Reference | FYI


'Hanko' fate sealed by test of time

by Akemi Nakamura

A “hanko” personal seal is a necessary item for most adults in Japan, serving the same role as a signature in the West.

Following are some questions and answers about the hanko system:

What is a hanko and how is it used?

Hanko stamps can be made from various materials, ranging from ivory to wood to plastic. The bottom part is where the stamp portion protrudes, bearing the name of an individual or organization. The user dips the protrusion in ink, then affixes the imprint on documents at the spot designated for a signature or other form of acceptance.

How far back do hanko date and when did Japanese adopt them?

Hanko date back to 5500 B.C., when people in the Middle East began engraving their personal symbols on stones, shells and clay and leaving impressions to identify property as their own.

Hanko use first spread to Europe, and then Asia.

The oldest existing hanko in Japan is made of gold. It was given in A.D. 57 by Emperor Guangwu of China’s Han Dynasty to a ruler of a small area of northern Kyushu to demonstrate that the recipient was vested with political authority by China.

Government officials began using hanko on official documents for authentication in the eighth century.

Hanko have been employed by high officials and samurai for most of Japan’s recorded history and were already common among merchants and farmers by the Edo Period (1603-1868). During the middle ages, however, brush-stroke signatures enjoyed a brief popularity among nobles and samurai.

The modern hanko system was codified during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) in the early 1870s, when legislation was passed requiring people to register their hanko and use them on important documents.

This process was a product of the nation’s nascent bureaucracy.

Do people use the same hanko for every document?

No. Basically there are two types of hanko — inexpensive, ready-made ones and those that are custom-made.

Ready-made hanko are used for casual occasions at home or in the workplace, such as when people sign for a parcel or when employees are required to verify expenses.

Customized hanko are saved for more important occasions, including opening bank accounts, obtaining loans from financial institutions or purchasing vehicles.

Ready-made hanko can be inexpensive, and some are even sold in ¥100 shops, while fancier, customized hanko can cost tens of thousands of yen. These can be fashioned from horn, crystal or ivory, although stocks of the latter material have been limited in line with the clampdown on the ivory trade.

Customized hanko are less subject to wear because they are used infrequently and thus retain their identification value, according to Shoichi Nakajima, a board director of the Tokyo Hanko Engravers Cooperative Association, a group of hanko craftsmen and retailers.

The average Japanese possesses four to five personal hanko over a lifetime, he said.

What is a “jitsuin” hanko?

Literally meaning “real hanko,” these stamps are usually customized and registered at local government offices, where individual impressions are kept on record.

Each local government has an ordinance that denotes what kind of material can be used for hanko, their size and other particulars. Rubber hanko are usually not accepted because their imprints change easily, and when hanko are damaged, holders may be asked by local governments to register new jitsuin hanko.

People are required to use jitsuin hanko on important contracts and documents for registration procedures at public offices. Examples include real estate and vehicle transactions and loans by banks or other financial institutions.

Businesses and government offices often request official certificates of authenticity for jitsuin hanko. Businesses may refuse to process agreements using damaged hanko whose imprints do not match registered impressions.

Foreigners in Japan, except those from East Asia, usually do not own hanko. Are they required?

Basically no. An 1899 statute, Meiji 32 Year Law No. 50, states that foreigners can use signatures instead of a seal in situations where laws require Japanese to officially acknowledge a document with a hanko.

Minato Ward, Tokyo, for example, spells out that foreigners can use signatures on its official documents.

According to the Tokyo Legal Affairs Bureau, when foreigners report to government offices on property transactions or the creation of a company in Japan — procedures that legally require Japanese to use jitsuin hanko — they may use a signature but are required to certify it with their home government.

When it comes to opening bank accounts, three megabanks allow foreigners to use signatures if they do not have a hanko. They have systems to check signatures to prevent forgery.

But smaller banks may ask foreigners to use a hanko partly because their employees are not trained to distinguish the possibility of a forged signature, according to a Regional Banks Association of Japan official. Because the opening of a bank account represents a contract between the bank and individual, the 1899 law does not prevent banks from requiring a hanko.

Some experts recommend that foreigners doing businesses on a long-term basis in Japan get a jitsuin hanko to smooth the process.

Why does Japan use the hanko system instead of a signature system?

Legal requirements for using hanko on documents are limited to certain occasions, including executing a will, registering a marriage and childbirth on family registers, and reporting real estate transactions to legal affairs bureaus, according to lawyer Masae Shiina.

In many other instances, individuals are free to choose between a hanko or a signature. In practice, however, hanko are often requested out of custom because Japanese society places great importance on their weight as seals of identification.

The interchangeability of hanko and signatures is backed by law. Article 32 of the Commercial Code states that a hanko accompanying a typed or written personal name can serve as a signature, while Article 228 of the Civil Procedure Code stipulates that a private document is presumed as genuine if it bears a hanko or the signature of the individual or of a proxy.

However, lawyer Shiina said the current hanko system contains inherent problems.

For example, a family member can use another family member’s jitsuin hanko to borrow vast sums from financial institutions without authorization, while an elderly person with senile dementia can be deceived into placing a jitsuin hanko on a fraudulent contract — and such incidents occur with regularity.

How can people prevent counterfeiting?

Kazuyoshi Kono, a hanko and signature analyst, said it is extremely difficult to verify either hanko impressions or written signatures, as digital technology allows precise fabrications of both.

Engraving machines using scanned data can be used to make counterfeit hanko imprints. There are also machines that can reproduce signatures, he said.

Signatures, however, appear harder to forge than hanko imprints. Signatures bear individual characteristics, including angles and stroke pressures, and subtle line changes — characteristics difficult to emulate with a machine. Imprints, meanwhile, vary so much due to such factors as the ink and paper used that it is difficult to isolate unique characteristics.

Nakajima of the Tokyo hanko association said people should be extremely careful about handling hanko. They should avoid lending them to others and leave impressions only when necessary.

Also, it is advisable to keep hanko for bank accounts separate from bankbooks because if both are stolen, money can more easily be drawn from an account — although clerks may request proof that the person using the hanko is indeed the registered owner.

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