Manufacturers of Hanko Seals are Targeting Foreigners

As Japan is trying to shift away from personal seals, foreigners are growing more interested in them

A hand placing a stamp against a document

If you have never heard of hanko, then let us briefly introduce it to you. Hanko is a personal seal used in Japan in many situations similar to a signature in other countires. Usually, it is made of a wooden block and leaves a bright red print stating its owner’s name. Those, who already know what hanko is, are probably aware of how crucial it is to have at least one when living in Japan. Business people will need several different types.

Hanko’s History and Application

Borrowed from China during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), hanko has grown so deep into Japanese culture that even today there is barely any legal procedure that can be concluded without it. Although the idea of stamping documents to verify them or to close the deal is nothing new, this bureaucratic practice is losing its ground in many countries thanks to the revolution in Fintech. Many startups and enterprises that allow to go paperless by offering cloud solutions and electronic verification services are gaining popularity as they help cut processing times and simplify the procedures.

Hanko prices range from JPY 100 to as much as JPY 20 000.

However, Japan has joined the movement rather late and even today hanko and its many variations are necessary for daily and business operations. From opening a bank account to buying property, one will have to press hanko, perhaps even several times during one transaction. These stamps have a long tradition, and hanko-making industry is worth JPY 165 billion per year: hanko prices range from JPY 100 for cheap-wood-and-rubber items to as much as JPY 20 000 for custom made exclusive models made of expensive materials.

Traditions versus Innovations

However, Fintech revolution was bound to reach Japan as well. Some key banks in the country are transferring to electronic systems that are not requiring stamps. These are, for example, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc. and Resona Holdings Inc. They want to empower customers to do more operations by themselves from their devices without spending time on bank visits and paperwork. Slowly but steadily banking industry is moving online allowing people to open accounts without a hanko or passbooks. Mitsubishi UFG plans to renew about 100 of its outlets and replace traditional counters with tablets and video booths by 2024. At the same time, it will close nearly half of the traditional branches.

Nevertheless, despite many advantages that electronic banking brings, it seems that Japan is not willing to let go of the traditional seals. Prime Minister Abe and his cabinet are trying to promote the online-availability of governmental services. Hiroshi Miyauchi of Daini Tokyo Bar Association said that “more than 90 percent of the documents that need to be submitted to the government, including real estate registration applications and tax documents, can be done online”. And yet it took Mitsubishi UFG about two years to make electronic tax processing available in 450 local governments. Despite high forgery risks, personal stamps are not going to disappear any time soon.

Targeting New Markets

Hanko is so deeply rooted in the culture of Japan and so tightly associated with the country, that it became one of the most popular souvenirs, even though there is virtually no other place to use is but in Japan. Still, it is a small and easy-to-carry souvenir to delight relatives and friends. Some companies caught the wave and started targeting foreigners as their main customers.

But first, they had a problem to solve. Non-Japanese names are usually written in one of the Japanese alphabets. Unfortunately, these inscriptions are bulky making hanko look way less attractive than their Japanese counterparts. Hankoya took on the mission to solve the issue by transcribing foreign names into Japanese characters that replicate the name’s pronunciation.

It is a handy solution for people who are going to stay in Japan long enough to need a personal steal. For example, trainees and workers coming under special visas. The company can produce a personalized hanko before one’s arrival to smoothen the integration process once a client enters the county. And for those who are leaving the country, it is an opportunity to bring a one-of-a-kind item with them back home.

Today’s “otsumami” – a bite size snack:

From opening a bank account to buying property – in Japan, one will have to use hanko multiple times.

What do you think?

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