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  • The People’s Post Office: The History and Politics of the Japanese Postal System, 1871–2010 by Patricia L. Maclachlan
  • William W. Grimes (bio)
The People’s Post Office: The History and Politics of the Japanese Postal System, 1871–2010. By Patricia L. Maclachlan. Harvard University Asia Center, Cambridge, Mass., 2011. xx, 358 pages. $39.95.

The People’s Post Office is an impressive piece of scholarship that manages to combine a thorough history of the Japanese postal system with a nuanced [End Page 523] political analysis. It is, and will likely remain, the definitive work in English on the evolution of Japan’s postal services as well as their place in Japanese society and politics.

The book is organized partly historically and partly thematically. It begins with the earliest origins of the postal services and brings the story up through reforms under Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō and the partial backtracking that followed. Patricia Maclachlan relies on political science theory to analyze the development of the postal services, but unlike many political scientists undertaking historical analysis she does not try to force the narrative into a theoretically defined straitjacket. Rather, she presents the postal services in the context of their own times. For the early period, especially, this means that she presents not only the political and functional debates but also the impacts of postal services on local society and in contributing to Japan’s nascent sense of modern nationhood. The postwar chapters focus more on politics, with a particular emphasis on the role and power of the commissioned postmasters.

The Japanese postal services have long been of interest to political scientists, who have been drawn to the political importance of the commissioned postmasters (tokutei yūbinkyokuchō) and their allies in the postal zoku of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the vast scale of the postal savings and postal life insurance (kanpo) operations, and the resistance of the system to reform. It has been widely agreed that postmasters have had the ability to swing elections; combined with the importance of postal savings and kanpo to politicians’ favored public works projects, this electoral sway was seen as thwarting reform for decades.1 Surprisingly, however, only postal finance has received the kind of deep scrutiny it deserves.2 Analysts of the curious electoral and institutional politics of the postal services, in contrast, have mostly taken the postmasters’ power as a given, with general statements regarding postmasters’ role as opinion leaders in towns and villages. For the most part, the broad-brush description of the power of postmasters in [End Page 524] previous studies remains intact, but Maclachlan’s account adds a historical and institutional perspective that has been lacking.

A key contribution of The People’s Post Office is to scrutinize the logic and reality of that assumption. On its face, the power of postmasters does not make much sense. Although the total number of employees of the postal services exceeded 250,000 at its peak, most of them were civil service workers, and most of those were unionized. The vanguard of postal political power, however, comprised 18,000 or so commissioned postmasters, a group that stood outside the civil service laws and was generally resented by the vast majority of postal workers. While it is easy to explain why efforts to reduce the numbers of postal workers or even post offices would have run into political difficulties, the staying power of the commissioned postmasters was impressive indeed—especially given Maclachlan’s assessment that “the commissioned post office system and the associations that represented it had no economically or administratively rational reason for being” (p. 108).

To explain that resilience and power, Maclachlan delves into history. The commissioned postmaster system was first put into place as a practical solution to a functional problem in the 1870s, relatively early in the Meiji period (chapter 1). The new Japanese state needed to create a modern postal system as a means of improving communication and commerce and extending central government control. The shogunal system, which was the most developed of the three existing types of postal delivery services (the other two being organized by daimyō and merchants), was based on a series...


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