Hideo Matsuzaki creates names that will last a lifetime, one deft knife stroke at a time.

The 71-year-old master craftsman has a list of celebrity clients and a job description with no equivalent in the West: engraving personal seals that the Japanese use instead of signing their names on the proverbial bottom line.

For centuries, people in this country have put their seals on everything from Imperial proclamations to IOUs.

Matsuzaki figures he’s carved tens of thousands of tiny cylinders of wood and ivory with exquisite Japanese characters since he first picked up a blade more than 50 years ago.

But his could be a dying art.

Critics say seals — and their owners’ identities — can easily end up in the wrong hands. More are being stolen, and technology has made it possible to forge them from a sample of an imprint. And the government is under pressure to rethink their power as a legal instrument.

Matsuzaki, whose talents have earned him national recognition and a pair of former prime ministers as customers, said the seals aren’t the problem.

“They can’t be faulted,” he said. “It’s up to people not to lose them or have them stolen.”

Seals have deep cultural roots intertwined with Japan’s pictorial writing system, both of which were borrowed from China.

First wielded by the emperor and his court in the eighth century, they were picked up by merchants after the country emerged from feudalism and made their way into the pockets of commoners in the 19th century, when the government began raising armies of often-illiterate conscripts who “signed” for their pay with a seal.

Today the average adult owns about five seals, according to an industry group.

Only one — registered with the government to certify ownership — can be used for important legal documents.

Since registered seals are considered too valuable to carry around, unofficial seals are used for bank accounts, special deliveries and other everyday situations when people in other countries would pick up a pen.

Bureaucrats and salarymen are among the most prolific stampers.

Countless documents circulated before countless meetings in this consensus-oriented nation invariably carry a row of seals.

Proponents of the system say it’s safer than signatures.

“Your handwriting changes over the course of your life — but the imprint of a seal is unique and it’s forever,” said Ken Matsushima, chairman of the Federation of Japanese Seal Engravers Cooperatives.

For important transactions, he added, the identity of the holder of a registered seal can be double-checked by demanding a certificate of authenticity.

But police report a 50 percent jump over the last five years in burglaries targeting seals or account books — which until recently carried the imprint of the account holder’s seal.

Criminals have started using scanners and computer-operated engraving equipment to reverse-engineer originals. Big banks are fighting lawsuits by customers who claim their accounts were emptied by impostors using stolen or forged seals.

Critics warn that seals can also be a weapon in the hands of a family member or a colleague thought of as trustworthy.

“Lives are being destroyed,” said Toshimasa Yamada, a Diet member of the Democratic Party of Japan and leader of a campaign to repeal one law regarding seals. The law states a contract with a seal is presumed to have been stamped by the owner unless he or she can prove otherwise.

Complaints of misuse are common. Among those cited by Yamada: a divorcee claimed she discovered her seal on a loan taken out by her ex-husband after he disappeared, and an elderly woman said her senile husband was tricked into stamping a contract. Others said their finances went awry after handing over their seals to financial advisers promising to handle complicated paperwork.

Yamada argued that doing away with the presumed-consent law would force banks to have agreements signed in front of witnesses. He recently squeezed a concession out of Justice Minister Mayumi Moriyama, who agreed in a Diet hearing to consider reviewing the law.

But in the meantime, many people are being extra cautious.

“These days, I’m reluctant to take mine out of the safe,” said Osamu Kobayashi, a 57-year-old advertising executive. “I think the whole system is out of step with the times.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.