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Why are some people in Japan finding solace in old-fashioned correspondence?

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TOKYO -- In this age of fast-moving social media, some people in Japan are turning to old-fashioned correspondence with pen pals, apparently because handwritten letters can bring the hearts of senders closer to recipients.

    Services allowing people to correspond with others while keeping their real names, residential addresses and other personal information secret are also growing. The Mainichi Shimbun explored what's behind the renewed spotlight on longhand correspondence.

    "The warmth and thoughtfulness felt through your letters must derive from your own experiences," reads a letter a 74-year-old woman in Saitama Prefecture recently received from her pen pal in his 70s in Chiba Prefecture, as she carefully went over the passage.

    She has been in correspondence with the man for about 2 1/2 years. They shared stories of their ordinary lives, and as their casual exchanges continued, the woman came to be filled with warm feelings sensing his compassion through his letters.

    Whenever she replies to the man, she purchases brand new letter pads and an envelope, takes up a pen and chooses her words to carefully shape them into sentences. Once she posts the letter, she eagerly awaits his response.

    "Writing letters is a somewhat troublesome method, but that process leaves so many things on my mind. I find the loose relationship that allows for exchanges at our own pace comfortable," she told the Mainichi Shimbun.

    Naoki Hoshina, who launched the "Buntsumura" correspondence service, is seen in Narita, Chiba Prefecture, on July 21, 2022, with letters that had recently arrived at its secretariat in his hands. (Mainichi/Isamu Gari)

    Until around a few decades ago, this kind of correspondence was common. Magazines would have correspondence sections, filled with the addresses of those looking for pen pals. However, with the enactment of the Act on the Protection of Personal Information in Japan in 2003, stricter rules were applied for the handling of personal information. With the spread of the internet, correspondence sections in magazines vanished one after the other.

    Then came the advent of intermediary services for those who prefer to correspond without revealing their names and residential addresses.

    Naoki Hoshina, 39, of Narita, Chiba Prefecture, launched Buntsumura, a service allowing users to exchange letters while keeping their personal data secret, in 2009.

    Under the service, users only need to register their residential address via the service's website or by phone, before they are allocated fictitious "addresses" they can use in their correspondence. They then look for potential pen pals on the website and, if they find one they like, they send a letter to the secretariat with the assigned address and a pseudonym. The secretariat forwards the letter to the residence of the addressee.

    There are no risks of users' real names, home addresses or other personal info being known to their pen pals. As the fictitious addresses are named after figures and specialties in each of Japan's 47 prefectures, such as "Shingen street" (in reference to 16th century warlord Takeda Shingen) and "Momiji Manju-dori avenue" (referring to a popular sweet in Hiroshima Prefecture), senders can assume which prefecture their pen pals reside in, allowing both ends of correspondence to talk about local topics unique to the area. The monthly fee for the service ranges from 700 yen to 970 yen (about $4.90 to $6.80) before tax.

    While the service had some 340 users in 2016, the figure has since spiked to around 2,200, with membership increasing each time the government imposed restrictions on people's movements to curb the spread of COVID-19. Approximately 90% of the users are women.

    Machiko Kazama, a 69-year-old resident of Niigata Prefecture, had an unpleasant experience after posting a comment on Instagram about a photo of a beautiful piece of glass rounded by waves. "Where did you find this?" she wrote, with a hint of praise for the photo. A harsh reply read, "Use your own legwork to find out about it." She was left shocked.

    Letters that arrived at the secretariat of Buntsumura, including one that expresses the sender's appreciation of the service for saving them from their loneliness during the coronavirus pandemic, are seen in this photo taken in Narita, Chiba Prefecture, on July 21, 2022. (Mainichi/Isamu Gari)

    Since around 2016, Kazama has been exchanging handwritten letters with some eight people via Buntsumura, and none of her pen friends have used the kind of language she saw on Instagram. When Japanese society was overwhelmed with anxiety due to the spread of coronavirus infections, she was encouraged to read a letter to her stating, "It's tough, but let's hang in there."

    "Because many letters contain positive exchanges, both sides find comfort through correspondence," Kazama observed. "Once our pen friendship grows longer, we can build a relationship of trust, making us want to see each other in person."

    Hoshina explains, "All the more because you can't see the other person's face, you can sense their personality from their passages and writings. It is also appealing that correspondence allows you to stay within the realm of your own imagination."

    Regarding the reason why there often are positive exchanges in correspondence, Hoshina speculated, "Even if it's anonymous, people can take time engaging in one-on-one exchanges, without their messages being peeked at by many unspecified people. Both sides can put their feelings and sympathy for the other person into their letters."

    So far, the Buntsumura secretariat has mediated a total of roughly 720,000 letters.

    "I've been able to come in contact with the warmth of people. Though email and social media are now mainstream in society, I once again found exchanging letters valuable," a letter sent to the secretariat read.

    The Buntsumura website is:

    (Japanese original by Isamu Gari, Digital News Department)

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