No More Hanko?
By Sanuj Hathurusinghe
The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing changes, ranging from minor to drastic, in many societies across the world. Some of these changes are whole-heartedly agreed upon as timely necessities while some that go against culture, tradition, beliefs, and customs of societies may raise some eyebrows.
Recently, Japan went through such a COVID-enforced change in the country which according to some, is going against an age-old tradition and a part of Japan’s culture. As per the instructions of the Prime Minister of Japan Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s Minister-in-charge of Administrative Reform, Taro Kono, recently ordered all Government offices to stop requiring hanko stamps on official documents as a rule. According to a letter issued by the Japanese Cabinet all ministries have the option of ending the requirement altogether; scrapping the requirements for hanko seals, or continuing the use of the traditional seals. However, those who decide to continue the tradition have to justify their decision which will be taken into consideration before making a final decision.
Digitising the State is one of Suga’s main policies and the new Prime Minister who succeeded the longest serving Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, last August, hopes to use the ‘new normal’ measures societies need to adopt to, to implement his positive changes to the governance.
What is a hanko?
A hanko is simply a stamp or a seal that bears the family name or an emblem of a company or an institute. These seals act as personal signatures of persons and institutes. The use of hanko in official affairs was adopted in as early as the 8th century and in time has become an integral part of Japanese culture. A hanko is a must-own for any adult in Japan as without it renting an apartment, signing a contract, or opening up a bank account is almost impossible. Foreigners living in Japan are shown some leeway in this regard as their signature is considered to be valid but they too have the option of getting a hanko custom-made.
Between 2010 and 2015, I was a foreigner in Japan who had visited the Land of the Rising Sun for higher studies, and I had my personalised hanko made in the beginning of my second year in Japan. The initial paperwork I had to sign when I landed in Japan was registration at the ward office, opening a bank account and the language academy documents. Since none of us foreign students had personalised stamps we were allowed to use our signatures. At the beginning of the second year I was transferred to a university in Nagoya and it was there I was given the opportunity to have my own hanko made. For the fun of it I agreed but little did I know that switching to a stamp from my signature meant I had to stamp all the prior legal documents I had signed.
Not required by law
Although hanko has become an integral part in Japanese culture with lots of businesses and families depending on it, the use of a hanko is not a ‘must’ in the Japanese legal system. Although a country with advanced technologies in use, Japan is surprisingly lagging in terms of digitising paperwork and official
documentation. Japan’s Civil Code makes no mention of seals in relation to the conclusion of contracts but it does possess a number of legal restrictions regarding electronic contracts thus making the meeting of two parties before a deal is sealed somewhat mandatory. It is believed that this may have inadvertently popularised the use of hanko. However, it is observed that the country is slowly getting used to electronic means of documentation since some of the legal restrictions surrounding electronic contracts are being gradually relaxed.
Hanko relay inhibits productivity
With the ongoing pandemic, the Japanese Government has called for 70 per cent of the workforce to work from home and plans to reduce public movement by 80 per cent. However, Government officials are left with no other choice but to visit the workplace simply to use the stamp or to fetch a certain type of document. Moving on from hanko and adopting a digital signature system could be the answer to all the questions, not to mention the significant speed of things the digitising will have over paper documentation. In the current context, depending on the magnitude of a deal, contract talks could go on for over a month and another month is required to finalise all the paperwork. Nevertheless, it should be mentioned that there are platforms that enable digital signatures such as Cloudsign in operation in Japan which is a progressive sign. This particular company was launched in 2015 and currently has a client base of over 65,000 companies.
However, the experts believe that it will not work for the better if it isn’t strictly enforced. Even if one company eliminates the need for seals, they could lose business if trading partners do not consent. There are around 4 million companies in Japan and about 3.9 million of them are still using seals. A company that introduces the digital signature will be unable to use it for all contracts if certain partners don’t approve. Structurally, the use of digital contracts will not become widespread until society changes as a whole.
Good for the elephants
Another underlying benefit of the hanko ban is that it will contribute towards discouraging the ivory trade and in turn, saving thousands of elephants in Africa and Asia. Ivory trade is well and truly banned in many parts of the world but not in Japan. However, the Japanese Government, despite a number of pleas from African nations to put an end to Japan’s ivory trade, is adamant that its domestic ivory market is controlled and contained, using materials imported decades ago and not contributing to the poaching of elephants in Africa.
Japan started using ivory in hanko making in the 1970s and as Japan’s economy boomed the country imported hundreds of tonnes of ivory every year, mainly to make hanko. Since the traditional hanko makers preferred the hard centre of the tusk, poachers targeted the biggest elephants with the longest tusks, often killing the matriarchs that bind elephant society together.
However, Japan is adamant that no new ivory is entering the country. While this might be true, it will be comforting news to all animal welfare activists and certainly, to all the elephants in Africa if the hanko tradition is discontinued, cutting off one of the major contributors to Japan’s ivory trade.
Easier said than done
Even if the use of hanko in official documents is completely banned the transition will be a gradual and time-consuming one since there are lots of large-scale businesses such as real estate and apartment renting which still rely on conventional means of documentation. Furthermore, hanko has grown to be a crucial part in popular culture, becoming even a tourist attraction. There are lots of shops in Tokyo alone which specialise in customised hanko as souvenirs. Foreigners can select traditional Chinese letters (kanji) or hiragana letters as well as English letters on their stamps. These customised hanko can include cute animal characters other than letters and come in many different colours of choice as well.
Although the suggested ban of hanko is only for legal documents the lack of hanko in legal matters and reduced use will inadvertently result in dropped popularity ultimately affecting many businesses that survive thanks to hanko.