When Ieyasu, in A.D. 1603, brought Japan to a state of peace which lasted for two hundred and fifty years, a rude postal system spontaneously sprang up in the shape of private agencies, called hikyaku-ya, which undertook, for a low charge, but also at a low rate of speed, to transmit private correspondence from place to place both by land and sea. The official despatches of the Shōgunate were all sent by special government couriers, under the control of postmasters (ekiteishi) at the various posttowns. Couriers belonging to the different clans carried the despatches of their respective Daimyōs to and from the seat of government at Yedo.
The first approximation to a modern postal system was that introduced early in 1871, chiefly through the efforts of Mr. (now Baron) Maejima, following American models. A government postal service was then established along the Tōkaidō between Tōkyō, Kyōto, and ōsaka, and extended in 1872 to the whole country, with the exception of certain parts of Yezo. The 1 sen 6 rin, 8 sen, and 16 sen stamps of those early days have become extremely rare. Concurrently with the Imperial Japanese post-office, American postal agencies continued to exist at the Treaty Ports until the end of 1873, and French and English agencies until 1879, when Japan was admitted into the International Postal Union, with full management of all her postal affairs. Japanese letter-postage soon became the cheapest in the world, because originally based on a silver standard which naturally shared in the universal depreciation of that metal. Inland letters went for 2 sen, that is, about a halfpenny, post-cards for half that sum. In 1899 these rates were raised fifty per cent, so that domestic letters now cost 3 sen (for ½ oz.), post-cards 1 ½ sen. Foreign postage to all countries included in the Postal Union is 10 sen (twopence halfpenny, though originally intended to be equivalent to fivepence). There is an excellent system of postal savings-banks, and money orders and parcel-post are largely made use of. In the last year for which statistics are available (1903), the number of domestic letters carried was 213,956,000, of post-cards 488,890,000, and of parcels 10,413,000, while the miscellaneous items amounted to 199,845,000. The total of foreign items (letters, post-cards, etc.) was 13,808,000. The dead-letter office in Japan has very light work, as it is the commendable national habit for correspondents to put their own name and address on the back of the envelope.
During the early years of its independent career, the Japanese post-office won golden opinions. Of late it has fallen somewhat in public esteem. The reason of the deterioration may probably be found in the want of continuity in the executive, and in the fact that the Ministry of Communications, to which the post-office belongs, has come to be treated as a political prize, which is bestowed, not on a competent specialist, but on some politician whose temporary support it is thought desirable to secure.
Besides the early stamps mentioned above, those issued in 1895 to commemorate the Emperor's Silver Wedding, and those issued in 1896 to commemorate the China war will have special interest for collectors. Of both these issues, only the values 2 sen and 5 sen exist. The War Commemoration stamps are also noteworthy, because one set of each value bears the image of the late Prince Arisugawa, Commander-in-Chief, and another set that of Prince Kita-Shirakawa, who died fighting in Formosa. A peculiar feeling of awe has hitherto prevented the Emperor's effigy from being thus used, and some conservative persons objected at the time even to the issue bearing the effigies of the Imperial Princes. The latest special issue was a pink 3 sen stamp commemorative of the Wedding of the Crown Prince in May, 1900. On it is represented a box of rice-cakes (mochi), such as are partaken of by Imperial personages on the first three evenings of wedded life, while below, in a smaller box, are some chopsticks with which to convey them to the month. Picture postcards came into vogue about the beginning of the century; some of them take up in a charming manner the art motives of "Old Japan." Others follow the vulgarest European precedents.