Japan is often considered the zenith of technologically advanced nations, but most of Japan’s government and companies rely on plain old pen and paper and in-person handling. Thus, if you live in or operate in Japan, you may quickly recognize the importance of the hanko (seal).
The hanko is a small stamp with a personal seal used for signing documents and contracts. Hanko are also referred to interchangeably as inkan, which is the mark left on the page. For foreigners, the importance of having a hanko is debatable. You might live here for years without ever being asked for your seal and will instead sign with your signature
The registered seal carries significant weight—both legally and culturally—and many individuals can be persistent in its use.
As of 2021, the government of Japan has been attempting to discourage the use of seals, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when company employees have been encouraged to work remotely—thus requiring them to commute to the office to affix seals to any official documents. The government has since pledged to abolish the hanko requirement for 99 percent of 14,700 procedures.
Still, the hanko has been a part of Japanese culture for centuries and some organizations still use it, so don’t pass on owning one just yet. With that in mind, here is a quick overview of the hanko and inkan and its use in Japan.
Types of seals
There is more than one type of hanko, official and non-official. However, as a foreigner, you may not be expected to have or need one—for example, if you are signing for a foreigner-friendly apartment on GaijinPot Apartments or a job application on Gaijinpot Jobs.
- Jitsuin (実印): This is your official seal registered with the authorities at city hall or your local ward office. It comes with an official certificate showing the registered seal (inkan shomeisho) as proof of registration. This seal may be necessary when you purchase big-ticket items such as real estate or a car, make a notarial document, establish a company or take out a loan. For Japanese, the registered seal carries significant weight—both legally and culturally—and many individuals can be persistent in its use.
- Mitomein (認印): This is the unregistered seal; thus, it does not carry the same weight as the jitsuin stamp. Your mitomein is usually attached to less formal situations or to acknowledge the contents of a document.
- Ginkōin (銀行印): This is the seal used for bank affairs. A bank may ask for your hanko to open an account and will keep the seal on record. You would then need to bring it for withdrawing large sums of money or for closing the account.
- Sanmonban (三文判): This is the cheap, ready-made hanko you see sold at ¥100 stores. It is essentially a mitomein.
Similarly, all businesses have a kaisha jitsuin (会社実印) or registered company seal. Like the registered personal seal, this is registered with the authorities, in this case with the houmukyoku (legal affairs bureau).
The registered seal is used to execute contracts and on formal documents submitted to government offices. Most companies also create a banking seal called a kaisha kinkoin (会社銀行印) for the same reason and use as the personal banking seal.
Finally, companies will also typically have a seal for purchases called a kaisha mitomein (角印), or kakuin for short. This seal is often attached to invoices and receipts to make things look official but has no legal weight.
Corrections and initials
For most people, to make corrections to documents, we cross out the incorrect information, write in the correct information and initial. However, people in Japan will use a seal called a teisei-in to acknowledge the correction made, instead of initials.
On the subject of corrections, when attaching seals to documents such as contracts, it’s common to be asked to stamp with the same seal again in the page margin. This is called a sute-in. It is done so that a document that has already been stamped can have corrections made without asking for a teisei-in.
When attaching a seal to a document several pages in length, the parties will attach a seal—called the kei-in—across the crease portion between the pages to demonstrate that it is one document even if all the pages become separated.
When multiple pages have been bound together with binding tape, it is customary to stamp across the cover page (or back cover page) and the binding tape. The Western equivalent to this would be to initial all pages of the document.
Often confused with the kei-in is the wari-in, which is used when there are several copies of the same document—one copy of each to be kept by involved parties. The pages are placed on top of each other and the seal appears on all of them to show they belong to the same document.
When there is one document that is several pages in length, a kei-in is attached. If two or more sets are placed on top of each other and stamped, a wari-in is attached.
Getting a hanko
Now that you know what a hanko is and how it works, all you need is your own. Japanese people will typically use their full name, but just your last name will suffice since space is limited.
You can purchase a hanko at a hankoya (hanko shop), but you probably won’t find your name. In that case, you’ll want to have one made custom online. While most online shops do business in Japanese only, there are a few English shops available:
Online English hanko shops:
The simplified rules for making your hanko:
- Your full name in English or katakana
- A combination of your name and initials (English only)
- A registered Japanese alias
- The diameter of the hanko must be between 8 and 25 millimeters
For registering your hanko, you’ll need:
- Your passport
- Resident card
- Your hanko
- Filled hanko registration form (found at the ward office)
What do you think? Is it worth getting a hanko today? Is there anything we missed? let us know in the comments!