Put your stamp on your Japan trip with hanko

Hankoyosan 21 in Sangenjaya, Tokyo is a chain shop for hanko stamps. Photos by Elizabeth Gaskin
Hankoyosan 21 in Sangenjaya, Tokyo is a chain shop for hanko stamps. Photos by Elizabeth Gaskin

Put your stamp on your Japan trip with hanko

by Elizabeth Gaskin
Stripes Okinawa

“Sign here,” said the delivery person as he handed over the paper receipt and a pen. Printed on the paper was a square box on the right-hand side, a space too small to hold a cursive signature. After I scribbled on the form, the delivery person handed over the package. He did not receive a signature, by western standards, but rather printed initials of a first and last name. The space displayed on the receipt for a signature was designed for a red hanko stamp, one of the oldest forms of signing a document in Japan.

Hanko stamps are small, inexpensive, personable, and make an ideal souvenir for tourists. I decided to send some to my family members and buy one for myself.

Hanko stamps were first introduced in Japan 2300 years ago and registered hanko use has existed for 150 years. It remains a part of Japanese identity. Hand carved hankos are considered irreproducible and counterfeit proof. Finding a stamp shop shouldn’t be a problem for tourists since, according to the All-Japan Stamp Makers Association, there are about 8,000 hanko shops in the country.

In today’s technologically forward world, however, the continued use of handheld hankos creates some delays in business transactions. The time-consuming practice requires the parties involved to read, physically stamp, then pass the document onward, as explained in a 2021 Japan Times article on hanko culture. To remedy some of these delays, some companies have  embraced the electronic hanko, but Japan has been slow to adapt away from original hanko stamps.

Hanko are held in high regard as demonstrated even in the special care taken for disposal. In 1980, a seal prayer ceremony was started for the proper disposal of hanko, according to All Japan Seal Industry Association. The ceremony is officiated by a Shinto priest on Oct. 1 which is Seal Day. During the ceremony, there are prayers and a burial to bid farewell to old and unused seal stamps. It offers a humble exit to symbols of an ancient craft, used for personal and business activities.

Buying hankos is easy as they can be purchased online, at hanko shops, department stores, stationery stores, vending machines, and 100-yen shops. I visited four different hanko stores, but my excitement was subdued when the attendant at the first shop I visited revealed a machine would be making my order.

The attendant at Hankoya-san, a stamp chain, counted the number of syllables in the foreign names I gave him and said, “This is the right size,” writing 13.5 mm on the paper. He directed me to select the case, color, and decorative box. As an international shipping center, this store also makes it convenient for tourists to send souvenirs overseas.

The second shop, Choeido Inbo, had a traditional Japanese style. Inside the tiny shop, sat an elderly man, an insho, or ink-stamp engraver. Insho are largely a group of aging artisans, many without heirs to continue the craft. Hand carving tools lay on display on the shelf next to the counter. Choeido Inbo has been around 40 years, the insho said, and he is certified by Japan’s Minister of Labor as a First-Class Technician.

Given my five-syllable name to engrave, the insho held up a wooden, narrow stick. Insho artisans carve names backward so the stamp will have the correct orientation, which is as impressive as managing to carve many letters onto a tiny surface. This shop’s hand-engraved hanko also had a cheaper price.

The third shop I visited had clear glass windows, an all-white interior, and a door sign that read “Stationery Shop.”  The numerous hanko cases inside resembled lipstick displays, which made this place look like a beauty store. The last place I visited was the 100-yen store, where the hanko displays were out of stamps for the more common Japanese names. A large department store 100 meters away had no hankos at all!

By far, the visit to the traditional hanko shop was the most memorable. This type of shop is recommended as a first stop for tourists. My family loved their hanko stamps. Having a personal hanko meant something more for me— the end of initials scribbled on delivery forms.

Hanko shops in Tokyo:
1.Hankoyosan 21 Sangenjaya

2 Chome-17-11 Sangenjaya, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo 
Telephone: 03-5779-6148

Many stamps are available to choose from at the Hankoyosan 21 location in Sangenjaya.

2.Choeido Inbo
2 Chome-13-13 Sangenjaya, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo
Telephone: 03-3422-2833

Choeido Inbo has a more traditional Japanese style and sells hand-carved hanko stamps. The interior of Choeido Inbo shows an active workspace with many stamps.

3.Hishida Stationary Store
2 Chome-13-11 Sangenjaya, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo
Telephone: 03-3421-9025

Hishida Stationary Store has numerous hanko cases which make it resemble a beauty store. 

4. Can*Do Sangenjaya Dollar Store 
4 Chome-23-12 Taishido, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo 
Telephone: 03-3411-1901

Can*Do, a chain 100-yen store, also sells hanko stamps and accessories, but common names sell out quickly.

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