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Japanese Hanko (Japanese personal name stamp)

In Japan, people do not sign; They use stamps. They are called Han or Hanko, and every individual in Japan has one.

Hanko are made of wood, stone, or horn, engraved with the name of an individual, office, or institution and used instead of a signature in official transactions.

Most times when a person signs an official Japanese document in Japan, they don’t use a written signature at all, they use a personal name stamp called a hanko.

The Japanese also regard Hanko as a significant part of their culture for it has been a custom as far back as 57 AD.

How is a hanko used?

Seals are used in the same way that signatures (and signing your initials) are used in western documents:

  • they are placed besides one’s printed name
  • they are played over corrections, deletions, corrections, and mistakes
  • they are placed in their own designated area (instead of a dotted line, a dotted circle)
  • they are placed so that the impression overlaps two or more pages (to prove which pages go together and to prove that no pages are missing)

An impression made by a seal is not considered to be valid if it is a photocopy, a FAX, or any other sort of digital or analog copy.

Security of the seal

The security of the seal is similar to a written signature in that it’s hard for an amateur to perfectly copy.

Like a written signature, though, sometimes an amateur can sometimes do a good enough job mimicking the impression that only an expert who is trained in spotting counterfeits can tell the difference between a false copy and the real impression.

Almost every handmade seal is unique

Like snowflakes, no two hanko are identical….

A handmade seal has the characters engraved by a craftsman using tools (although some parts of the engraving process are automated and use machine-based tools these days). This makes it unlikely that two seals will be perfectly alike, even if they’re the same name and engraved by the same person.

Although to the untrained eye, two seals may appear to be identical, they shouldn’t be. Even if the difference is a spacing or a length of a stroke that differs by a millimetre or less.

This is no different if the design or number of characters is simple or complex.

This is why when someone loses their seal and has a new one made, they must re-register the new seal and report the old one as lost, destroyed, or stolen. The seal may look almost identical to the old one and have the same name, style, spacing and shape, but there will be minute differences that only a trained eye (perhaps assisted with a magnifying glass) will be able to spot.

Size of the seal

Almost all seals for people in Japan are circular and 60mm in length with a maximum diameter of less than 2cm (more typically 1.5cm or less). Notable exceptions are the seals for public officials and heads of state: the Prime Minister of Japan and the Emperor’s seal are two famous examples, as these seals are often found on public documents (such as the Constitution of Japan) and laws.

The registered seals for corporations tend to be bigger and often square compared to seals for individuals. The bigger and older and more famous the company, the larger the seal.

Corporate seals will also tend to be more complex with the layout of the characters and may have characters going around the perimeter, designs and logos, etc.

Men’s vs. Women’s Sizes

Like there is feminine fashion and masculine fashion, there are sizes of seals that are considered feminine and sizes that are considered to be more masculine. But like the fashion world, these rules are not set in stone. A woman can also have and use a seal that would be considered to be a more “masculine” size — and vice versa.

Still, traditionally Japanese women have preferred seals which are smaller in diameter than men’s.

The different types of Hanko

Ginkōin (銀行印) Used in banking, opening an account, withdrawing money.

Jitsuin (実印) Used in serious contractual matters like mortgages, buying cars.

Mitomein (認印) Means to mark acknowledgement. This is the one used most commonly, signing documents, signing for a parcel, signing up to a gym.

Sanmonban (三文判) A cheap ready-made alternative to Mitomein.