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Tradition vs Efficiency: ‘Hanko’ Affects Workplace Efficiency and Telework in Japan

The following is a guest post by Sayuri Umeda, a foreign law specialist who covers Japan and other countries in East and Southeast Asia. Sayuri has previously authored posts on Food Delivery in Japan – History and Current RegulationNew Era, New Law NumberHoly Cow – Making Sense of Japanese Wagyu Cow Export RulesJapanese Criminal Legal System as Seen Through the Carlos Ghosn CaseDisciplining Judges for “Bad Tweets”, and many more.

Seals have been used on documents in East Asia for a long time. In China, Xi (royal seal) engraving emerged in the mid Spring and Autumn period (approximately 771 to 476 BC). The Japanese custom of stamping official documents with seals is believed to have been imported from China in the latter half of the seventh century. During the Edo period (1603-1868), commoners started to use seals, and the personal seal registration system was developed. Also during the Edo period, people started to use the word “hanko for seal. According to a news article, China and Korea have abolished their registered seal systems, and Japan is the last country that maintains the system.

Japanese ‘hanko’ seals. Photograph by Sayuri Umeda.

People in Japan usually have a few hanko: one registered hanko for important documents, and a couple of hanko to use at banks and in daily life, such as for acknowledging the receipt of packages. When a contract is made, parties sign the document and affix their seals next to their signatures. Some laws require hanko for certain documents. For example, to make a will, the testator must sign his/her name and affix his/her seal. (Civil Code, Act No. 89 of 1896, amended by Act No. 34 of 2019 (Reiwa), arts. 768, 769 & 780.) In addition, signature and seal are required for various government applications, such as real property registration; however people can apply for registration electronically by using an e-signature. (Real Property Registration Order, Cabinet Order No. 379 of 2004, amended by Cabinet order No. 57 of 2020, arts. 11, 12 & 16.) Regarding authenticating documents in civil procedure, the Civil Procedure Code states, “[i]f a private document has been signed by, or bears the seal of, the principal or an agent, it is presumed to be of authentic provenance.” (Civil Procedure Code, Act No. 109 of 1996, amended by Act No. 22 of 2020, art. 228, para. 3.)

Though hanko has deep roots in Japanese society, in recent years, hanko is becoming a symbol of Japan’s low-tech office and low productivity. According to a June 2020 article from Deutsche Welle, ”[t]here are arguably two most glaring symbols of just how old-fashioned and conservative the average Japanese company is: the fax machine and the ‘hanko[.]'” A Japanese article in 2017 criticized people who use the telephone in business, as well as the use of email, fax machines, and hanko because they are inefficient tools. The author claimed that entrepreneurs and growing companies commonly use messaging applications, instead of phone and email. He also claimed that it was ridiculous that the business process must stop during a director’s business trip because the director’s hanko is required on documents for the proof of his/her approval.

The COVID-19 pandemic emphasized the issues with the hanko culture. To reduce social and workplace contacts, the government recommended telework. According to a survey that was conducted over May and June 2020, 34% of working people teleworked at least some days since the pandemic started. In spring 2020, the sales of seal makers and seal shops went down. On the other hand, sales of e-seal systems jumped up. However, some workers have had to go to their offices when they could otherwise have teleworked because they needed to seal documents or to get seals on documents. According to a survey that was conducted by Adobe in June 2020, 74% of managers of small- and medium-sized companies were in favor of abolishing hanko, but many thought it would be difficult because their clients use hanko.

To promote telework and digitization of office work, the government issued a Q & A document on seals on June 19, 2020. It clarifies that a seal is required for certain documents, but not a legal requirement for many documents for which seals have been commonly attached, such as a contract between private persons.

After the new Suga administration was formed on September 16, 2020, the new Minister of State for Regulatory Reform, Taro Kono, decided that hanko should be abolished from administrative procedure. The Cabinet Office notified all agencies of the decision on September 24, 2020. Minister of Environment Shinjiro Koizumi agreed with Minister Kono immediately. On September 25, 2020, the Ministry of Environment notified its employees that hanko would no longer be required for some types of paperwork. Minister Kono tweeted on September 30, 2020, that almost all ministries have agreed to abolish stamps in administrative procedures.

Hanko may yet be abolished from business offices. However, hanko will likely still be used for ceremonial and memorial use, and for traditional methods of authentication in Japan. For example, it is popular for Japanese people to visit various shrines and temples, and keep their seals in a special book. In addition, there is a new demand of hanko. Hanko is “the ultimate souvenir from Japan,” according to an English magazine in Japan. When you go to Japan, remember to buy a hanko!

One Comment

  1. Elina Lee
    October 27, 2020 at 8:37 am

    It is very interesting post. I also have my own Hanko (Dojang in Korean). I love to use a hanko instead of a signature. As you mentioned, I haven’t had a chance to use a hanko in the States, but it is a great souvenir.

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