Telework Made Impossible by Traditional Japanese Seal System

The use of traditional seals on documents in Japan forces workers to travel to offices when they should be working from home

traditional seal
Traditional Japanese signature stamps – hanko

The necessity in Japan of using traditional seals, or personal signature stamps, on documents is causing unresolvable issues for workers who are trying to stay home under the state of emergency which has been declared to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Reluctance to give up traditional seal

Many Japanese companies still rely heavily on paper filing systems which require employees to travel to the office to stamp their unique seal onto documents.

The seals they use are small traditional stamps known as hanko or inkan. The stamps date back centuries but they’re still widely used on important documents across the country to this day.

Hanko are usually cylindrical in shape with a surface about the size of a fingernail. They are typically used with red ink to sign contracts, approve proposals and confirm who has viewed the documents.

Most adults in Japan have a personal seal carved with their name in Chinese characters. This stamp can then used instead of a signature to authenticate documents in various situations in their lives, such as opening a bank account or receiving registered mail.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has advised people to reduce their social contact by 70 to 80 per cent to try to limit the spread of the virus

Some organisations adapt to modern practices, but others are slow

Some of the larger companies, including major banks, have moved away from using hanko and paper documents. However, in most smaller firms, signature stamps and some other dated practices remain popular, like the use of fax machines and the preference for paper rather than digital documents

A recent survey conducted by the Japan Association for Chief Financial Officers (JACFO) revealed that 40 per cent of companies that adopted teleworking said that their employees found it impossible to stay away from their offices. The main reason given was that they were required to stamp paper documents with their personal signature stamp.

“There is a conservative culture where companies don’t want to change how they work,” said Hiroshi Yaguchi, executive director of JACFO.

While a number of companies have started digitising their documents and holding web conferences, there needs to be more following in their footsteps. It’s now more important than ever for companies to make it possible for employees to work remotely from home.

State of emergency to reduce social contact

Last week the government declared a state of emergency in seven regions but has since extended it nationwide. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has advised people to reduce their social contact by 70 to 80 per cent to try to limit the spread of the virus.

While the restrictions fall short of a complete lockdown, medical experts have warned that we could see an explosive spike in infections across the country. Already Japan has recorded over 9,000 cases and 197 deaths, including those from the Diamond Princess cruise liner.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the number of commuters travelling on Tokyo’s busy transport system has dropped significantly. But, teleworking is currently not a workable option for some employees who must continue to make the journey from home to their workplace.

Have you been teleworking throughout the pandemic? Share your experience with us in the comments section.

"Otsumami" - a bite size snack:

There comes a time when we should let go of tradition and move forward with more practical, and safer, systems.

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