Japan has used seals for the past 2000 years. They are called “Inkan” (印鑑) or “Hanko” (判子) but for the sake of simplicity, we’ll stick with the common one: Hanko.
Hanko exist in many forms and are used every day. From the officially registered one (実印) to the one used at the bank (銀行印), or the one to attest receipt of packages and such (認印).
You need to stamp most documents for them to be considered legally valid. This wasn’t a problem until now but Covid-19 brought to light how why it’s time to abolish this practice.
At the end of the 19th century, there was a discussion about how to prove one’s identity on documents. There were 3 options:
- Allowing both seals and signatures
- Using seals only
- Using signatures only.
The second option was approved by law, in 1900, for 6 reasons:
- Habit — Common usage
- Reading and writing problems
- Theft risk
- Forgery risk
Signatures were also part of the tradition and used daily, so the emphasis was put on the remaining 4 reasons.
Indeed, at the time, many people couldn’t read or write. Having a Hanko to press simplified the process. It also allowed everybody to authenticate any document. There were also a lot of papers to certify and pressing a seal was more convenient.
Defenders of this choice stated that “since the seal is to be kept carefully, there is no risk of theft”. As for the risk of forgery, it was possible to verify Hanko, while it wasn’t possible for signatures.
Those were all very understandable reasons in 1900, but they don’t apply to today’s context.
Covid-19 and Hanko
Today, almost any document sent to a client or supplier in Japan needs to be stamped. For traditional companies, even internal documents need stamps from many people.
The government declared the State of Emergency on April 7th. They asked everybody to work from home then. However, many employees still have to go to their office to put a seal on a piece of paper. Overall, trains are less packed than usual but not much has changed around the rush hour.
I will have to go to my office tomorrow, April 30th, because I have to stamp documents.
The government set up a website to follow the daily number of people in busy areas: https://corona.go.jp/. The evolution would be shocking in any other context but doesn’t seem enough now. Especially in comparison to most of the rest of the world right now.
This screenshot shows the reduction of people in some of the most important areas around stations in the Great Tokyo Area: Shinjuku, Shibuya, Yokohama, and Kawasaki. Each column shows (from top to bottom):
- The difference compared to the previous day
- The difference compared to before the declaration of the State of Emergency
- The difference before the virus started spreading
This isn’t enough to stop the spread and the “Hanko culture” is one of the main causes. Many people are thus stuck and need to go to their office.
“Just to complete my work, how many thousands of times — no, hundreds of thousands of times — have I had to press my hanko on papers?”
Why not Hanko?
Seals were used around the world throughout the past centuries. Yet, most countries have changed this tradition to adapt to a new world. Korea, which also relied on seals, started getting rid of them in 2009. You can now use a seal or a signature (even electronic) to authenticate a document.
Japan is, once again, left behind. The 6 reasons given 120 years ago don’t apply well anymore.
Tradition and habits are no reason not to change. The literacy rate has been at 99% since at least 1990. The current situation demonstrates why it isn’t convenient to keep using seals. As for the two risks, it would now be easy to manufacture a replica of a seal.
The first coronavirus case was found on January 16th. 3 months later, the government is finally reconsidering this tradition. Let’s hope they go forward with it.
There isn’t any reason to be using Hanko in today’s world. We can handle most documents online and by using scans. Instead, Japan is pressing seals and sending faxes.
There isn’t any reason to be using Hanko in today’s world. Most documents are handled online directly and can be scanned. Instead, Japan is pressing seals and sending faxes.
Covid-19 is forcing the world to rethink and adapt their ways of living. Japan needs to act, too.
After all, didn’t the government finally put in place a law that makes sense for smoking? Why not do the same with Hanko and faxes?