Making an impression in Japan: a hanko primer


An important skill for lawyers is the ability to ignore your own children. As a seasoned professional who works from home a lot, I have developed industrial-grade static filters that block out whatever noise happens to be emanating from the rubble-strewn Progeny Sector of the house.

Recently, however, my 5-year-old daughter has taken to acting out scenarios that involve repeated use of the phrase “Let’s make a contract!” Needless to say, this pierces the shields in exactly the way that appeals to sanity at Donald Trump rallies don’t.

The source of this distracting dialogue turns out to be the latest Bandai/TV Tokyo Entertainment Toy Complex, which goes by the name of Himitsu no Kokotama. Kokotama are egg-shaped baby godlings born from everyday items that are treated with respect. This is a very Japanese — even Shinto-like — notion: that everyday inanimate objects can have spirits of their own. (More to the point, they have marketing power!)

The story begins when a young girl named Kokoro Yotsuba discovers a kokotama named Rakitama being born from her cherished pencil case. Since kokotama are not supposed to be seen by humans, Rakitama asks Kokoro to enter into a secrecy agreement.

Now this is the important part: Kokotama execute contracts by pulling down their eggy pantaloons to reveal the hanko (seal, chop or stamp) they have on their bums. Which they then use to “sign” the contract.

Kokoro-chan discovers several additional products — sorry, kokotama characters — and contracts with each of them. Kokotama are apparently incapable of entering into multi-party contracts, though, and somewhere along the line they start living together in a kokotama house so she can use a single contract as landlord. It becomes surprisingly capitalistic, and you will too, because once you start acquiring kokotama stuff, you will end up with the house. But once you are OK with magical creatures dropping their pants to enter into secret covenants with your small children, there is probably not much left of your soul to fight for anyway (even if you didn’t go to law school).

Which brings me to my point: The fact that even small children can readily accept the notion of bum-seals being used to execute legal documents shows what a basic feature of daily life hanko is in Japan. Affixing your seal to a document has great significance, as it shows you have confirmed and take responsibility for the contents.

Despite being deeply embedded in Japanese commercial culture, however, few, if any, laws actually require the use of hanko to execute contracts. In fact, Japan’s Commercial Code refers primarily to signatures (shomei) but contains a provision allowing a name together with a seal to have the same effect as a signature. Government filings are more likely to require seals. The Family Registry Act, for example, requires marriage, divorce and other filings to be both signed and sealed.

Under an 1899 statute, foreign nationals are able to use signatures alone even when the law would otherwise require a seal. So you may be able to survive in Japan without one, though it depends on what sort of dealings you have. Some banks require you to have a hanko in order to open an account, and buying and selling real estate or borrowing money may be burdensome without one.

In the same way that gun people decry the term “assault weapon,” purists sniff at the word “hanko” or the common but mistaken use of “inkan” as a synonym. The proper term is “inshō,” which refers to the physical seal (or chop) itself, while the impression it leaves is called the in’ei. “Inkan” technically refers to a seal impression that has been registered with a bank or government authority and is thus capable of independent verification.

Registration creates a hierarchy of hanko, and most people will likely have several. There is the everyday unregistered version you may use to “sign” for package deliveries, which you can probably buy at a ¥100 shop (unless you have an obscure surname). Then there is the ginkōin, the hanko that you used to open a bank account — invariably the one stamp you don’t bring when doing your banking. (It is not uncommon to use different hanko for different accounts.)

The really serious hanko is the jitsuin, which must reflect your legal surname (and ideally your full name) and has been registered with the municipality in which you reside. Other than being limited to only one, there are no uniform national rules on jitsuin registration. Such matters are left up to local ordinances that are largely similar, and which typically prohibit the registration of seals that either do not reflect your name as it appears in the residence registry, contain excess information (such as professional titles), or whose impressions exceed certain parameters. Impressions from stamps made of rubber or other soft materials also usually cannot be registered, because they degrade easily, rendering it difficult to match an impression with the source, particularly if a lot of time (and usage) has intervened.

The jitsuin is used to execute serious legal documents: promissory notes, incorporation documents, testamentary instruments and so forth. Getting one also gives you a card that is accepted as a form of ID, and also enables you to get an official dated government document confirming the registered seal impression — an inkantōroku shōmeisho (proof of seal registration). Since your jitsuin is linked to your legal identity and confirmed by a government source, its impression on a legal document together with a proof of seal registration will be particularly conclusive evidence that you understood and intended to execute whatever it was you stamped.

Corporate seals, including the seal of a company’s registered representative (usually the president) also come high in the hierarchy, and must be registered with the relevant regional Legal Affairs Bureau, which will also issue proof of a registered seal to facilitate transactions. Corporations do a lot of business, though, so there may be all sorts of other seals — branch seals, departmental seals and so forth — that suffice for day-to-day transactions. A properly governed company should also have internal rules on the storage and use of corporate seals. Corporate managers may also have a “personal” seal that they use to “sign off” on projects as part of the ringisho approval process that makes everyone (and thus no one) responsible for business decisions. (I recently read a wonderful anecdote about a company manager who passive-aggressively stamped his hanko upside-down to “approve” projects he was actually opposed to).

The nation of Japan has a hanko too, the Great Seal of Japan — the kokuji — that dates back to 1874 and was carved out of gold alloy by Kyoto craftsmen.

The Emperor also has an official seal, also golden — the gyoji — that probably gets used a lot given the number of constitutional functions performed by Japan’s monarch, many of which involve some sort of official document: promulgating laws, appointing high officials, awarding honors and so forth. His performance of all of these roles is strictly a formality, but then affixing a seal to something is itself the ultimate formality.

Both the Imperial and national seals are held by the Imperial Household Agency. There are supposedly no formal rules governing the use of either, since the Meiji Era regulations on the use of both seals were abolished in 1947 and not replaced. Current usage is said to follow the old rules, though.

Forging the national or Imperial seals can get you a couple of years in the slammer. In fact, the Penal Code devotes an entire subchapter to these and other offenses relating to the forgery or misuse of official and personal seals.

Leaving aside the golden seals of state and Emperor, personal and business hanko are used in a multitude of ways every day — not just executing documents and government filings, but for more mundane practical purposes like confirming handwritten corrections to a contract and indicating where a document ends (to prevent the addition of text after it has been executed). Contracts and corporate minutes are often bound, with seals affixed to the bindings to prevent tampering, such as the substitution of pages. Paired documents (such as receipts and receipt stubs) can also be marked with a seal that overlaps both.

Needless to say, you need to keep track of your hanko and be careful how you use it, since they have great potential for abuse. Businesses and government offices have become much more diligent recently about confirming the identity of the people they deal with, but popular culture is still full of stories of people who end up saddled with massive debts because they allowed someone to use their hanko, or affixed it to a blank piece of paper or a document authorizing unrestricted power of attorney. Arguing that you didn’t intend to execute the document in question is an uphill battle, because the very presence of your hanko impression is essentially evidence to the contrary. Divorces obtained fraudulently by affixing the seal of an unknowing spouse (or other family member) to the relevant paperwork and filing it with the family registry are also not unheard of in Japanese family law.

If the seal impression is not yours or it has been forged, you can at least compare your seal to that on the document. This can usually be done with a simple visual impression, either by superimposing the two impressions on top of each other or folding one impression in half and comparing it to the to the other half on the other. The (largely theoretical) need to do such comparisons is why seals should be made of wood, bone or other material that does not degrade or warp easily. It is also why a very old precedent says that a thumbprint dipped in the shuniku (orange-red paste) typically used with seals is not deemed an adequate substitute for a hanko; fingerprints cannot readily be confirmed or compared without special equipment. (Interesting bit of trivia: In at least some Japanese detention facilities, a finger dipped in black ink is used by prisoners to sign documents, since they are not allowed to have hanko.)

In keeping with their central role in Japanese life and the Shinto tradition, hanko are treated with special respect. Oct. 1 is Insho Day, and around that time every year, some Shinto shrines (including Kyoto’s famous Shimogamo Shrine) conduct kuyō ceremonies of gratitude and respect for clapped-out hanko (which are then burned). As you would expect, such events create a unique impression of Japan’s business culture.

Colin P.A. Jones is a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto. The views expressed are those of the author alone. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp