The pen or the chop?

Like other East Asian countries, Japan is a heavy user of seals (hanko) as a means of authenticating documents. So is it better to use a seal or a signature?

Japanese civil procedure doesn’t particularly care. If you ever end up in a Japanese courtroom, a signature is just as admissible as a seal impression for proving that someone approved a document. Some lawyers recommend signing and sealing to have twice the protection. If you’re really paranoid, the best way to avoid doubt is to sign or seal your document before a notary public. There are Japanese notaries in every city, and most embassies and consulates offer notarial services to citizens and related parties (often for much less than the Japanese notaries charge).

Although you can get away with a signature for most private matters, seals are required under Japanese law when registering certain things with the government: companies, real estate, cars, childbirths and the like. But foreigners get some special consideration thanks to the Act Regarding the Signatures, Seals and Indigent Certification of Aliens, which was passed by the Diet in 1900. An imperial order in 1926 struck out the second half of the statute (I believe it had to do with getting court fees waived, which is the contemporary use of the Japanese term), so its effective portion is now just two lines:

Article 1. Where a signature and seal are to be used pursuant to a law or ordinance, it shall be adequate for an alien to use a signature.
2. Where only a seal is to be used, an alien shall be deemed to have given a seal by virtue of their signature.

Japanese nationals resident outside Japan can also use signatures for such transactions, mainly out of necessity: since they are not registered residents of a Japanese city, they cannot have the registered seal which is normally needed to record legal title to things. The usual alternative, for both foreigners and non-resident Japanese, is to get a signature certificate from a consulate or local authority, which shows the person’s signature and has an official attestation to the effect that “this is the verified signature of so-and-so.”

This doesn’t stop seals from being necessary in some private transactions, such as banking, where a private counterparty simply demands that a seal be used. In that case, you have no choice other than to complain. But institutions are starting to be more flexible with seals and signatures, so it’s becoming increasingly rare to need a seal for private transactions.

8 thoughts on “The pen or the chop?”

  1. Awesome.

    I have an idea – abolish hanko and just accept signatures without worrying about official registration nonsense! If the idea is to prevent forgeries, then that’s the way to go.

    I have never understood why Japanese banks etc. require you to make your signature super easy to read and exactly the same every time. Doesn’t that just make it that much easier to forge? Has anyone heard of handwriting analysts?

  2. Joe, just so all of our listeners are clear, explain for us the difference between a “hanko” and an “inkan”.

  3. I like Wikipedia’s breakdown:

    * * *

    印に関する主な用語はそれぞれ次の意味がある。


    印章または印影であり、一定の権利・強制力を有するもの

    印章や印影ではあるが、記号・情報としての機能しか持たないもの
    印章
    はんこの本体側。印材を加工・成形して作られる
    印影
    押された結果(紙側)
    印鑑
    照合用の印影

    印章を用いて、紙面に印影を残すことを押印(おういん)または捺印(なついん)と言い、「契約書に押印 / 捺印する」などというように使用される。

    印章の側面にあるくぼみは「サグリ」と言う。

    しばしば、印章と同じ意味で印鑑という語が用いられることもある。古くは、印影と印章の所有者(押印した者)を一致させるために、印章を登録させた。この印影の登録簿を指して印鑑と呼んだ。転じて、登録した印章自体も印鑑と呼ぶようになった。このため、印鑑登録した印章や銀行に届け出た印章など、何らかの登録を受けた印章を特に印鑑と呼んで区別することもある。

    * * *

    “Hanko” is a more colloquial term which refers to stamping devices in general, including the little cartoony stamps used by kids. “Inkan” is a more official term referring specifically to the seals used for legal purposes.

    I usually say “inkan” myself, but all the MF commenters seem to prefer “hanko.”

  4. Hmmm. I say “inkan” pretty well exclusively, as does my J wife. I wonder if there are regional variations….

    I liked the inkan system when, for example, I was on the Monbusho and had to sign an entire year’s worth of scholarship reciepts at once (before they made you do each month’s at the time, so I couldn’t pop out of the country at certain times). But it does give me another thing to lose – what happens, for example, if I lose or break the inkan I registered to buy my car? Can I no longer sell it? I presume there is a system for dealing with that, but it would just be more paperwork.

    Incidentally, I have wondered if the inkan habit is why cops will get your thumbprint rather than your signature (you don’t always have to have broken the law: I was once lent money by a koban, and they took my print).

  5. I’m pretty sure that the Monbusho scholarship ledger now MUST be signed, and cannot be stamped with an inkan. I’ll page through them all next time I go to sign mine though. This would, I presume, be because anyone signing it is required to be a non-Japanese national, and any Japanese citizen (even dual/multi citizen) getting the scholarship would be committing fraud.

  6. I have a very cool inkan designed for me by my father in law. It uses some unusual kanji which sound out my western surname and have a meaning related to the actual meaning of my name.

  7. I am waiting for them to try to put an electronic inkan system in place to comply with the electronic signature laws. That will be very interesting.

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