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Editorial: Japan Post must envision bold future for mail service amid shifting needs

Regular Saturday postal delivery looks very likely to end next year. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications is preparing to submit a Postal Act revision bill to the Diet to allow the change.

A service available to everyone across the country at low cost is referred to as a "universal service." The Postal Act sets the standards for the post to be just such a service.

Currently, the law requires daily home delivery of letters and postcards from Monday through Saturday. Except for Japan's more distant islands, the law also requires delivery of these items anywhere in the country within three days of being posted.

Japan Post Co. asked for the re-evaluation of this system because it was badly short of workers, among other reasons. However, as the post is intended to be a universal service, a communications ministry council had debated the best course of action for a year before finally submitting its findings on Sept. 10.

Once the recommended changes are in place, not only will Saturday deliveries stop, but the maximum time allowed for a letter to reach its destination will be extended to four days. Japan Post also plans to end its own next-day delivery policy for items sent within the same prefecture.

This being the case, a letter or postcard mailed on a Thursday may not reach its destination until the start of the next workweek. To make up for this decrease in service, Japan Post is apparently readying an approximately 10% cut to the cost of express mail, which will still be delivered on Saturdays.

The number of items handled by Japan's postal system has fallen by about 30% since its peak in fiscal 2001, due primarily to the rise of email. Running the post office as a business has become increasingly difficult amid this decline, prompting consideration of delivery service reductions even though the move may speed up consumers' shift away from physical letters and postcards.

According to Japan Post, the work needed to provide Saturday deliveries alone requires a staff of some 55,000. If regular Saturday service is eliminated, Japan Post expects to save more than 60 billion yen (about $558 million) per year.

Meanwhile, Japan Post's "Yu-Pack" parcel service is delivering growing numbers of packages, an increase driven by the spread of internet shopping. However, this has not changed the fact that the postal service depends on reaping sales commissions for financial products from fellow group companies Japan Post Bank Co. and Japan Post Insurance Co. for the vast majority of its revenue.

This summer, a scandal involving improper insurance policy sale practices broke over Japan Post, creating the risk that commissions from this vital business will decline. Restructuring the revenue model for the postal delivery business, built on Japan Post's some 24,000 post offices across the nation, has become a pressing need.

Even if ending Saturday delivery is unavoidable, we cannot accept further cuts to daily deliveries on the pretext of worsening post office revenues. A future vision for the mail service must be one that fulfills the prerequisites of Japan Post's privatization.

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