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The Practice of Using Seals in Japan

by William Lise
(Created March 10, 2007; last updated December 27, 2011)

Comments about seals as used on discovery documents in US litigation are provided in a separate article.

Introduction
Everyday Use of Seals
Unregistered Seals (Mitomein)
Thoughts On Rendering Non-Japanese Names
Bank Account Seals (Ginkouin)
Registered Personal Seals (Jitsuin)
Registered Company Seals (Daihyoushain)
When to Use Which Type of Seal
Certification of Seal Registration (Inkan Shomeisho)
Unlawful Use of a Seal
Square Company Seals
Various Uses of Seal Impressions
Japanese Government Moves to Relax Seal Requirements
Acquiring a Seal
References

Introduction

The use of seals in Japan was adopted from China during Japan's Nara period (710-784 AD, corresponding to the mid-Tang Dynasty in China). Seals have been used as instruments of identification and symbols of authority in China for at least 2500 years. The practice of using seals, however (albeit originally without inscriptions of characters), finds its origins in Mesopotamia at least 3000 years before the Chinese adopted the practice (perhaps by a migration of the seals from cultures to the West of China). Unfortunately for the outsider to this custom, there is very little written about the practice of using seals, and misinformation abounds. We might be posting an article fleshing out the history of seals, focusing on seals in cultures using Chinese characters and including one aspect of seals that is often missed by Westerners, that being that seals themselves and the art of seal carving have, since the Ming Dynasty, become recognized as artforms of their own and "branches" of the field of calligraphy.

Everyday Use of Seals

If you are doing business in Japan, including doing such mundane things as opening a bank account with most banks, you will need to have a seal. For the purpose of conducting various business in Japan, there are basically two types of seals, a mitomein (what is normally referred to as a hanko), and a jitsuin, the latter being an officially registered seal or inkan, which can be certified as being yours by means of a document obtainable from the government office at which it is registered.

One often hears references to a bank seal, but this is a name that focuses on the use of the seal, rather than whether or not it is an officially registered seal. You can use your officially registered jitsuin as your bank seal, but most people choose to have a separate bank seal or use their unofficial mitomein, rather than carry around the more important jitsuin each time they need to use it at the bank. Naturally, with ATM machines and on-line banking, this concern has been alleviated, and most people only need to bring their seal to the bank when they need to open or close an account.

For a non-Japanese living in Japan, there are a number of reasons why having and using seals of the "normal" variety (as opposed to those sometimes created and used by Japan "enthusiasts") can be advantageous.

Unregistered Seals (Mitomein)

The mitomein is an unofficial (i.e., unregistered) hanko, but is nonetheless useful and required for a number of acts in Japan. Since it is an unofficial seal, there are really no rules about size and the inscription. For most Japanese, getting a mitomein is as simple as going to the local stationery store and looking for their family name among the hundreds of hanko that are arranged in a display case. These days, a rubber stamp which needs no inking serves as a mitomein for some Japanese, although the term hanko generally conjures up an image of a seal carved in wood or other more durable material.

For a non-Japanese, the problem is a bit more troublesome, of course. A hanko shop will be able to carve you a hanko usable as a mitomein or an official registered jitsuin at a reasonable cost. Since Japanese generally use just their last name on a mitomein, that is the logical choice for non-Japanese who wish to do the "normal" thing. The most orthodox way of doing this is to have the seal inscription be your last name rendered in katakana.

Some Thoughts On Rendering Non-Japanese Names

While some foreigners who are new to Japan and Japanese ways are eager to have a hanko with a "representations" (sometimes erroneously characterized as "translations") of their names in kanji, non-Japanese who are serious about conducting their everyday lives in Japan should avoid doing this.

Although I have seen a few rare exceptions, usually in which case the user is very good at spoken Japanese, in the hands of a newcomer--and most who want these things are newcomers--these bogus kanji hanko are usually the hallmarks of someone who has not yet learned or who refuses to learn the ropes in Japan. Most foreigners--even (and perhaps especially) foreigners with long years in Japan and who are very good Japanese--ultimately realize the folly of the "enthusiast's kanji hanko." Although you might be able to point to back-slapping, good-time Japanese-born individuals who think they are "going native" or being "international" by calling themselves things like "Jack Yamashita" and "Eddie Kawamura" when dealing with Westerners, this is a practice I could never warm up to; changing your name doesn't change your native culture. In most cases the use of a pseudo-native kanji hanko by a non-Japanese:

Much of the misinformation about "translated" foreigners' names engraved in hanko can be eliminated by simply understanding that non-Japanese names cannot be "translated" in the usual sense of the word, and the websites selling seals with purported translations of non-Japanese names are not helping the situation. The problem is that directly translated into characters that mean the same thing as the original non-Japanese name, most non-Japanese names turn into something that most Japanese cannot even tell is a name of a person. A good example is Smith, the direct translation of the meaning of which would be Kaijiya, which is a perfectly good word in Japanese, but certainly is not a name. The other rather hopeless approach is to string Japanese characters having the same readings as syllables of a non-Japanese name. The result is usually a forced combination of meanings that are not really understood by the foreigner who has laid down money to "get translated." My advice: don't do it, because it cannot be done, and the people who tell you it can be done are either ignorant or in the business of selling you name translations.

Knowing or being involved in martial arts, Buddhism, flower arranging, the tea ceremony, or other things that many non-Japanese latch onto from Asian cultures is not really a mitigating circumstance. In short, if you really need to have a hanko with your name "translated" into kanji, it would probably be best to keep its existence a secret that just your friends know. It will not do much to impress Japanese who value a serious commitment to Japan, especially people who can throw money at you.

Because non-Japanese names rendered (by the normal method) in katakana are quite long, and also because very few Japanese put their given names on their hanko, I recommend sticking to just the family name.

Bank Account Seals (Ginkouin)

In that bank seals are not registered with the government (and are therefore not jitsuin), they are strictly speaking mitomein. The name, however, points to the usage, and indicates that the particular seal being referred to has been agreed upon between a bank and a bank customer as the seal to be used in normal bank account transactions.

Requirements for bank seals vary somewhat depending upon the bank. In their never-ending efforts to pamper the poor non-Japanese, many major banks will allow a non-Japanese (or at least a non-kanji-type non-Japanese) client to use a signature in combination with a personal identification number (PIN) in lieu of a seal. The actual level of foreigner-pampering will depend on the individual bank, and perhaps also on the mood of the person at the bank you deal with.

While there is an urban Japanese legend roaming around among some foreigners that banks allow foreigners to use signatures because there is a law that says that nobody can force a foreigner to have a seal, this seems to be a very inaccurate legend. Another point that the people at the banks I talked to made was that it would be perfectly acceptable for a Japanese to use a signature and four-digit code, and that in fact some do this.

Here is an example of the requirements some banks in my area had around January, 2001.

BanksSeal
Requirements
Accounts
Without a Seal
Sumitomo Bank (now Sumitomo Mitsui) &
Sanwa Bank (now UFJ)
Any seal which will fit in the box on their bank seal registration form (a 22-by-17-mm rectangle for Sumitomo, 19-by-16-mm for Sanwa) can be used. The inscription need not be related to the name of the account owner, and can be either positive or negative form. The seal inscription can even be an arbitrary one which is related to nobody's name at all. Rubber stamps are highly discouraged, because they are subject to wear and damage more than the case of the more-conventional carved wood seals. To start an account without a seal, registration is made of a signature and a four-digit number, similar to but not necessarily the same as the pin used for the bank card associated with the account.

To start an ordinary account in Japan, identification is required, and Japanese banks require any of the following (in the case of an individual account).

For a corporate bank account, the following documentation is required.

Registered Personal Seals (Jitsuin)

The jitsuin, also known as an inkan, although the latter term is sometimes used as the overall name for any seal, is a completely different animal from an unofficial mitomein.

It is registered at a government office, this being a ward office in places like Tokyo, or a city hall in cities that do not have wards. The regulations governing size, shape, and seal inscription are established by the local government offices, and are therefore not uniform. A person wishing to register a seal should ask beforehand about these rules at the office at which it will be registered, to avoid wasted expense in having a seal made that cannot be registered.

A check of several offices in the Tokyo area indicates that, although the standards for size, shape, and inscription are strictly speaking set forth in local ordinances, the standards have been largely unified. The Tokyo Meguro and Setagaya Ward and Yokohama Nishi Ward Office standards are as follows.

ItemRequirement
Size The outline of the seal must not encroach a square of 8 mm on a side nor extend beyond a square of 25 mm on a side.

Although the people at various ward offices might not have thought of this, the above-noted condition allows a blinding variety of shapes other than the very common circle and sometimes-seen square.

Shape No restriction, as long as the outline of the seal meets the size requirements.
Inscription type Yobun (characters carved positive in the seal face, appearing red when the seal is pressed onto paper)
Inscription contents (name) Any one of the following:

  • Family name only
  • Family name + given name
  • Given name only
Rendering of foreigners' names To be able to register a seal with a katakana name rendering, the katakana must have already been registered by the foreigner as an alias (tsushoumei). Lacking this registration, a foreigner must register a seal with a Roman letter rendering of his/her name.
   While there have been stories in the past of kanji-struck foreigners registering a jitsuin with a kanji representation of their name, and this might have indeed been possible in the past, it is not likely, with the ward offices and city halls talking to each other these days, that this is possible any more. There are other reasons, of course, for not using kanji.

For obvious reasons, Koreans in Japan are the largest group in Japan with aliases, these being referred to popularly as Nihonmei but having the same status as a foreigner's registered katakana name rendering. Additionally, because of Japan's dark history of forcing Koreans to take Japanese names, when you register a katakana name, you might be asked to sign a paper (as I was at the Meguro Ward Office in Tokyo once) indicating that you are taking the name of your own volition. I was feeling a bit cynical the day I did this, and asked the ward office why I had to sign this. As expected, they were a bit flustered but did manage an explanation that avoided delving into Japan's colonial rule of Korea.

Few people use their jitsuin as a mitomein, preferring to have a different seal for less important matters, which can be handled with a non-registered seal. Additionally, many non-registered seals are too small to meet the regulations for registered seals. The reasons for this is rooted in a long tradition of seal usage in Asia.

Throughout kanji-based cultures, the bearer of a seal is considered to possess authority based on the mere possession of the seal. Seldom will a bank doubt the authority of a person using a seal, as long as it is the correct seal. This applies to both individual and corporate registered seals. Thus, one sometimes hears of crimes known as "forging a private (or public) document to which a seal is affixed," which generally points to unauthorized use of a seal.

Registered Company Seal (Daihyoushain)

Corresponding to an individual's jitsuin (and sometimes actually referred to as the jitsuin of the company), this seal is usually treated as a highly valued asset, for the same reasons cited with regard to an individual's registered seal. The regulations for size and inscription are established by the Ministry of Justice.

Part of the procedure for registering a company in Japan is the registration of this seal which, after the formation of the company, is generally used in transactions that would require an individual to use his or her registered seal.

When to Use Which Type of Seal

Although there are exceptions that are governed by individual rules of, for example, banks, the following generally describes when the various types of seals are used.

Type of SealUses
Mitomein
(unregistered hanko)
Receiving packages

Opening individual bank accounts

Making withdrawals from company bank accounts

Ginkouin
(bank account seal; registered with the bank only; can be the same as an individual's mitomein or a company's daihyoushain, but usually is a seal used only for bank purposes, especially in the case of a company)
Normal, everyday bank transactions, such as withdrawals
Jitsuin for an individual, or daihyoushain for a company (registered seal)Signing contracts (such as for credit arrangements and leasing)

Establishing a company, where the user of the seal is a director

Open company bank accounts, in which case the jitsuin is the registered seal (daihyoushain) of the company

Inkanshoumeisho
Certification of Seal Registration

When performing rather important acts such as executing a contract or establishing a company, the user of the seal will sometimes be required to submit a certification that the seal being affixed is indeed the seal of the individual or company performing the act or, since the bearer of the seal is usually taken to have the authority of the seal owner, to give assurance that the user of the seal has the authority to use it. This latter logic is a bit flawed, of course, because even if you have possession of a seal unlawfully you can obtain such certification. But never mind; things will not change very soon. To obtain certification of a registered personal seal, visit the government office at which it is registered carrying with you the seal itself. Some offices these days issue a plastic card which enables you to get the certification without actually having possession of the seal, this representing yet another security problem, of course. To obtain a certification of a company's registered seal (daihyoushain), visit the office of the Ministry of Justice at which the company was registered.

While folklore abounds about the "legal expiration" of a seal registration certification, there appears to be no actual statute governing this. The common practice, however, is to demand a certification that was obtained no more than 3 months before the seal will be used in a legal act.

Unlawful Use of a Seal

It appears that the only laws in Japan governing seals are those which make it a crime to forge a document with a seal impression on it (the rules on registration are local ordinances it should be remembered, not nationwide laws). Thus, there are the two crimes: forgery of a public document bearing a seal impression and forgery of a private document bearing a seal impression. It is still not clear to me whether a legal action executed unlawfully by someone other than the lawful owner of a registered seal binds the lawful owner of the seal. I will report about this if and when I am able to clarify this issue.

Square Company Seal

This is the familiar large, square seal of companies, regularly seen stamped over the name/address block of the issuer of an invoice, although the square shape is only dictated by custom. It is also used by some companies as an unregistered mitomein for certain purposes such as affixing to receipts. There are no regulations with regard to size and inscription, although almost all such seals have the official name of the company and are square, varying from about 1.5 to 2.5 cm on a side. In the case of an individual, an invoice can be decorated with either the individual's unregistered or registered seal, the later probably being more appropriate, since it is likely to be bigger than the former.

Various Uses of Seal Impressions

There are several names of seals, or more accurately seal impressions, that are based on the meaning of the impression at a particular place in a document.

Japanese Government Moves to Relax Seal Requirements

One of the parts of Japanese society that has been most insistent on having seal affixed to documents is the government office, but even the Japanese government offices in Japan are moving away from demanding seal impressions for applications and registrations. An article in the Japanese language Yomiuri Shinbun reported the following coming change, summarized below.

The Japanese government announced on 12 January 1998 that of things like applications to government offices which had formerly required the application of a personal seal (a non-registered mitomein as opposed to a registered jitsuin) 6367 procedures, including such things as application for a passport, a copy of a resident's registry, and a certificate of vehicle inspection will in the near future no longer require a seal impression. The intention is to amend relevant laws and ordinances within a year.

The reason given for this simplification of administrative procedures was that an undue burden was being placed on people going to government offices and being turned away because they did not have their seal with them.

Under the new scheme, procedures which formerly required both the written indication of a name (not required to be written by that individual) and the affixing of a seal impression would provide the individual the right to select either:

In the case of procedures which formerly required a signature and a seal impression the procedure would now be possible to execute with only a signature. (From Yomiuri Shinbun of 13 January 1998)

While it is not likely that the private sector will jump into line immediately, the above move is probably a harbinger of things to come, in Japan, the inkan capital of the world, far surpassing any other remaining country with a kanji-based writing system.

Acquiring a Seal

Traditionally, seals have been sold in shops specializing in seals and in stationery shops. For Japanese, obtaining a seal (at least a mitomein unregistered seal) is as easy as picking one with the desired family name from a rack of ready-made seals. Most Japanese have made-to-order seals as their registered seals (jitsuin), however, bypassing the rack of read-made seals.

For a person with a non-Japanese family name, a bit more effort is required. You will need to have the seal made specially. Shops selling seals abound, and there is at least one nationwide franchise chain, Hankoya21, offering reasonably priced seals and related products (business cards, for example).

References

Mozidas The website of a Mozidas, Ltd., which producing seals that it markets via the Web. Has some historical information about seals. Japanese only.

Collon, D. ed. 7000 Years of Seals. London: British Museum Press, 1997.

Niizeki, K. Tozai Inshoshi [History of Eastern and Western seals]. Tokyo: Tokyodo Shuppan, 1995.