after getting christened with a mouthful of coffee following the penis comment!) Aaah yes, 'case by case' indeed... you poor thing!
But thanks so much for the biggest laugh I've had all week... loved it!

Orchid64 said...

Mike: They were all just idiots. That's the bottom line. They have some bizarre fear that they made up in their own feeble minds and can't be dissuaded from their irrational fears. You have no idea how often this happens here. I know there are stupid people everywhere, but the difference is that they have to at least adhere to rules and policies rather than making it up as they go.

Ponky: Glad to oblige. ;-) Someone should get something positive out of the stupidity I endure.

Sherry said...

I totally hear you! Almost all of my worst "Japanese people suck..." rages have happened at the post office. Have you ever tried to send a postal money order overseas? If not, don't! You will be ready to climb a tower with an automatic weapon.

April of every year is the worst as that is when they hire a fresh new batch of idiots who nearly pee their pants when they see a foreigner walk in, yk? It is all our own fault though for wanting to do crazy stuff like mail a letter.

Kelly said...

That is soooo stupid, Orchid. I have had bottles sent to me before from people in Japan, never been a problem.

Mind you, I think they just put "gift" or "toy" on the label. I guess it doesn't pay to be honest in Japan then!

Something that really irks me about Japan is that they always defer to the man, as if he is the only one who can make the decisions. Frustrating!

I hope you can send it, at least you can feel some satisfaction.

Orchid64 said...

Sherry: I think we sent an international money order home once, but I think that was so long ago that the policies have long since changed. I've heard that they give you the third degree for sending a tiny amount of money home. They do the same at the bank, of course, but it's not quite as bad. We usually wire money home through our bank since it's less of a hassle.

The annoying thing is that we did deal with them in Japanese, so there was no need for them to feel bad about it being a foreigner, but I think that they freak at the very notion of a gaijin.

Kelly: It's funny but I was thinking exactly what you said. That is, that my honesty and attempts to follow the guidelines for filling out the customs tag properly (you're supposed to itemize) were what caused me problems. Had I lied or been vague, nothing would have come of it.

I have a follow-up post on the way soon about the ultimate result.

Thanks to both of you for your supportive comments!

Joseph said...

lol. we loved this here in the cubicles :-) Japan will miss you!

Orchid64 said...

I'm glad to make your hot, stuffy, airless existence there a little happier (not only as the namesake of your fan, but also with my sarcastic recounting of my experiences).

Japan might end up missing me eventually, but the jury is out on whether I'm going to miss it at the rate I'm going. ;-)

Cailean said...

I've accepted the burden of responsibility for my actions (cough cough) and lied through my teeth since day one, Japan or elsewhere. I use a policy of applying reasonable common sense (nobody will be poisoned or otherwise die because of the contents of this package), and then label the contents "gifts". With the exception of the money order grief mentioned by others, I've had a relatively painless experience with the post office.

It's not unique to Japan, either. I've lived two years in Germany and spent five years working at a university in the US, and this kind of crap was the same in both cases (especially universities, which are also on the list of "dying breeds"; imagine that). Germany's requirements for a student visa and foreigner registration make Japan look sleek and professional (try one day versus six weeks!)

Orchid64 said...

Cailean: I'm not the type of person who feels comfortable lying. I do realize it happens everywhere, but the main difference in Japan is that the wiggle room makes it easier to egregiously lie without consequence. Generally speaking, people who lie to you in the U.S. can be called on the carpet if their lie isn't backed up by rules or laws. There's a risk in the U.S. for liars that is not present in Japan because of the lack of accountability (due to the "case by case" culture and intentionally vague and contradictory laws). Of course, here I speak only of those in the bureaucratic jobs and not in private business. They can do whatever they want in terms of lying about policy or service, and I'm sure they do.

However, one thing I can say is that you misunderstand about immigration. It isn't one day. It's at least 2 visits on separate days with a waiting time (which can be up to several months, but usually is not) in between and a follow-up visit to the local government office. Just to be clear, you go and apply, then you wait for them to process your application (however long it takes) and then you go back again. Then you have to report your renewal to another authority locally.

The whole process usually takes between 1-2 weeks, but plenty of people report waiting months, often because their postcards or applications are lost. That's not to say that it is the worst that it can be, but it's also not a one-day affair.

By the way, I agree with your policy of "reasonable common sense", but keep in mind that if you are questioned about the contents and lie, you can get in some hot water, especially if you happen to cross a line by sending something restricted. Perhaps I need to be more flexible and do what I can get away with rather than what I'm explicitly requested to do, but sometimes I forget that what there are sometimes unreasonable people who can't be trusted to apply reasonable judgment when handling things and therefore it's better to cover up what you're doing. Somehow, thinking that way seems to show a lack of respect for the people I'm dealing with. It's as if I'm approaching them by underestimating their capacity to be reasonable from the start.

Sherry said...

And you know, what is "common sense" in one culture is very often not "common sense" at all in another.

Cailean said...

By the two visits, are you referring to your visa and your foreigner's registration card?

I've renewed twice so far and it was relatively painless, except for the one time when I bone-headedly forgot to bring an important document, which was a case of "I should have known better".

I'm not advocating lying; I understand your feelings on that one. However, as you said, a certain level of applied discretion is sometimes required.

Don't get me wrong, I do sympathize. The Japanese tendency to make a law and then blatantly ignore it is only overshadowed by their ability to completely make things up as they go along, usually due to the sudden onset of an overdeveloped sense of civil duty.

Emsk said...


I learnt a lesson in Japan. Don't ask. If you do ask, that gives 'them' the opportunity to consult the rule book. One of the rules at Aeon was no internet for personal use. I made the mistake of asking my manager if I could send an important email and was treated to a lecture. Next time I simply didn't ask and she said nothing. I'm sure you could apply this rule to anything, within reason.

I totally agree with Cailean's reasonable common sense law. We really need to use our good judgement in some cases and not waste the clerks' time.

Next time I go to Japan I'm going to apply some of the behaviour I might've used to make my life a little easier while I was living there before. As for deferring to men, I'm pretty sure I'll put most Japanese men off wanting to be seen as the one in charge - I'm going to have lots of fun asking them all kinds of ridiculous questions where a simple opinion is called for. ;-)

Orchid64 said...

Cailean: By two visits, I mean two visits to Tokyo Regional Immigration in Shinagawa. You go once and apply, go home for a week or however long it takes, and then they send you a postcard saying "come back again". You go back again to the Immigration Bureau and get your stamp if all went well. Each time, you have to wait in long lines and at least an hour depending on when you arrive. My husband had to wait three hours each time he went.

Then, after you get the stamp, you go to the kuyakusho and report your change in status to them. So, the whole process for the immigration office alone is two times (if all goes smoothly) and once more locally for a total of three required visits (albeit to two different locations).

It used to be one visit a long time ago, but that system changed.

Emsk: We didn't ask them. They asked us. We gave them the box and they started scrutinizing the customs tag as if there were state secrets written on it and then they started asking us about the contents. At that point, we couldn't do anything but tell them the truth or lie and risk them deciding to open the box and verify what we said.

If they hadn't asked, we wouldn't have told. Trust me. We've been here long enough to know better.

Thanks for your comments!

Emsk said...

Oh no, I didn't think you'd volunteer that info, having been a long-time resident and aware of the game ;-). Simply repeating what most of us already know by now.

Of course, plenty of people do arrive wanting to be as honest as possible. They'll end up with twice the hardwork!

Anonymous said...

You sound really angry, in general, not just because of this incident. Probably time for you to go home, wherever that is.

Your posting is chock full of bigoted stereotypes ("usual scrawny Japanese guy").

Having lived through 9/11 firsthand, I can say that I support any and every measure meant to protect the public from terrorism. Perhaps, the postal workers were being over-cautious, but their concern may have been that two pressurized, carbonated sealed bottles in a cargo hold of a passenger plane (yes, passenger planes carry mail) could endanger the plane if they exploded. I would prefer that they err on the side of safety.

The real question here, is why are you trying to ship green tea coca cola to someone? Yeah, it's "cool" I guess...never seen anything like that before. Reminds me of a college kid sending "funny" Japanese products home, like Pocari Sweat, to amuse his fraternity brothers...it's just juvenile.

Give your Japanese hosts a break and allow them to do their job. You're in a foreign country. You can't apply your supposed "universal" standards of right and wrong. When in Rome...

Orchid64 said...

Well, Christopher, this is a rant after a frustrating experience. People tend to sound angry in rants. You may judge me and my entire stay in Japan by this one post, or your could read some of the multitudes of posts I've written before in both this blog and my previous one, but I guess it's much simpler just to read this one so you can reach a bunch of ill-informed conclusions.

Incidentally, if you step back just a few posts, you'll see I am planning on going home.

At any rate, most Japanese men are thin. I'm sorry, but it's the truth. In fact, it's the desirable state for Japanese people and the reason behind the Japanese government's institution of an arbitrary waist size and obligatory medical check-ups and doctor advised diets and exercise plans if someone exceeds the measurements. I'm sorry if my characterizing his physique in a rant strikes you as bigoted, but the truth is most Japanese people, including the men, are of a relatively light and thin build. They are not physically intimidating because they are quite small and his authority was not going to bowl me over.

You clearly are missing the point. That man was not "doing his job". He was doing something paranoid that had nothing to do with his job. I wasn't doing anything illegal nor was I troubling him or anyone in any way. According to your logic, because they are Japanese and I am not, they are allowed to make up any rule on the spot and decide to apply it to me and it is my place as an outsider to placidly accept it. You may be interested to know that my husband and I both have discussed this situation with many Japanese people since it occurred and all of them were equally incredulous about it and at least a few said they would have vociferously argued with him and demanded to speak to a supervisor. They thought the refusal was ridiculous as well.

As for why I was shipping it, that really is irrelevant. I don't have to justify sending something home as long as it is harmless and legal. In this case, I have a Japanese food review blog and a person who has another food review blog but operates from America wanted to review the new Coke. He has helped me get readers through his linking to my blog and I appreciated his help so I wanted to help him get these drinks for less than the prices he generally has to pay on eBay (with is about $8 a bottle or so for something which costs about a $1.50 here). So, frankly speaking, this was not some "juvenile need" to share something "cool". It was for someone who has a business reviewing things (which generates an income for him).

You are right. When in Rome, I should do as the Romans do, but I should also be treated like the other Romans, not subjected to the stupidity of people who decide to make things up as they go along and don't choose to follow their own rules.

You come across as one of those people who apply selective judgment to the Japanese and find an excuse for their behavior whether it is clearly bad or ill-advised. There's a name for people like you and that's an apologist. The Japanese are not immune from scrutiny because they are Japanese and I'm not a bigot for having a bad experience and blowing off steam about it.

Incidentally, how about allowing access to your profile so I can have a peak at your writing? Since you seem to be an incredibly judgmental person (deciding I'm a bigot, angry, and send things to people for juvenile reasons) from your one comment, I'd like to give you a fair shake and see if you're not quite as narrow-minded as you come across.

Orchid64 said...

By the way, the notion that a couple of bottles of soda on a plane, when planes carry beverages for people on those planes to drink are going to endanger everyone and bringing in 9/11 as a part of your absurd argument, that's comedy gold!

badmoodguy (Бадмўдгуи) said...

While there may be rules against transporting large volumes of liquid in carry-on luggage on commercial aircraft, there are no rules against transporting liquids in cargo or luggage. TSA will examine it, I assure you, and then send it on its way. I brought back lots of souvenirs from my trips to New Hampshire (real maple syrup FTW) and had nary a problem.

In addition, there are no restrictions on transporting liquids as cargo on aircraft, other than volumetric or weight restrictions and hazardous materials. Cargo holds on commercial aircraft are pressurized just like the rest of the aircraft, so there is very little danger in the bottles bursting. Secondly, if taking carbonated beverages onto aircraft was an issue, the airlines would not serve colas from cans. Cans of cola are far more dangerous than PET bottles from a pressure standpoint.

Cola is neither hazardous nor is it a large volume. I have had up to 12 glass bottles of cola (Peach Nehi!!) shipped by air freight with no problems in the post 9/11 world. This was, of course, back when I could drink carbonated beverages.

I take offense to the "juvenile" part of the commenter's statement. There is nothing juvenile about sharing interesting things about where you live. It is a good way to share interesting aspects of your environment with others that may never get the chance to enjoy otherwise. This is not limited to Japan, but even locales within the US.

Being cautious in this post-9/11 world is warranted, yes, but to lose common sense is ridiculous.

Orchid64 said...

Thanks, Mike. I appreciate your level-headed explanation, and your invoking common sense (which seems to be in short supply for some people).

Kelly said...

@ Chistopher: Why on earth would sending care packages to a friend back home be juvenile?

As a matter of fact, Jlist actually sells this product on their website, so the Japanese postal service is going to have to deal with a lot more bottle's of coke in the not-too-distant future!

Here is the link for the coke http://www.jbox.com/PRODUCT/YOYA691

I think you are pretty juvenile yourself, Orchid has lived in Japan for over 20 years, so she has probably more experience than you I would say.

It's people like you that use 911 as an excuse not to do anything. I believe that is what your government wanted.

Emsk said...

Christopher: I think you've shot yourself in the foot with the "As someone who lived through 9/11" shipping carbonated drinks endangers our safety comment. But you're entitled to your paranoia if you choose - your government has!

As for the "real question is" - my goodness, is it any of your business? It's hardly an issue. But it takes one to know one and you're the guy who brought up the word juvenille.

TheGhost said...

The `case by case` stuff gets on my nerves as well. I deal with it though brute will power. I make it very clear that I WILL NOT PLAY THAT GAME and they usually back off.

Anonymous said...

When in Rome, so does that include jumping off of a bridge? No, Christopher probably does not have any friends to send anything too...

But I guess he practices indifference daily, cause he is never angry.. oh no...