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Centuries-old hanko heritage at crossroads

  • NEW YORK TIMES / 2019
                                Stamping documents with hanko, an official seal — which has the same legal function as a signature — has forced workers in Japan to travel to offices during the pandemic.

    NEW YORK TIMES / 2019

    Stamping documents with hanko, an official seal — which has the same legal function as a signature — has forced workers in Japan to travel to offices during the pandemic.

TOKYO >> Hanko — personal stamps used in Japan for official business — has been the focus of much attention amid the move toward teleworking in response to the coronavirus. The stamps, also referred to as seals, serve the same function as signatures on legal and binding documents.

Hanko often is cited as an obstacle to working remotely; indeed, examples abound of employees traveling to their offices for the sole purpose of stamping documents.

At an April meeting of the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for a review of the hanko verification system. In a survey conducted in April, nearly 30% of 1,000 respondents cited the signing of documents and the use of hanko as challenges to teleworking.

It seems the necessity of hanko may be coming to an end.

The use of seals is said to date back to ancient Mesopotamia, 6,000 years ago, said Masao Kume, a professor at the Osaka University of Arts. The practice later spread to Europe and then, via the Silk Road and other routes to China and Korea, to Japan.

The history of seals in Japan can be traced back 2,000 years to the King of Na’s gold seal that was bestowed by Emperor Guangwu of Han in 57 A.D.

“The seal was a symbol of the Chinese emperor’s approval of the king’s authority under China’s tributary system,” Kume said.

The custom of stamping seals to vouch for the authenticity of a document was established in the Asuka and Nara periods (592-784), when rule shifted from an oral-based administration to a clerical one. The enactment of the Taiho Code in 701, which stipulated the use of official seals, is believed to be the official establishment of hanko in Japan.

The practice was replaced with stylized signatures then reemerged in the late 15th and 16th centuries, when the seal of feudal lord Oda Nobunaga was used widely.

In the Edo period (1603-1867), the use of seals spread among commoners, giving birth to a system that would become the framework of modern society.

The Meiji (1868-1912) government regulated the use of hanko through laws and established a seal registration system.

But today, with technologies such as 3D printing making it easy for seals to be forged, hanko no longer provides a guarantee of verification, said Masahiko Shoji, a professor at Musashi University.

Does this signal the end of hanko culture?

Shoji proposed using hanko “from a cultural perspective on such documents as certificates,” but not as an official guarantee.

But Kume warned, “Once it is lost, it may never return.”

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