A matter of perception

Petit rappel : La langue officielle de l’Union postale universelle est le français. Même pour des envois entre le Japon et les États-Unis.

Mark Liberman receives a parcel from Japan (with an interesting book inside), and wonders why a shipment from Asia to America should be marked with a stamp in French saying BUREAU DE POSTE - MUSASHIFUCHU JAPON - TAXE PERÇUE:

I didn’t know that percevoir can mean “to receive (payment)” as well as “to perceive” or “to comprehend”. Taxe perçue is a charming expression, as if it’s enough for the Japanese postal authorities that TUFS has perceived its financial obligation in this matter. Or perhaps, since the perceiving agent is unspecified, it’s only someone in the Musashifuchu tax office who perceived it? In any case, despite Shintaro Ishihara’s insults, the Japanese government is apparently still using French to let the rest of the world know that adequate tax-perception has occurred.

Well, he shouldn’t wonder. Last time I checked — about a minute ago — the official language of the Universal Postal Union was still French.

Now, French terms about State finance matters do have a — how could I call it? — an oblique quality to them. A civil servant, for example, isn’t “paid” a “salary” (salaire) like employees are, but “perceives” (perçoit) a … “treatment” (traitement).

But no need to get into tax and customs matters here. Taxe perçue simply means “Postage paid” — to the Musashifuchu post office, which is presumably a different entity from the Japanese tax services. I suppose the company that sent the parcel on its way found it easier to be billed for the postage than to sort out the correct number of stamps.

And doesn’t the US eschew a national VAT? So taxes shouldn’t come into this at all, should they, given the likely value of the shipment.#[1]

Nowadays even in France people don’t say taxe for postage. And some may think the UPU’s a bit of an avatar whose major achievements (compatibility of postal services world-wide …) are a matter of the past. But hey, I used international reply coupons (which the UPU provides) 10 years ago, and my acquaintances here often show me that mechanisms and options that for many have been superseded by the internet are very useful still.

And I guess whichever USPS postal worker or optical recognition system checked that the correct amount of postage had been paid was glad to find the information indicated in compliance with the international standard, instead of in Japanese.

[1]: I should insert the story here about having to wait for two months and then pay 56 FF (about 8 €) seven years ago to a customs officer to free the New Shorter Oxford Dictionary I had ordered at Amazon.com. Thank god — well, thank someone — the European Amazons are now much better stocked (and priced) when it comes to English books than they used to be.

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