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Will The Japanese Hanko Be Stamped Out? Part - 1

Updated: Nov 30, 2020

This is part 1 in a series of two articles about the Japanese Hanko. Stay tuned for more!

The new Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide is seeking to hasten administrative reforms. He is pursuing a rapid digitalisation of Japan as well. With these twin objectives, the cultural icon – Hanko or carved name seal – is likely to be stamped out.


The Meiji period tradition, of using cursively varied names in unique ways on special stamps, is used to sign documents in all legal ways, including bank cheques. Nearly 10000 procedures require Hanko. Contracts, business agreements, pension enrolment and all financial, tax and administrative matters are based on the Hanko identity. These are affixed to physical documents – 785 government procedures need the Hanko and may face reform.


The need for social distancing to face Covid 19 is giving impetus to the idea of moving away from the Hanko. However, for digitalization, the Hanko is a major challenge.


Thanks to the pandemic, several systems have been altered in Japan. Online learning, tele medicine consultations are among the deregulated responses that may become permanent after new digitized administrative reforms likely next year. Electronic contracts usage increased during the pandemic.


While the idea has been on the anvil for a while, even under PM Abe Shinzo, PM Suga and the Administrative Reforms Minister, Aso Taro, are going at it with a vengeance. They are making good use of the pandemic as an opportunity for reform. They are also using the issue to challenge the hold of the bureaucracy and establish their leadership over it. “I want all ministries to compile a comprehensive review of their administrative procedures in the near future,” Suga told a meeting of the Council for Promotion of Regulatory Reform, an advisory panel of members from the business sector and universities.


In May 2020, 75 per cent of business executives favoured abolition of the Hanko. Yet 50 per cent said they did not think it will happen as counterpart institutions would also need to go digital as well. Presently, barely 8 per cent of 56000 administrative procedures are feasible online. This also part of the resistance to online working – and the Hanko is a part of such culture, according to a Survey by the Nomura Research Institute in June 2020.


The effort to curb or remove the use of the Hanko –a Japanese cultural icon– is among the most significant challenges. The entry of foreign sumo wrestlers at the top echelons seems nothing in comparison. These seals were commonly used during the Meiji period when Japan opened to Western influences at the turn of the twentieth-century. This allowed the Japanese, at all levels, to obtain a family name. Since then, it has been a part of Japan’s family and governmental culture.


Due to this, a personalised Hanko with one’s name written in stylised manner, unique to oneself, is a good gift. It stays with people and their families and if it’s lost, replacement is tedious. It is akin to a physical identity document with cultural dimensions.


It is made from wood, buffalo horn and increasingly rubber with the name embedded, usually in red, at the bottom. Having a Hanko is a sign of being Japanese. Artists use the Hanko to sign off their paintings, wood block prints and pottery too. The Hanko of eminent artists were recognised to establish the authenticity of an artifact. The shape, size and material used determine the cost and value of a Hanko.


The votes of Japanese youth will be very important for the Suga administration and the ambitions of Aso Taro as a future PM. The youth vote had helped Abe to retain leadership in politics. 70 per cent of youth were supportive of Abe’s vision in 2019 and this base is what Suga would like to retain for the next elections, due in 2021.


Aso Taro is a post-Suga hopeful for leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party. Had Abe not resigned, Aso would have contested the leadership in September 2021 but now is firmly in the Suga non-factional government as a key minister for administrative reforms.


The youth are keen to modernise e and see digitalisation as important for their future. This is key to the political push of the Suga administration to find a signature way forward by abolishing the Hanko and all it stands for in real terms.


The author is the Former ambassador to Germany, Indonesia, Ethiopia, and has been in the ASEAN AND AFRICAN Union Chair, CII Task Force and Prof. IIT, Indore.


(This article was first published in the Madras Courier (dt. 02.Nov.2020) and has been republished with permission from the author)

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