Hanko: Japanese Personal Seals

Giulio Coral

Handwritten signature? Too mainstream.

In Japan, the common way to acknowledge the acceptance of a contract, or the authorship of an artwork, or whatever, is to make a nice red mark on it with your personalized seal (hanko or inkan). It might seem not the safest way to certify your identity, but keep in mind that Japanese are not accustomed to frauds and the sort, and in any case there are other steps to go through other than stamping while, for example, transferring the property of a car.

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A very beautiful hanko with its case
A very beautiful hanko with its case | Photo by Scott Ashkenaz used under CC

Why should I get a hanko?

As a new foreigner living in Japan, you’ll soon encounter opportunities to use a seal. Quite frequently you’ll have to sign in a clearly insufficient 12mm circle, and maybe be told to write again an entire document because you went out of the borders. Many banks will not allow you to get even a cash-card without one. On the other hand, as a tourist you’ll almost certainly not need a hanko, but why not get one as a souvenir? It’s a nice piece of Japanese culture!

An adult person generally has 3 different seals:

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identity seal (jitsu-in): the most important one, used for legally relevant matters. The name on it must match the one on your resident card. People spends at least 5,000 yen on it (often much more), it’s hand made and usually lasts lifelong. By law, it must be squared and 13 to 25 mm large.

bank seal (ginkou-in): necessary in most banks to open an account. Usually smaller (maximum 15 mm), and not as fancy as the identity seal. Also, there’s no requirement about what to write on it, so feel free to use alphabet, katakana, a kanji you like or a smiling cat. Nobody is supposed to complain about that.

general seal (mitome-in): the one you would use when you receive some package, sign a personal letter and so on. Even smaller than the previous one, it usually consists of just one or two symbols.

Where should I get a hanko?

There’s not much we can say about the identity seal in terms of where to get one—they are typically handmade in relatively small shops, meaning that it’s hard to make a proper comparison. Keep an eye our for shops in your neighborhood (they should be easy to identify, there are usually hanko displays in the window). What we can say is that you’ll only really need one if you plan on staying (very) long term. And don’t buy one from online “foreigners-oriented” stores—higher prices, lower quality.

Standardized hanko in a shop
Standardized hanko in a shop | Photo by Angie Harms used under CC

In most 100 yen shops you will find a huge assortment of standardized hanko, with common Japanese names, or a single hiragana/katakana/kanji symbol. In this last case, if you want one with a nice meaning (like people who get tattoos with “peace”, “dragon” or other fancy words in kanji) you can consult Google Translate for support, or even better a Japanese-speaking friend, since the staff is unlikely to be able to help you. Keep in mind that these hanko are quite small and not unique, so they will not be accepted for official purposes (as jitsu-in or ginkou-in), but only as general seals (mitome-in). And in any case, I assume you wouldn’t like to have the “signature” you use at your bank sold to everyone for 100 yen.

Some of the hanko you can choose at Don Quijote, the semi-transparent one is my favorite
Some of the hanko you can choose at Don Quijote, the semi-transparent one is my favorite | Photo by Giulio Coral used under CC

So, what if you really need an official seal, but you are not willing to waste tons of money on it? Well, Don Quijote will of course save you, with it’s miraculous hanko-box, a machine that will engrave your seal in a few minutes. Generally located around cashiers, ask for it if you can’t see it. I overall found out that it’s more frequent to find it at regular stores, those you can find inside major cities, than in “Mega-Don Quijote” in suburbs and countryside (although the name would suggest the opposite). The interface is in Japanese, but it’s really easy and intuitive to use it (I mean, don’t stress about the strange kanji you see, green button means proceed, red means back). You can select, move, resize and change the font of whatever you want to write, mixing kanji, katakana, alphabet and drawings as you want. The touchscreen is not perfect, but with a bit of patience you can get really great results. The price starts from 500 yen, and goes up with better quality materials and larger size. Ok, it’s a lot more than the 100 yen ones, but the better quality and customization make these hanko a lot more useful, and great as souvenirs too!

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