Not Just from the Orient: A Brief History of Hanko

In our modern day, the word “stamp” usually conjures up a few different images: something you paste on the corner of a letter you’re about to send, a cutesy rubber stamp with a most-likely Japanese cartoon character on it, or perhaps less likely, a slab of stone with squiggly, cryptic characters on it accompanied by a layer of ink.

For westerners, the usage of stamps, rubber or otherwise is certainly not commonplace, with such symbols usually reserved for important and official use. Most people in the west can likely go about their entire lives without ever owning or having to use one. Uncommon as stamps may be in the western world today, the existence of stamps can in fact be traced back to the dawn of human civilisation itself.

Ancient Stamps

Ancient Mesopotamians made cylinder seals that could roll their impression onto clay, while Ancient Egyptians owned signet rings. Similar artefacts have been found in other locations across Europe and the Middle East, from Ancient Greece to Rome. As history progressed, new types of seals would emerge, such as the iconic red wax seals from Medieval Europe, used by everyone in the coming ages from the church to the resident bourgeois.

On the Asian continent, stamps (called Inzhang) in Chinese, were being used in the Qin dynasty as a form of written identification. From there, the use of stamps spread to rest of East Asia, and even Southeast Asia. Even more interesting is that in Asia, stamps remained for the most part, unchanged. The vermilion ink used from the very beginning in Ancient China is still being used today. Even the font in which a person’s name is carved could be the very same font that would have been used in the Qin dynasty.

Despite the usage of stamps being commonplace in the olden days, modern society has since adapted to more simpler forms of identification, with Asian countries also adopting the quick and easy western signature with a pen on paper. That is not to say that stamps have become obsolete. Today, stamps are still actively used for many official certification purposes in countries like China, Korea, and Taiwan. In fact, it is not uncommon for families and companies to have their own unique stamp that is used in various situations and on official documents.

A contemporary Chinese seal carved by Li Lanqing

Japanese Hanko

In Japan, the stamp or hanko (はんこ) is far from being obsolete. Contrary to Japan’s neighbouring countries, the hanko goes beyond the more formal purposes and has retained its hold on modern society so much so, that it would be impossible to reside in Japan without first having your own personal hanko. A stamp is required in situations ranging from official, special occasions like getting married or buying a house, to ordinary, every-day situations such as opening a bank account or receiving a package.

Japan’s Oldest Hanko



How the hanko became such a necessity in modern day Japan is unclear and likely due to a wide variety of factors. What is known, is that the oldest hanko in Japan belonged to a small ruler in northern Kyushu. Made of gold with a snake carved to coil around itself as the stamp’s handle, the hanko was supposedly a gift from the Emperor Guangwu of China’s Han dynasty. From then on, government officials have been using hanko on official documents from as early as the 8th century. Further stories suggest that hanko has been used by high ranking officials and samurai for most of Japan’s recorded history and by the time Edo period came around, they had become ubiquitous, being widely used by merchants and farmers. In the Meiji era, legislation was passed requiring hanko to be registered, thus cementing hanko’s place in Japanese society.

Your Hanko and You

Perhaps one of the factors of hanko’s popularity is that it can be seen as an expression of oneself. After all, a hanko is a person’s name embodied in a physical item. With many stamps in Japan being made from precious materials like buffalo horn, titanium, and even crystals, not only do they carry your name, they are built to last a lifetime. For the younger demographic, hanko also come in beautiful, colourful designs, and some may even have special characters printed on them, making them something anyone would like to pull out at every opportunity.

So, whether you’re choosing a hanko to accompany you for the rest of your life, or something pretty to look at, one fact remains constant – you are choosing a timeless piece of history. The art of hanko making has been perfected for centuries upon centuries, and in an ever-changing world where everything is new, sometimes old tradition can be a breath of fresh air.


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