What Is That Little Stamp That Japanese People Use To Sign Papers?

by Justin Sevakis,

Qashmal asks:

I realized from watching Girls und Panzer (also mentioned in Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid) that people in Japan have something called "personal seal," which, I assume, works like an autograph or signature. If it's an organization, I can understand why a seal is needed, but why do individuals there need to have a personal seal? I'm interested in finding out how it works.

In Japan, personal seals are used instead of signatures on legal documents, forms, and other places where Westerners would sign or initial. Everyone in Japan has at least one, and most people have a few different ones. The stamp itself is called a hanko, and the ink mark it leaves is called an inkan.

Since forgery can be a problem, most Japanese people have multiple hanko, which are used for different purposes to keep important transactions separate, much like how people use different passwords for stuff like bank websites. It's recommended that one be reserved for casual use, like signing for packages (mitomein), while another is used exclusively for bank accounts, the impression of which is kept on file at the bank (ginko-in), and that your most important hanko, the one you register with the government, is reserved for only legal documents (jitsuin).

Hanko are an important part of everyday life in Japan. Shops that sell hanko and custom-etch your name in them are everywhere. Fancy carrying cases are sold everywhere too, and often have small changeable ink pads built-in. Typically, a hanko will cost around ¥3,000-5,000, but of course there are super expensive and super cheap ones too. Most hanko are made from wood or plastic, but more expensive ones are made from fancier materials.

Hanko typically are carved with just your family (last) name kanji, although some include a given (first) name as well. Titles (Doctor, Esquire, etc.) are not included. Unregistered hanko can usually have anything on them, but registered ones must have your legal name on it.

Foreigners can get hanko as well, but how their name is written can get a little weird, since personal hanko are less than 2cm in diameter, and so longer names often have to be abbreviated. Foreigners can also use a registered Japanese alias (typically just a katakana-ized version of their name). Each local municipal office in Japan will have a slightly varying set of rules about how foreign names should appear -- for example, some will allow initials, but some won't.

Each hanko is hand-made and unique, and typically takes a week or so to produce. Once you get yours, you can register it with the government at a local municipal office in Japan, which usually costs about ¥100. You'll get a 4-digit secret code and a magnetic stripe card, which you can use to obtain a proof of registration for your seal. Only one seal can be registered per person.

For the casual, everyday-use hanko, you can buy pre-etched mass-produced hanko for as little as ¥100, which have common family names on them, or just buy the cheapest kind of hanko you can find online. Technically everyday-use hanko can have anything etched on them, but most people have their last name on them anyway, just in case someone questions its validity. These are often kept by the front door, along with an ink pad, to sign for deliveries. Some people also make a mini-hanko, which is used to authorize hand-written corrections, much like you'd add your initials when you make changes to a check.

There are a bunch of rules on how to use hanko: different sizes for men and women, and how official their use is, how hard to push and how clean the impression must be, and where you should stamp. Businesses and government officials use big square hanko on documents, while personal hanko are always round.

Hanko come from a Chinese tradition that goes back thousands of years, which used fingerprints to authorize a document. In addition to Japan and China, Korea, Taiwan and sometimes Vietnam all use them. Their use is often a little mystifying to foreigners, since at first glance they don't seem very secure. However, there's an entire field of forensic study, since under a microscope no two hand-ethched hanko are exactly alike.

These days electronic signatures are replacing hanko in the business setting, but they are still used everywhere in Japan for daily personal business.

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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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