Part of the Japan Post leaflet advertising its service to use its nationwide network to connect families that live apart. (Photo supplied)
Many years ago, I took a small parcel to the post office in a village in the mountains of northern Japan. I intended to mail it to my family overseas.
"Hmm," said the postmaster. "I'm not sure we've ever handled an international package here. Do you know what it should cost?"
I did not, so he rummaged around and found a shoebox with some leaflets in it, including one about international mail rates.
"OK, I think this is it, but I'm really not sure," he said somewhat doubtfully as he looked at a leaflet that had clearly been in the shoebox so long that it might have been out of date.
"Would you mind giving me the amount I think it should be according to this? Then on my way home tonight I'll make a detour to the main district post office and mail it there. If I'm mistaken in the amount, I'll either get the balance to you or get in touch to collect the difference."
The package reached my family without any problem.
Years later, I received a letter from abroad in response to a magazine article about work I was doing with homeless men in Tokyo. It was addressed: "Father William Grimm, Slum in Tokyo, Japan."
The Japanese postal service is, indeed, a service.
When Japan began to modernize in the 1870s, the first contact between rural areas and the central government was usually a post office. Today, there are more than 24,000 post offices throughout the country, and they remain an important part of any community even as electronic communication increasingly makes their mail function obsolete.
Post offices also serve as banks and insurance providers and thus provide essential services that otherwise might be unavailable in remote areas. As was the case more than a century ago, post offices remain the major point of connection between rural residents and the rest of the country.
Now, the postal system, Japan Post, has initiated a new service in those areas.
As younger people have migrated to cities, rural areas are increasingly inhabited by elderly people who live alone. Their children and grandchildren are no longer on hand to check on their health and happiness.
And so, Japan Post has introduced its new mimamori saabisu (caretaking service), using its nationwide network "to connect families that live apart."
For a monthly fee of ¥2,500 plus tax (just under US$25), family members can arrange for a monthly visit by a Japan Post employee to their rural relative. The visitor will check on the elderly person's situation using 10 categories, and the results will be sent to the family.
For an additional ¥980-1,180 each month, the postal service will make a daily automated phone call to the elderly persons asking them to use their phone's dial pad to answer how they are doing, and will send the results to the family.
Finally, for another monthly ¥800, the post office will arrange with a security firm to be on call for emergency visits at the request of the family.
With increased urbanization throughout the world, the situation of families that live apart is increasingly the norm. That is not just true in rural districts. Even in crowded cities there are elderly, disabled and other people living alone without anyone to at least check on them from time to time to see if they are in good health or have any special needs.
Churches are not unlike Japanese post offices that are spread far and wide through all the communities of a nation. Especially in the Catholic scheme of dioceses and parishes, there are probably few places whose people are not in some way or other within the purview of a group of Christians.
Ubiquity need not be the only point in common between those post offices and Christian communities.
If a government bureaucracy, the proverbial image of unimaginative adherence to past procedures and programs, can develop a creative idea to make its old strengths answer new needs, certainly churches and other religious entities like schools and religious houses should be able to do likewise.
That might mean abandoning "what we've always done" in favor of untried new activities.
In Japan, for example, it might mean looking at the fact that in a country with a declining number of children, about 12 percent of people are under age 14 while 27 percent are over 65. Yet faced with an increasing number of the lonely elderly, the Catholic Church sponsors 752 kindergartens, nurseries and other institutions for children but only 232 for the elderly.
Demographics and needs will, of course, differ from place to place. The need might be among the young or minorities or the environment, but the church in every land is always challenged to meet those situations with creativity and a willingness to try the hitherto untried.
Perhaps we can let the Japanese postal system deliver us a message about service.
Father William Grimm, MM, is the publisher of ucanews.com and is based in Tokyo.