KIRAMEKI

The Use of Seals in Japan

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. That was perhaps the result of 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.

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 probably 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 some people choose to have a separate bank seal or use their unofficial mitomein, rather than carry around their 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.

  • Use of a seal demonstrates that you know what is expected of people living in Japan.
  • A seal hints that you are perhaps more than just a flash in the pan.
  • Seals are an absolute requirement on some documents that people in business in Japan must create, one example of which is invoices.

Unregistered Seals (Mitomein)

The mitomein is an unofficial (i.e., unregistered) hanko, but is nonetheless useful and expected to be used in a number of situations 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 some other hard 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 as 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 people wishing to do the "normal" thing. The most orthodox way of doing this is to have the seal inscription be your last name rendered phonetically 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 representation of their names in kanji (sometimes erroneously characterized as "translations" of their names), 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 very good Japanese ability—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" 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 who has not fully assimilated:

  • will not enhance the user's credibility among Japanese,
  • could very well just be confusing, and
  • might just mark the user as a beginner or mere Japanophile.

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. The websites selling seals with purported translations of non-Japanese names aggravate 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.

The other rather hopeless (and truly meaningless) approach is simply 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 often not understood by the foreigner who has paid 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 just in the business of selling you name translations and hanko.

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 are truly wedded to the idea of having 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 you interact with in business.

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)

Bank seals do not need to be registered with the government. The name points to the usage of the seal, 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 bank account transactions.

Requirements for bank seals vary somewhat depending upon the bank. In their never-ending efforts to accommodate the poor non-Japanese, some banks will allow a non-Japanese (or at least a non-kanji-culture non-Japanese) customer 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 appears to be an urban legend 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 inaccurate. Another point that the people at the banks I have made to me is that it would be perfectly acceptable for a Japanese to use a signature and four-digit code, and that in fact some do this.

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

  • Residence card
  • Driver's license
  • Passport
  • Copy of address register
  • Certificate of the contents of the address register
  • Certificate of seal registration
  • Health insurance cards
  • Pension identification
  • Social security documentation
  • Personal number (My Number) card

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

  • Copy of the company registration
  • Certification of registration of the company seal (daihyoushain)
  • Copy of the company charter

Additionally, in recent years banks have required companies seeking to establish accounts to attest in writing that they are not an "anti-social" force or are not beholden to or acting at the behest or on behalf of such forces.

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 completely different from an unofficial mitomein.

It is registered at a government office, this being a “City” (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 the applicable rules of the office at which it will be registered, to avoid wasted expense in having a seal made that cannot be registered.

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

Throughout kanji cultures, the bearer of a seal is considered to possess authority based on the mere possession of the seal. In general, the more important the position of the seal holder, the larger is the seal. The analog of this is that registered seals, used for more important things than non-registered seals, are often larger than mitomein.

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.

The procedure associated with registering a company in Japan includes 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 (if the mitomein has been registered with the bank as the ginkouin.
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. Teller machines have greatly reduced the need to use a bank seal.
Jitsuin for an individual, or daihyoushain for a company (registered seal)
  • Signing contracts.
  • Establishing a company, where the user of the seal is a representative director.
  • Opening company bank accounts, in which case the jitsuin is the registered seal (daihyoushain) of the company's representative director.

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 if you have posession of the seal registration card. But never mind; things will not change very soon.

In the past, to obtain certification of a registered personal you visited the government office at which it is registered, carrying with you the seal itself. These days, government office issue a plastic card which enables you to get the certification without actually having possession of the seal.

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 the seal 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 commonly larger 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 or the significance of the act of affixing the seal impression.

Wariin (割印, Bridging Seal)

This is a seal that is usually affixed between two pages of a document so that the impression straddles them, either at the point at which they are bound together or at which the edge of one page is folded over another page. It is commonly seen on contracts, and on such official documents as a company charter or application for company registration.

Sutein (捨印, pre-affixed correction seal)

This is a seal impression that is affixed to the margin of a document beforehand, to be used later as a correction seal if corrections are made, thereby eliminating the need to return the document to the originator for corrections.

Teiseiin (訂正印, Correction Seal)

This is a seal impression that is affixed to indicate an obvious correction to a document, thereby indicating that the correction is approved by the person who is affixing his/her seal to the document somewhere else. It is often the same seal as found elsewhere on the document (especially on corrected documents being submitted to government offices), but can sometimes be a smaller seal when the correction is made to an internal document. When corrections are made, it is customary to indicate how many characters have been deleted and/or added and affix the correction seal near this notation. If several locations are corrected, the correction seal is affixed and this notation is made at each corrected location.

Boin (拇印, Thumbprint Seal)

Not really a seal at all, this is simply a thumbprint (actually, sometimes the print of a different finger), affixed by a person when he/she needed to have a seal but did not have one. While it sounds very ominous and might indeed be a bit annoying, it does not carry a stigma to the extent that is often associated with fingerprinting in Western cultures. This is the term generally used by non-legal specialists. The legal terms (and certainly the term as used by legal law-enforcement authorities is shiin (指印), which is more generic and means finger seal.

Keppan (血判, Blood Seal)

The only time you will probably see this is in period Japanese dramatic presentations, in which a person ceremonially cuts his/her finger and affixes a blood seal to a document, usually one having ominous content.

I once sent a notice to a printing company (with which I had a mutual client) with a keppan affixed. While out drinking with me the previous night, a drunken employee of the company decided to reach across our table and grab me by the collar in a rather menacing (but not very convincing) manner. The notice, sealed in blood, was to the effect that I would no longer entertain contact in any form from any employee of the company, along with my condolences to several of the people there for having to work with this guy. It had the desired effect, but might not have been ultimately as satisfying as allowing him to strike the first blow in front of a dozen witnesses and then "working the system" against him. Needless to say, few of my readers will be blessed with the opportunity to use a keppan. It is included herein for the sake of completeness.

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, 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 some years ago 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:
  • written indication of his/her name (not required to be done by the individual) plus affixing a seal impression or
  • written signature
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.

Update: The Japanese goverment, in an effort to slim down administrative procedures, has actively discussed eliminating the need for seals for certain procedures. The use of the "My Number" card should be understood to be part of that effort. If a good summary of hanko reforms is available, we will undertake to post at least a link to it here.

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, or similarly ordering one online. Most Japanese have made-to-order seals as their registered seals (jitsuin), however, bypassing the rack of ready-made seals.

For a person with a non-Japanese family name, a bit more effort is required. You will need to have the seal custom- made. 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

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.