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Put your name into Kanji and own a "hanko"

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1998-12-11

In America, a signature is needed on almost any kind of document that needs your approval or verification. The signature becomes official proof, and can also be used as evidence during a legal conflict. Some are fancy, others are simple, and there are also those that are quite illegible. The signature is even recognized internationally - on credit cards, contracts, and on your passport. In Japan however, signing your name to something does not always meet the criteria for legal proof. Instead, Japanese use there trusty "hanko".

The hanko is a simple stamp with the engraving of the bearer's name. It is always used with red ink, and is necessary for any type of contract, bank loan, or other legal document. Without a "hanko" it is impossible to do many things, such as buy a car or even get married.

Japanese have always relied upon the "hanko" since the time when written documents first began. Stamps holding the government seal were used for political matters, and records have shown their existence as early as the seventh century. Many of the early seals were carved into stone, and were very large. Today, the personal "hanko" is relatively small, and can be carried in your pocket.

There are two basic types of "hanko" in Japan. One is the "jitsuin", which you register at the city hall. It becomes your legal seal, and is always made of wood. In more expensive styles, it can be made from the horn of a bull. It was also made from ivory before international laws preventing such practices took affect. The second type is the "mitomein", which is not registered. It is often used at work, in cases where initials would be sufficient on non-official documents. It is not legally binding, and can be made out of cheaper plastic.

Amazingly, like a signature, no two seals are ever alike. The same name can be written in many different styles of kanji, and within those styles there are unlimited variations, which keep each "jitsuin hanko" individually unique. Men usually use their last name, while women will often use their first name, enabling them to keep the same "hanko" even after marriage.

Although foreigners are still often allowed to use their signatures in place of the "hanko", it is becoming increasingly necessary to use an official seal. If you are a foreigner planning on living in Japan for a while, it is probably a good idea to have a "hanko" made. Even if you do not plan on staying in Japan, you may want to have one made as a souvenir of your stay here on Okinawa. A convenient place to do so is inside of the new Jusco shopping mall in Chatan. Located on the second floor, is the "Hankoya san 21" shop, which will even put your name into kanji. You can also have your name written in Japanese hiragana, and katakana, or simply in English script. The price ranges from about 2,500 and up, and usually takes about three days to make. The "hanko" shop has a variety of styles to choose from, and you can also have a "name and address" stamp made for as little as 1,800.

The next time you hear a Japanese friend mention the word "hanko" you will know what they mean, and you might even have one yourself!

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