Hanko (判子), also called Inkan (印鑑) are Japanese name seals. Seals have a long history in Japan and other Asian countries like Korea and China, and are a deeply engrained aspect of Japanese culture that is ubiquitous in daily life in Japan.
Unlike rubber stamps, they are carved from a hard material, they are either round or square and bear the name of the individual or organization using it. Most Japanese adults have between one and three hanko at a time for personal use, and around five throughout their lifetime on average.
There are a few different kind of hanko for personal use, the major difference is what you use them for and whether they’re registered with a bank or the local government. The standard hanko, called mitome-in, is unregistered, and used for day-to-day purposes. Click here for more information about hanko for personal use.
Artists also make use of hanko, often referred to as a “chop” in English (rakkan-in in Japanese). These are usually square and often have the artist’s name or alias written in ateji (kanji characters chosen for their good meaning and approximated pronunciation). Click here for more information on the other kind of hanko there are.
There are also hanko used for businesses, non-profits and other legal entities. These are usually larger and carry the name of the company, and there are round and square variations used for different purposes. All hanko for legal entities are registered. Click here for more information on hanko for businesses legal entities (link).
Hanko are dipped in vermillion ink and stamped onto forms, documents, and contracts, similar to how signatures are used in western countries. Hanko can be used in a variety of situations, and there are different kind of hanko appropriate for different scenarios. Office workers, teachers and students may use stamps for record-keeping and other daily tasks.
Click here for an article on how to make a good seal impression with your hanko.
In a word, tradition. The use of seals has deep roots in asian cultures and stretches back over a thousand years in Japan. Hanko have become the expected means for people to make their mark to accept or recognize documents, so much so that there often isn’t a signature line at all; just a small circle waiting for your seal.
Also in some cases it is more convenient to stamp than sign; contracts may require you to stamp on every page to indicate you read and accept the terms, which can be tiring if you only have a pen. In the office environment, hanko really get a workout! You can get through a mountain of paperwork much more quickly with a hanko than by hastily signing every sheet, and each impression will look the same, bearing your name legibly.
In Japan, there’s a sense that a seal is much more official looking and serious than a signature, so it is usually the preferred method of authorizing or accepting documents.
A hard seal will create the same impression every time it’s used, which means that one impression can be accurately compared to another to verify its authenticity. Rubber stamps, however convenient, are soft and the resulting impressions may vary slightly, making it impossible to verify. For this reason, rubber stamps cannot be registered to use as ginko-in or jitsu-in. Some people do use a self-inking rubber stamp for casual situations, but anything serious requires a hanko carved from hard material.
Of course! Even if you don’t have a legal requirement, we’d recommend hanko and “seal culture” to anyone!
According to a law from 1899, foreigners should be allowed to use their signature in lieu of a personal seal for official government documents, but private institutions may have their own policies that require hanko. So in some cases, you may be able to get away with just your signature, but having a hanko will undoubtedly help make your life smoother in Japan. Some large banks may accept a signature alone to open an account, but smaller banks may still require a seal. In short, not having a hanko can limit your options and cause you frustration.
Not to mention, they’re just plain cool!
For unregistered hanko, there are no restrictions on what it can say, but people usually use their first or last name in alphabet, katakana, or kanji. For registered hanko, depending on which bank or government office you register with there may be different restrictions on what combination of characters you can use, but generally it should be your full or last name as it appears on your foreign resident card, or a registered alias (tsūshō/通称). If your full name is too long to include in its entirety, it may be possible to abbreviate it by using an initial (called kashiramoji/頭文字).
When ordering your hanko, if the name you enter is too long to carve, we will contact you to find a suitable solution.
There are several ways to write your name for your hanko. Just remember that if you intend to register your hanko there may be restrictions on how you can write your name.
Alphabet refers to the native spelling of a western name in latin characters, i.e. how your name is written in your passport (e.g., John Smith). If you want to use latin characters, we recommend using the native spelling.
Romaji uses latin characters to indicate the pronunciation of Japanese names and words (e.g., Jon Sumisu). We don’t recommend using Romaji for your hanko.
Hiragana is a phonetic writing system, and “spells out” the pronunciation of native Japanese names and words. Unless your legal name is in Japanese, we don’t recommend using this on a hanko.
Katakana serves the same function as hiragana (and describes the same sounds), but is used for foreign names and loan-words. Due to limitations of the sounds available in Japanese, sometimes there are multiple ways to transcribe a western name in katakana. It’s a good idea to consult a native speaker and hear them pronounce the options so you can pick the one that sounds best. This is the generally recommended writing system for hanko for non-Japanese individuals
Kanji originally came from Chinese characters during the Qin dynasty, carry meaning. Individual characters may have several different pronunciations, such that even native Japanese may not know exactly how to read a name aloud. Most, but not all Japanese names are written in kanji. Foreigners who take a native Japanese nickname as their alias may register it as tsūshō, in which case they could register it as their bank seal. If you are trying to write your name using kanji characters, it is called ateji.
Ateji is an arrangement of kanji characters to transliterate a non-Japanese name. Characters are chosen not just for their sound, but also for their meaning. There are lists of common ateji names and tools for choosing the characters that suit you, but we recommend asking a native Japanese person for their opinion when choosing the ateji for your name. If you want to use kanji/ateji characters for your hanko, select the “Consult” option and we’ll help you pick the best characters to capture your spirit.
Your unregistered seal can be anything. You can write your name in alphabet, or transcribe your first or last or full name into katakana, or transliterate them into ateji, or choose a native Japanese name in hiragana or kanji, or any combination therein if you’d like, as long as it fits in the space available.
Registered hanko must match your legal name as written on your foreign registration card or registered alias. So unless you have registered your kanji or ateji nickname as an official alias, or have naturalized and taken a Japanese name, you will need to use the alphabet or katakana spelling.
If you have any questions about which characters to choose for your seal, just choose the “Consult” option when ordering.
It’s up to you! Our data shows that Japanese customers prefer larger hanko for more official uses, and smaller hanko for their mitome-in. We also found that men generally go for slightly larger hanko, while smaller seals were preferred by women.
However, the length of your name may also play a role in how large your hanko should be. Small hanko can only handle a few kanji characters, while larger hanko can fit more. Kanji are more complicated than katakana or latin characters, so you can’t fit as many in the same space. If you have a long name and you don’t wish to abbreviate it, you might need to pick a larger hanko to fit it.
For ginko-in, the registration process varies from bank to bank, but generally when you open an account they will ask for you to register your hanko. You’ll make an impression on a document that they scan, and that impression will be used for comparison against future impressions.
For jitsu-in, you must go to your local government office such as the city office (shiyakusho/市役所) or ward office (kuyakusho/区役所) with state-issued ID. The office will register your seal to you and only you, and issue a proof of registered seal (inkan touroku shoumei-sho/印鑑登録証明書). Check out this site for more information on how to register your jitsu-in, as well as general hanko information.
With modern scanning and mechanical carving technology, it’s easier than before to create a forged hanko. It’s an unlikely scenario, but it’s conceivable that someone could imitate your registered seal with the right technology.
Another problem comes when you lose or damage your registered hanko; you’ll need to inform the bank or government office and register a new replacement seal. Jitsu-in are made to be completely unique.
Treat your registered hanko like you would your computer passwords: protect it and don’t share it with others. Keep your hanko in a safe place, and don’t use the same hanko you’d use to receive a package as the one you use to sign a mortgage. Some people even use different ginko-in for different bank accounts, so if one hanko is compromised, they don’t have to hassle with all their accounts. Just as you wouldn’t type your credit card information into an insecure website, don’t stamp your jitsu-in for someone you don’t trust. That said, it would still take a lot of effort and resources to forge your hanko, and for major transactions the fraudsters would also be required to produce other forms of ID and the proof of registration. In other words, it would take a considerable criminal enterprise to pull this off.
To do dealings at the bank (not just the ATM), you generally need your hanko and bank book (通帳, tsūchō). Banks recommend keeping them both safe but separate, so that in case your hanko is lost or stolen, you don’t have to worry about it being used to access your account.
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