The People’s Post Office: The History and Politics of the Japanese Postal System, 1871–2010

In This Review

The People's Post Office: The History and Politics of the Japanese Postal System, 1871-2010 (Harvard East Asian Monographs)
by Patricia L. Maclachlan
Harvard University Asia Center, 2012
378 pp. $39.95

Only in Japan could post-office reform become the political fight of the decade, and this book explains why. For many years, a vast network of postmasters, running postal operations and even some welfare services out of their own premises, helped build local support bases for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. They offered state-sponsored savings accounts and life insurance policies, the investments from which the government then channeled into politically popular infrastructure projects. Critics derided the system as a symptom of Japanese bureaucratic immobilism, but would-be reformers were stymied until 2005, when the maverick LDP prime minister Junichiro Koizumi pushed through legislation that mandated the breakup of the postal system and forced it into private hands. Koizumi succeeded in part because of weakening ties between the postal old guard and elected politicians. Postmasters are now employed by private firms, but they remain a potent interest group, fighting to uphold the traditional values of small-scale community service. And they are no longer committed to the LDP, thus contributing to the new fluidity of Japanese party politics.