Small-town postmasters hit privatization moves

Kyodo

Chiaki Koga, 31, was a member of the Self-Defense Forces for 10 years until he returned to his hometown on the southwestern tip of Oita Prefecture to become the head of the post office in Kamitsue.

He came back to the village with a population of just over 1,200 to assume the postmaster’s position left vacant by the death of his father. He thus became the third generation chief of the “tokutei” special post office.

Such post offices, established by law in 1941, operate on a smaller scale than ordinary post offices and are found in villages, towns and cities. Diet members from the Liberal Democratic Party have counted on the votes of postmasters of small post offices for years.

However, many postmasters are jittery because Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s Cabinet recently approved a basic postal privatization plan despite opposition by LDP lawmakers.

The plan is designed to split and privatize Japan Post into four companies — business-mail delivery, postal savings, postal life insurance and management of the network of over-the-counter services at post offices — starting in April 2007.

They will be under a holding company fully owned by the government.

Government leaders say postal privatization will make post offices more convenient. But postmasters in underpopulated regions are apprehensive about whether their business is doomed to extinction.

Koga said, “I don’t know much about political moves, but I am not going to take any steps to abandon our regional residents.”

His post office is on a road that cuts through the center of the village, near volcanic Mount Aso. Mountains tower behind the post office.

Residents aged 65 or older account for about 40 percent of the village’s population.

Her expression turning gloomy, a woman in her 60s who manages a restaurant, said: “I have misgivings about the reports of postal privatization. What’s going to happen if the post office is closed? I’d have to go to a bank or ‘nokyo’ (agricultural cooperative) in a neighboring village by bus.”

She said privatization often comes up in conversation among residents because the post office is the only financial institution in the village. Some say it is the village’s lifeline.

The post office’s business includes postal savings and life insurance. About 20 customers come in daily. Senior citizens receiving pension annuities account for the largest number of visitors.

Post offices comprise 74 percent of financial institutions in underpopulated regions, according to available data.

In formulating the Cabinet’s privatization plan, Heizo Takenaka, state minister in charge of economic and fiscal affairs and financial policy, incorporated a phrase into the policy saying the government will pay attention to the maintenance of a financial base in underpopulated areas.

Critics said the substance of what Takenaka described as “paying attention” remains opaque and added that consolidation of unprofitable post offices in less populated regions cannot be denied because the aim of privatization is to attain efficiency in postal services.

The government’s plan is to privatize financial services completely, including postal savings, following the split of services into four businesses under a holding company in 2007.

Some say it is possible the postal savings business may disappear in underpopulated areas.

One criticism has been that there are too many post offices in cities. The Cabinet’s blueprint says this will be reassessed.

Azuma Horii, the 61-year-old postmaster of a post office in Misato, Saitama Prefecture, said at an LDP public hearing: “Agitation is spreading all over as postal people worry about what is going to happen to them. Our will to work is declining.”

He said nationwide across-the-board services are made possible only because postal services are run by the government, and reform should be carried out under government ownership.

Jin Murai, chairman of an LDP committee supporting the association of postmasters of privately owned post offices, questioned why the Koizumi Cabinet is pressing ahead with privatization at this time.

LDP members in the Diet with close ties to the association are strongly opposed to the Cabinet’s approval and may try to roll back the plan when legislation is submitted.