Postal Service Headquarters

Image: Illustration of dead letter office in issue of Harper’s Weekly
Date: February 22, 1868 
Source: Work is Public Domain; image from Library of Congress

On April 30 1872, the Iwakura Mission group visited the Washington D.C headquarters of the United States Postal Service (USPS). They toured the dead letter office, piled high with undeliverable mail, and went through the sorting and delivery departments. The guide informed the delegates that while the USPS excelled at delivering letters and parcels, other independent services were better suited to ship precious metals or other fragile commodities. The group was surprised to learn that the USPS could deliver mail to Yokohama or Nagaski via international delivery! Kunitake Kume noted the ability to transport information through a national postal system was a crucial aspect of economic growth. Kume surmised that Western merchants, who could receive letters and gain knowledge from across the seas, were sure to have a deeper understanding of the world. He made a note that this must be their key to prosperity.

At the time of the delegates’ visit to the USPS, a national transportation and delivery service was well-established in Japan. As such, Kume’s translations of postal terminology referenced what he knew. The idea of “express delivery” was similar to Japan’s own hikyaku, or “flying feet,” a group of professional couriers who specialized in express delivery.


Kume, Kunitake. “A Record of Washington, D.C., 3.” Japan Rising: The Iwakura Embassy to the USA and Europe, edited by Chushichi Tsuzuki and R. Jules Young, 68-69. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

久米邦武. “第十三巻 華盛頓府ノ記 下” [Chapter. 12 A Record of Washington, D.C., 3]. In “特命全権大使米欧回覧実記 第1編” [The Records of Iwakura Mission’s trip in Europe and America].