Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, looking for ways to get people to remain home during the coronavirus outbreak, has instructed his government to review the long-standing administrative custom of requiring that documents be stamped with seals.
The instruction, issued Monday, comes as residents and business operators still have to visit administrative offices to receive some services that require them to fill in documents using hanko seals and submit the documents over the counter, despite a government call for reducing person-to-person contact by 80 percent to contain the virus.
The review, initially proposed by private sector members of the government’s economic policy panel, is likely to pave the way for more use of online applications for such services.
“We have to review the system and its operation in a swift and user-oriented manner,” Abe said during a session of the panel, called the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy. “We’ll draw up guidelines at an early date for reviewing the practices of affixing seals and submitting paper documents as a way to promote teleworking.”
The government has already extended various support measures for households and businesses affected by the pandemic.
But some of the relief measures, such as subsidies for smaller firms to maintain employment, require applicants to go through necessary procedures at the counter.
Based on Abe’s instructions, a government committee began discussions Tuesday to revise the regulations and call for more online procedures.
Hanko are widely used in Japan for signing contracts, business transactions and administrative procedures. In particular, many workers have been forced to commute to their offices because of a reliance on hard-copy paperwork for key contracts and proposals, and the need for much of this to be stamped with a traditional seal.
The practice is also seen as preventing telecommuting from being fully introduced at companies despite the pandemic.
A custom originally imported from China over a thousand years ago, the use of hanko was formalized by Japan’s modern government in the mid-1800s, with citizens required to legally register one with their name to use on important papers and documents.
In business, they can be used on virtually everything, from contracts to applications and even just to show that everybody in an office has seen a particular memo.
“The hanko is nonsense,” Hiroaki Nakanishi, one of the panel members and chairman of Keidanren (the Japan Business Federation), told a news conference Monday. “Hanko should be left as works of art.”
The government this month compiled an economic stimulus package for the coronavirus outbreak that includes subsidies for companies — but applying for many of these will require stamping the forms with a seal or visiting offices in person.
Comments were not immediately obtainable from hanko maker associations, but many Japanese have expressed their frustration with the custom on social media.
“Just to complete my work, how many thousands of times — no, hundreds of thousands of times — have I had to press my hanko on papers?” wrote Twitter user Mayumi_ma-na. “There are plenty of sectors that no longer rely on these seals! Why can’t we just sign things?”