Japanese customs officials strict with incoming mail
Stars and Stripes June 26, 2007
From marijuana buds to fake handbags, mailing contraband into Japan is risky business, given the country’s strict customs laws and inspection procedures.
It’s a gamble two military spouses recently took — and lost.
In March, Jessica M. Montgomery, 23, a Marine spouse on Okinawa, was sentenced by a Japanese court to one year in Japanese prison — suspended for three years — for having 5.98 grams of marijuana mailed to her Camp Courtney post box from Ohio last May.
Last month, Kathryn Anne Ancheta Hairston, 28, the wife of a Misawa airman, was arrested on suspicion of having 0.498 grams of an unnamed illegal stimulant mailed to her from the Philippines via the Japanese postal system.
Hairston reportedly was indicted late last month for violating Japan’s narcotics law, according to local news reports. Base officials could not confirm the information.
Japanese customs officials say anything mailed from overseas into Japan, including items shipped through the military postal system, is fair game for inspection.
Customs agents examine letters and packages using X-ray and drug dogs and by opening them, according to Tatsuya Naito, a customs bureau official with the Japan Ministry of Finance. Though Naito said it’s impossible for customs officials to inspect every package, Okinawa customs officials previously told Stars and Stripes that contraband items are often found "on a hunch of an experienced customs inspector," as was the case for a discovery made in 2005 of a submachine gun and bullets mailed in a cardboard box from Iraq to Okinawa through the military postal system.
Naito could not provide the number of illegal parcels customs officials intercepted last year. But he said drugs and items that infringe upon intellectual property rights, including fake brand items from countries such as China and South Korea, are among contraband on the rise in Japan.
Japanese customs agents inspect military mail at three locations: Yokota Air Base outside Tokyo, North Dock at Yokohama, and Kadena Air Base on Okinawa. Agents are authorized to inspect all military mail, except official mail, Naito said.
At the Yokota Aerial Mail Terminal, Japanese customs officials inspect inbound mail daily under the eye of U.S. military postal personnel, according to Master Sgt. Alfred Coe, Detachment 2, Pacific Air Forces Air Postal Squadron superintendent at Yokota. If contraband is discovered, custody transfer from military postal system to Japan customs is conducted by the military postal observer and customs agent, Coe wrote in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes.
The majority of items confiscated are counterfeit brand products such as handbags and clothing, he said. Other contraband discovered include "weapons, pornography, drugs, plant products," he said.
Japanese law prohibits the importation of firearms, ammunition and pistol parts; explosives; counterfeit currency; narcotics; child pornography and adult pornography considered obscene, as well as other items, according to Japanese customs officials.
Penalties for getting caught vary, but depending on the item, can include a prison term and/or fine. Under the customs law, for example, punishment for smuggling marijuana, stimulants and firearms is up to five years in prison or up to 30 million yen fine (about $300,000) or both. Some items, however, are also subject to other laws. Under the Cannabis Control Law, for example, smuggling marijuana into Japan can result in imprisonment for up to seven years.