My favourite part of paperwork
Japanese bureaucracy is not generally a source of entertainment and fun. More like a source of soul destroying paperwork which requires you to fill in your address sixteen times and leads you to the realisation that you’ve forgotten all the kanji you thought you knew. However, as you go through more forms than a Dragonball villain one feature of the time consuming progress stands out. It’s traditional, smooth, and an unsung symbol of Japanese culture: the hanko!
Hanko (or sometimes inkan) are pretty serious business. Or at least, they’re used for serious business. Hanko are stamps which normally display the name of the owner as a type of signature, and are used on all sorts of documents. It’s because I don’t own one that I end up thinking about them so much. Every time I have to write in my initials into the perfect circle intended for a graceful hanko stamp I wonder if it’s worth investing in a custom made romaji seal of my own.
Since working from home has become more commonplace, many are calling for the end of the notary stamp system, saying that they don’t have to be physically present to get on with business. In Japan, it takes a national disaster to even start talking about revising any kind of traditional system.
Hanko through history
When I say these are traditional I mean it. One of the first hanko on record is the one given to the ruler of Nakoku (now Fukuoka City) by Emperor Guangwu of the Chinese Han Dynasty back in AD 57. This particular one was made of solid gold. Perhaps that’s why it took about another 700 years for hanko to become more widespread. Not for the general public though, just the noble elite. Later samurai got into the practice, with special permission to use red ink.
An everyday essential
Today practically everyone living in Japan uses hanko, unless you don’t mind awkwardly writing initials like me. As with all kinds of bureaucracy here, it couldn’t be as easy as having one type of hanko and stamping it. The most widely used style would be the jitsu-in stamp which pops up for things like important purchases, marriages and other major events which need some official recognition, but there are many more types of stamp for specific purposes.
The ginkō-in is for banking matters, and the mitome-in is often used for communication so can be used for picking up parcels, or signing utility bills. Anyone into Japanese art might have seen the gagō-in stamp appearing on artwork as an official artist’s signiture. It’s amazing how much history and information these vital stamps convey with a press of ink.
When Hanko get mecha
Thankfully, some skilled hanko craftspeople are out there taking the edge off the formal functionality with designs which are not suitable for representing any reputable company or sincere salaryman.
There’s plenty of hanko featuring cats, dogs, rabbits and other kawaii motifs to be stamped alongside your name. A few more bizarre hanko even feature dinosaurs and a Buddha with laser eyes, so you’re only limited by how seriously you want to be taken when going through forms.
Bandai, the company behind the hugely successful Gundam franchise (who also have a real robot coming to life) have released a limited series of hanko featuring major characters from the show like Char Aznable and Amuro Ray.
If you’re trying to make it in the world of business, don’t settle for less. Make the right decision and include a giant robot with every signature you make.
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