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Ultimate Guide to the Japanese Stamp (Inkan/Hanko)

By Norie Matsumoto | December 24, 2021 

Do you know about the Japanese Stamp or 判子・hanko / 印鑑・Inkan? It’s not your typical stamp, you might think of something to mark a pattern on paper or something to add to the corner of a postcard. But it’s actually much more important and holds a much larger significance in Japan than you may think.  It has been especially important in the past and in recent years, but there has been much debate whether to keep it, yet it still is used often today, you should surely keep reading to make sure you have what you need to know about this key item. 

This article is a part of our extensive series of guides on living in Japan.

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    Japanese Stamp / White Hanko / Inkan with no ink

    What’s a Japanese stamp?

    In such a technologically advanced society like Japan, the Japanese still incorporate many analog systems in daily life. One of them is the Japanese stamp. A はんこ・hanko or 印鑑・Inkan is a type of carved signature stamp/seal that is used in instances where one might have to use a signature. They are a little bit like the wax seals in old European countries where wax is melted and an initial or print is pressed while the wax hardens to confirm a document or letter is not opened.

    Typically, the Japanese stamp has the user’s last name carved in Kanji, less than 2cm across, it’s easy to carry around and will fit the palm of your hand. It’s small and personal with your name on it, often customized.  It can be a circular, oval, or square cut, and is generally in the shape of a rod. The ink is usually red. Even the specific type of stamp can be important.  It could show who it is.

    History 

    This method of stamping names as a form of signature started in China and has made its way around other parts of Asia. In Japan, it was initially only for the Emperor’s individual use and it stood for his charge and power. Around the years 701 to 800 (8th century), the noble class people also began creating custom stamps for themselves to use for formal work.

    Continuing on, around the years 1085 to 1603 Feudal period, Samurai began utilizing Hankos with red ink which was only for their group.

    Then, during the Meiji restoration period, 1868 to 1889, Modernization resulted in the Japanese stamp being used in daily life for all Japanese people, regardless of class. Additionally, A law passed early in the era set up a nationwide structure to register personal seals. 

    For those that would like to know more in-depth about the history of Japanese stamps, read here.

    Important business document signing with pen

    Modern use & The End of the Japanese Stamp(?)

    In 2021, the Japanese government has been trying to curb using Hankos due to the Covid pandemic because many workers are operating at home and would need to go all the way to the office in person to stamp their Hankos for the signing of papers. This also means a higher risk of infection so it is being used less and less as the pandemic goes along. 

    In 2020, An official at the Cabinet Office said the country is getting ready to do away with this long tradition of making it essential for residents to utilize personal Hankos to sign all official papers, getting rid of its use in around 15,000 administrative processes. It’s been a long time coming but it wouldn’t be a shock if the use of Hankos in everyday life becomes extinct in Japan. 

    The future of the Japanese Stamp

    Yet, despite the government’s best efforts to get rid of the Hanko, it seems the public is not ready to let go just yet. Therefore, it has been decided by the Japanese government to keep allowing the use of the Hanko. Although they won’t be compulsory in the future. For marriage, divorce papers, and others, the use of Hanko seems like it will live on. Perhaps because it feels more personal and has a long history in the country. 

    Japanese Stamp / Notepad with name seal and pen for office work

    Hanko vs. Inkan

    We’ve been mentioning both the  はんこ・Hanko or 印鑑・Inkan but why are there two ways to mention it? What are the differences between the two? They’re quite similar and are often used interchangeably. To be specific, an 印鑑・Inkan is a seal imprint that can be seen on a bank form. In other words, it points to the red mark that appears on the paper when pressed. This refers to the name or picture that remains when the paper or document is stamped. On the other hand, はんこ・Hanko refers to the main body with the characters engraved on it. The physical object that is pressed onto the document to create the 印鑑・seal. 

    Do I really need a Japanese stamp?

    You may be questioning if this Japanese stamp is really all that important, even as a foreigner, the answer is yes! Though you may not use it too often nowadays, you will definitely still need it and it’s good to keep one on for good measure.

    When you will need it

    It’s used when you go to the local ward office to sign off on contracts, to register for a job, to set up a bank account, to accept a package. As you can tell, there are many instances that call for a stamp.  Anything that calls for recognition or ownership/authorship, includes art.

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    Many kanji imprint carved inkan / Stamp collection

    Different types of Japanese stamp

    You might be curious about the differences in the Japanese stamp because certain ones are only used for specific instances, so it’s good to start getting familiar with them. 

    Personal use

    Personal Hankos are less regulated and you can have a little more leeway in personalization and adding custom elements to them. These personal ones are what you would use for getting packages at your home and signing off for the Amazon driver or Japan post to prove you received it. They will hand you the delivery invoice and stamp on the little area with a circle, making sure it’s right side up and legible. There’s usually a tiny raised arrow that signifies the top of the Inkan so your name is properly placed. 

    銀行印・Ginkōin

    This bank seal is for when you first open up a bank account. The stamp imprint will be copied and recorded during that time to differentiate yours from any other alike stamps. You should bring the 銀行印 whenever you withdraw large amounts of cash over 500,000 yen. You will also need it when you close your bank account.  However, just in case you should always carry around this 銀行印 every time you go to the bank in person. You definitely don’t want to lose this one as it is an official item and acts as a password. 

    実印・Jitsuin

    This stamp is the one you file at your local city hall or ward center. When you register the 実印, you will receive a certificate proving that the stamp is yours. You need to get this stamp officially approved in order to rent an apartment, get a house, or a car in Japan. During the contract period when buying these types of things you need this stamp and also need to show the certificate you got to prove it’s yours. It holds power because it is validated by the district, therefore seen as more trustworthy. The Jitsuin is assured by a third party which is the district/precinct. 

    認印・Mitomein

    This is the most often used stamp. 認印 doesn’t have to be registered at the ward office and you can use it to show you read papers, accept a package, or any other daily life activities. 

    三文判・Sanmonban

    This stamp is much like the Mitomein but is the cheap alternative. Usually, non-custom and is made of more inexpensive materials like rubber. It has a built-in ink シャチハタ・Shachihata so you don’t need a separate ink pad. Be wary, sometimes in cases like registering for a job, they may specify that you can’t use Shachihata

    There are a lot of Romaji like Mitomein and Sanmonban, if you want to know more about what it is, see our article, Guide to Romaji.

    Japanese Stamp / Business / Corporation / Company stamp / Job hunting signature

    Corporate use

    Japanese stamps used for corporations or for business can be a lot more serious and you need to get a certain type because it represents the company. 

    会社実印・Kaisha Jitsuin

    This is a Company Registered Seal. It can be also called Representative Seal 代表者印・Daihyōshain. This is indispensable when establishing a company or registering a corporation. This is the most important stamp within a company. It is stamped on behalf of the corporation on business contracts or forms with public authorities. Typically, this is a round stamp where the name of the representative of the corporation is usually engraved on the Hanko in addition to the company name on the outer rim.

    会社銀行印・Kaisha Ginkōin

    This is the Company Bank Seal. Much like the personal bank seal, Ginkōin, this is a seal to be notified to a financial institution when opening up a corporate bank account. Used when exchanging money, such as bills and checks. Typically, it is a round Hanko with "bank seal" in the center and the company name is engraved around it on the outer rim. It is recommended to make it one size smaller to distinguish it from the company stamp of the same shape.

    会社角印・Kaisha kakuin

    Unlike the Representative seal and Company bank seal, this is a square seal. It has a wide range of uses such as receiving receipts, invoices, and mail, as well as in-house documents. Only the company name is engraved on the stamp. 

    Still confused? This article may help, here.

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    What are the rules for a Japanese stamp?

     

    Registration

    These Japanese stamps, believe it or not, come with rules. 

    For registration, it is required to be at minimum a part of your name. You are able to choose between your full name (first and last), just your last name, or sometimes just your first name.

    Corrections and initials

    When writing in official documents if you make a mistake, usually in other countries we just cross out the mistake. Then rewrite the correct details, and write our initials next to it. But in Japan, in place of the initials, you use something called a 訂正印・Teisei-in (Correction mark) to approve the alteration. It shows that "it was corrected by the person themselves and not tampered with by others". 

    When correcting important documents, the official method is to use the same seal as the one stamped on the contract.

    For example, if you used a registered seal, you can correct it with the registered seal. If you used a Mitomein seal, you can correct it with the Mitomein seal.

    If you think you could learn more about why the Japanese stamp is important, take a look at this article, here.

    Foreigner / Gaijin / Japanese / Japan / Customs / Stamp / Seal

    Can a foreigner get a Japanese stamp?

    You might be wondering if you have to be Japanese to get a Japanese stamp, and if so, how would you even get your name on it? You probably won’t find your name on the premade ones at 100 yen stores if your name isn’t common in Japan. So that means Johns and Isabellas won’t be finding their names here.

    But that doesn’t mean you just don’t get one! As an international, you might not be expected to have or need one. But to be a functioning member of Japanese society that wants to live and work here, it is good to get one as soon as possible. Even if you don’t need it now, you will probably need one in the future. 

    Where can I buy a Japanese stamp?

     If you want to buy Hankos, here are some stores you can take a look at:

    • Hanko @ Tokyo: Located in Shibuya and Shinjuku. It takes a minimum of 4 hours and can be made with different materials such as wood and crystal. Even choose a beautiful case to go along with it. These specially custom-made ones can get a little pricey but they have crazy cool designs and base materials like titanium and Japanese patterns. 
    • JUN Japanese Gifts & Souvenirs: This one you can order online and is very customizable. They even go ahead and translate alphabet names into hiragana, katakana, or even kanji for free and carved on Hanko!
    • Kanji Hanko: This you can also order online. They choose kanji that match the pronunciation of your name and can also add images. 

    Pricing of the Japanese Stamp

    The price of a Hanko can range anywhere from 1,000 yen to over 30,000 yen depending on the quality and how personalized you want it to be.

    Get more information on the personalization of Japanese stamps , here.

    Japanese Stamp / Hanko / Inkan / Sekaido / Shopping

    How should I write my foreign name on a Japanese stamp?

    Now that you’ve realized you need a Japanese stamp even as a foreigner, the next big question is, what do I do if I don’t have a Kanji name? Well, you don’t necessarily need one, there are stamp options now where you can get your alphabet name carved into a stamp. However, since you're in Japan, why not assign yourself a Kanji name? 

    Moreover, if you plan to be naturalized in Japan, you will need to have a name with hiragana, katakana, or kanji. Keep in mind that the Hanko is tiny so you’ll have to just put your last name or first. Also if you're name is long, it may be better to go for Kanji. If you are just beginning to learn the Japanese language, our article can help, Guide to Hiragana and Katakana.

    Kanji name generator

    Here’s something fun to try:

    Kanji Name Maker - This website allows you to input your English name and it will translate it to Japanese Kanji. It’s not guaranteed to be accurate but it can be interesting to just see what you get. They also provide meaning for each Kanji. 

    Have a difficult time with Kanji? Our article on Kanji will give you study tips, Top 15 Japanese Kanji Tips.

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    What happens if you lose your Hanko?

    Oh no! You’ve lost your valuable Japanese stamp, what can you do? It can be a bit tedious if you lose it. The Inkan has the same power as a signature so if it’s stolen you should immediately inform your nearby police station. Then, go through the process of canceling the Hanko at the city office. 

    Process of reissuing your Japanese Stamp

    In order to cancel the Hanko, you will need to bring your Residence card or the My Number card along with the certificate of the Hanko. You don’t need to pay anything to cancel the Hanko. Before going to your local ward office, you should get a new Hanko. This way, when you get to the office to fill out a form to cancel your lost Hanko you can, on the same trip, fill out a different form to register the new Hanko. Since the Hanko certificate is connected to your old Hanko, the ward office will have to reissue your Hanko certificate. This typically costs only 50 yen.

    Bank reregistering

    In case the Hanko you lost is filed with your bank. You’ll also need to go to the same bank to re-register the new Hanko after going to the ward office. As you can tell, it can be a long process so it’s best to keep your Hanko safe.   

    If you want to know more about Japanese stamp logistics, see this article here.

    Inkan / Hanko / Ink / Stamp / Sign / Official

    Japanese stamp as a souvenir! 

    Even though the Japanese stamp is usually used for important official documents, it also can act as a great souvenir for your friends back home. Although they probably won’t be using it in the same ways as you would in Japan, it can be a fun and one-of-a-kind gift to get them with their Kanji names written. I mean how much more Japanese can you get? It’s reasonably affordable, works well for travel because they’re compact, and definitely won’t take up space in your suitcase. Also, it can be a unique gift they can’t really get anywhere else. You could even find some that have cute characters on it like pokemon!

    Pick up a 100 yen Japanese stamp

    Of course, if you’re getting souvenirs for a lot of people, it’s not practical to get each one custom. If you’re just looking to save time and also find an inexpensive Hanko as a personal souvenir or as a gift, at the 100 yen stores they have a large array of pre-carved seals with the most common Japanese Kanji names. For, you guessed it, 100 yen. What a steal! It pays to have a common last name, I got one of mine at a small local one but it isn’t guaranteed that all 100 yen shops will have it. So you’ll probably have to look around or give the stores a call. These mass-produced cheap ones should only be used for receiving packages and not for legally binding instances. 

    Get a custom Vending machine Japanese stamp

    Don Quijote actually has a Hanko 自動販売機・Jidō hanbaiki (vending machine) for 500 to 4000 yen. First, you can write in the name then it randomly changes it to Kanji characters. But you can pick whatever characters you like. You will also pick the material of the Hanko. Better yet, compared to ordering at other places, it only takes about 5 to 10 minutes to make. There seems to be a handy vending machine for everything in Japan! Look for it near the checkout area, it’s usually hidden in a little corner. 

    Looking for other souvenir options? Read our guide on Omiyage, the Japanese souvenir, perfect for your friends and family, Guide to Japanese Omiyage. 

    Japanese Stamp vending machine for custom making stamps / Hanko / Inkan
    Personalized kanji name carved into Hanko without Inkan ink

    Conclusion

    Ready to get your own? Once you get one with your own name on it, it’s good to carry it with you. In case you need it at home by the door when receiving packages and signing with them, it might be a good idea to get another one. Most people have 2, even a third just for their bank account. If you want to learn more Japanese beyond the Kanji on your Hanko, go to Japan Switch for affordable in-person and online Japanese lessons. 

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