Culture · Culture Shock · Information · Living in Japan

Your Japanese Fingerprint

So, a few entries ago I mentioned something called a hanko while I was ranting about my stupid tax situation. One of my loyal readers (read dad) asked if I could explain more about these mysterious objects, so that is just what I will do today.
The first evidence of writing in Japan was from a hanko dating from AD 57, made of solid gold and belonging to the Emperor. At first, only the Emperor and his most trusted vassals held hanko, as they were a symbol of the Emperor’s authority. Noble people began using their own personal hanko after 750, and samurai began using them sometime in the Middle Ages. Samurai were permitted exclusive use of red ink. After modernization began in 1870, hanko finally came into general use throughout Japanese society. It is kind of fun that I hold such a vital part of Japanese history in my purse.
a shelf of hanko found at a local hanko store
Hankos are essentially a stamp with your (last) name on it. However, in Japan these guys are used in lieu of signatures in personal documents, office paperwork, contracts, art, or any item requiring acknowledgment or authorship. The size is the attribute most strongly governed by social custom. It is usually the size of an American penny or smaller. A male’s is usually slightly larger than a female’s, and a junior employee’s is always smaller than his bosses’ and his senior co-workers’, in keeping with Japan’s strong sexism and office senpai social hierarchy. To violate this custom would be roughly equivalent to a Western company’s junior employees parking in a senior employee’s reserved parking spot. It is often round or oval, but square ones are not uncommon, and rectangular ones are not unheard-of. Plastic ones in popular Japanese names can be found in stationery stores for less than US$.
The following pictures are my hanko and it’s case. The case I bought at a 100 yen store and the hanko I received on my first day of work. Notice that cute little red circle? Yes, even the cases come with ink so you can hanko to your life’s desire everywhere you go!
For matters higher in the beaurocratic scheme of things, such as purchasing and registering a car, you are expected to have your hanko registered at your nearest ward office (city hall). They’ll make an impression of your stamp for filing, and you’ll receive an official registration certificate, called an Inkan Shomeisho. Registration costs approximately ¥650, and about ¥350 for each copy of the registration certificate. If there are any do’s and don’ts to pay attention to when making your hanko, its not recommended to include letters such as PhD after your name on your seal. In Japan, this display is perceived as a sign of insecurity (as a foreigner doing this, it would be excused as ignorance). The belief is, qualified and accomplished people, do not need to flaunt their achievements, it is the role of other people to make this judgment. Silly Americans.
So, just how important are these guys? Well, I have a story from my friend Kevin who is working as an ALT in a different area in Saitama than me. When he first arrived in Japan, what he wanted to get first was a cellphone so he could communicate with friends and work. When he went to a shop to buy a phone, they asked him if he had a hanko to sign the phone’s contract. Of course, he did not have a hanko, and instead offered his signature in its place. The workers were very concerned because just his signature would not do (silly Americans and their ways). They instead asked Kevin if it would be ok for him to put his finger in some red ink. Confused but really wanting his phone, he said yes and used his fingerprint to make his phone contract official. Maybe Kevin could have signed in his own blood? Another friend of mine did not have a hanko, so they went to a 100 yen store and bought a random hanko with a stereotypical last name, like Tanaka, and used that.
Yes, you just read that last line correctly. Houston, we have a problem. Since this method is ancient, recent years have shown more and more cases of identity theft solely by use of a hanko. For example, I was going to be getting a delivery during the day of some books I ordered from Amazon JAPAN, but I would be at work when the books would be delivered. Oh no! I would not be able to hanko for my books! So, what I did was I left my hanko with my boyfriend and when the package was delivered he hanko-ed for me and I got my books. Yeah, Japan is interesting like that. This is why recently when one has to sign really important documents or something that involves a lot of money, many places also ask to see ID to verify that you are indeed the owner of said hanko.
Here is how my hanko stamps. It reads “フリックス(Furikkusu)” which is how you would say my last name in Japanese.
These guys are used for everything. Every time I have to “sign” an important document, I must use my hanko. If I make a mistake on an important document, I must hanko over the mistake as proof that I was the one who corrected the mistake. Packages delivered to my apartment also get the hanko. Even food deliveries from Pizza Hut, and this happened only once so I think the delivery boy was just teasing a foreigner, had to be hanko-ed before I could receive my pizza. Sometimes, I have to sign and use my hanko on really important documents at my office.


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