550 Unknown Error: Japan’s email filters versus the rest of the world

Today, I received an email from my Japanese host mother, with whose family I stayed back in 2011 when I studied abroad.

This is significant because from 2011 up until today, my host mother and I had only communicated via three media:

– handwritten letters, which would weave their way through the jungles of the local postal system and arrive two months late;

– phone calls, which I would use to reply to the letter instead of my writing a letter back because I couldn’t be sure it wouldn’t take another two months to get there (and because letter writing is a lost art, doubly so in the Japanese language);

– Skype, which only ever happened once several weeks ago on her birthday because she had another foreign student staying over who had a laptop and an Internet connection.

When I first returned to the Philippines from Japan in December 2011 I imagined that emailing each other to keep in touch would be a no-brainer. Japanese cellphone accounts are set-up with an email address such as somethingsomething@docomo.ne.jp or softbank.ne.jp, which they then use to send each other text messages. SMS is a virtually unknown technology, adopted only recently. Before that, there were a couple of proprietary text messaging protocols that were pretty much useless because they could only send text messages within their network. (It’s like if you were a Globe subscriber and were totally incapable of texting anyone on Smart, Sun, etc.) So if you want to text a Japanese friend, you don’t ask for their number, you ask for their email address.

I figured that since email is the same everywhere, it should be simple to use my Gmail account to send an email to my host mother’s docomo.ne.jp address. However, I ended up constantly getting the following:

Delivery to the following recipient failed permanently:

****@docomo.ne.jp

Technical details of permanent failure:
Google tried to deliver your message, but it was rejected by the recipient domain. We recommend contacting the other email provider for further information about the cause of this error. The error that the other server returned was: 550 550 Unknown user ****@docomo.ne.jp (state 18).

I never figured out what was going on, and trying to work out a tech problem with my host mother was impossible because of my extremely limited Japanese and her being fairly advanced in age. So I just forgot about it until her first letter came in, and from then on we exchanged letters, phone calls, etc. every few months.

Thanks to that same tech-savvy homestay student who helped set up the Skype call, however, I finally figured out the problem. As it turns out, many phones are set by default to block all incoming email that isn’t from a Japanese phone, and my host mother had to go to a Docomo store to get them to add my email to the list of approved email addresses. (I assume it was actually just a matter of toggling a setting on her phone, but neither me nor Nik the homestay student had the linguistic chops to navigate through a Japanese cellphone menu.)

So I’ve replied to her halting-English email with my atrocious Japanese, and hopefully I can feel much less guilty about keeping in touch now that more constant communication is possible. Plus, with email I have an online Japanese dictionary at my disposal.

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