Seal the deal with Japanese hanko

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Okinawa

If you’ve received any sort of official document from a Japanese organization, you’ve likely run across a red seal next to a signature or printed name at the bottom.

In Japan, that seal is called hanko (stamp) or inkan (seal impression). The stamp, which uses a pad of thick red ink called shuniku, actually serves as the official proof of an agreement.

“The seal is very important in Japan, as it serves as personal identification,” says Shoichi Nakajima, president of All Japan Stamp Makers Association. “They are indispensable in our daily life as they are necessary when we open a bank account, join a new company or school, get married or divorced, rent an apartment or establish a farm or shop.”

Different from a written signature, this seal can work for any registration or contract session without you. Even if you were unable to attend something, you can ask your substitute to sign in your place using your hanko.

And there are different hanko for different occasions. Personally, I possess three different stamps, as do many Japanese adults.

Among my three stamps, I have a registered seal called jitsuin (literally, real seal), and it’s the biggest in size. I’ve used it for my large purchases, including my house, car and my daughter’s tuition. But, before I used the stamp, I had to register the seal at City Hall.

My second stamp is for opening a bank account and withdrawing money and is a middle-size stamp, called ginkoin (bank stamp). To receive packages or other general use, I use a small stamp, called mitomein (private stamp).

The size of jitsuin is legally determined according to each city, town or village government.

“Usually, the stamp should be 9-20 millimeter in diameter or square with the exact name of the person in the family registration,” Nakajima said.

So, if you’re ever in a position where you need a registered seal, talk to your city hall for more information.

For bank and personal stamps, there are no rules. While some use a cheap instant rubber stamp, many use a round-shaped hand-engraved stamp of 10.5 or 12 millimeter in diameter, according to Nakajima.

You can use the registered seal for bank and personal purposes, as well. However, Nakajima doesn’t recommend that as frequent use of stamp may cause damage or deformation.

Just like your signature, the seal of a stamp is unique, usually hand engraved by skilled stamp maker.

“We engrave each stamp to make it original,” Nakajima said. “Even if the name is the same, we make each seal in different.”

Stamp makers will write inverted names on the circular surface of stamp, then engrave it with various chisels. Strong material, such as boxwood, ivory, crystal or metal are usually chosen for stamp to prevent its edge from breaking after long periods of use.

According to Nakajima, the culture of the seal goes back to Mesopotamian Civilization in 5,000 B.C., and it was introduced to Japan through Song Dynasty of China in the 12 or 13th century.

“During the Edo period (1603-1867), the custom of stamping the seal was widely established in Japan, and that was legislated in the following Meiji period (1868-1912),” Nakajima said.

While many of you will never need a hanko to sign your documents in Japan, these original pieces of art that identify its owner, are a symbol of Japanese life and culture, which can make for a great souvenir.

So, where can you make one for yourself or that relative back home?

“There are nearly 8,000 stamp shops in Japan, and any shop near your location can make you one,” Nakajima said.

It would cost 3,000 – 4,000 yen ($25-35) depending on material, and it would take a couple of days to a week to engrave it, he added.

You can engrave your name using kanji, hiragana, katakana or alphabet letters. Chris can be engraved as “栗栖” (kanji), “クリス” (katakana), “くりす” (hiragana) or “Chris” on a stamp.

For souvenir purposes, a stamp with kanji or katakana are ideal as they look more Japanese.

If you want to make your stamp in kanji, you have to be careful when choosing the kanji to represent your name, as sometimes the wrong combination might be odd to Japanese.

In fact, there are countless combinations of kanji that can describe your name. Chris can be spelled in kanji, like久里洲, 栗栖, 繰須 and many more. While the pronunciation is the same, the looks and meanings are different. So, ask your Japanese friends to translate your name with good meaning kanji, and make sure you understand the meaning before asking a stamp shop to engrave it.

If you are not sure how to spell your name in kanji, visit the nearest stamp shop to ask their help. “Although they may not be fluent in English, they sure will be happy to help you,” Nakajima said.

All Japan Stamp Makers Association

LOCATION: 2-4 Kanda Jimbocho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo

URL: www.inshou.or.jp/ (Japanese)

Email: mail@inshou.or.jp

Tel: 03-3261-1015 (Japanese)

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