Traveler Trivia: What are Hanko?

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As you travel through Japan, you are likely to come across a red seal on any number of traditional or contemporary documents, including some antiques or artwork you may pick up along the way.  The seal looks something like this:
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So what is that exactly?
It's a Hanko, which is a personalized seal typically engraved in sandstone, but modern versions can come in plastic or any number of other medium.  On the seal is a name--think of it like a signature for Kanji (Chinese characters).  While Japan is not the only country still to employ seals today, you may be surprised at just how important they are.  For example:

Hanko represent individuals, families, and companies for all legal documentation.


While all hanko do not have to be registered, all official documents must be stamped with a hanko that is registered at the local city office where the owner resides.  That is the way for the government to ensure that there are no forgeries.  As such, each hanko has to be unique, and so there are many professionals throughout Japan whose sole function is to craft unique hanko for people or companies.  Typically, every Japanese household has one hanko, though if someone in the family has additional business dealings, he or she may have an extra specific to his/her activities.  Each company will also have a unique hanko, and they'll commonly range in shape in size between the small circular seals that every clerk will have available to the large square behemoth seals reserved for the company president or the board.
But more than just serving as someone's "John Hancock" for documentation...

...Hanko tell a story.

When you look at a Hanko, the size (ranging from dime sized to coaster sized), the design of the characters, and the type of hanko (stone, plastic, rubber, etc.), each offer insight into the owner of the seal.  If there is only a family name on there it could be that the owner is an eldest child who inherited the seal from his parents with the rest of their estate.  If the hanko has many characters on it, it usually implies some sort of important office or company (or at least one that is trying to appear important).  Since every registered hanko is unique, the decisions that go into it are telling.
But the use of hanko also tells a story.  Of course, as described above, it is an indication of legal actions taken, but it is also a way to mark ownership or craftsmanship.  Take a look at the picture below:
On a hanging scroll (kakejiku) and other antiques (sometimes on the objects themselves or on their wooden boxes), you will typically see at least two seals: the first belongs to the artist (not shown in this picture above).  The next belongs to the owner of the object.  Traditionally, if that person passes ownership to someone else, he/she is supposed to place a new seal on it.  So as you can see in the picture above, the kakejiku has had two owners.  Personally, my favorite antiques are the ones with many, many seals on there, because it tells me that the object has enjoyed one heck of a journey!
So that's the trivia bit about hanko, but here's my advice to you travelers out there:

Hanko make great souvenirs.

It's true.  Just take a look at this hand-carved hanko that a close friend of mine (you can see his name ヨシ, Yoshi, etched in there) made for me.  The sample seal on the left spells out Ma-i-ku (Mike).  There are so many beautiful hanko in Japan, and customizing them can be a breeze as long as you know where to to go!

So where can you get Hanko? 

If you are handy like my pal Yoshi, you can find stores and craft centers in Japan that will let you carve your own hanko.  Our very own Odigo has lots of Spots listed that could fit the bill for you, but in case it hasn't made it onto this site yet, you can always look up a city's tourism website to find those sorts of interactive experiences.  The process takes a good hour or so to make something work keeping, but it can be a fun experience that produces something that will carry both personal and cultural memories for you. 
If you do not have time or are not confident in your craft skills, you can head to a hanko store, where the maker will take your name, create a design, and complete one for you.  Depending on the skill and work load of the craftsman, it could take up to a week to fulfill an order, but he/she may be willing to mail it to you once completed.
Finally, you can opt to use a vending machine like the one at stores like Tokyu Hands shown below:
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These can be a bit daunting because all of the instructions are in Japanese, but you can always ask the store clerks for assistance.  In this machine, you can select your own characters and styling for the seal, as well as the case.  Different options increase the cost, but it will run you anywhere between 500-1500 yen and takes about 20 minutes to complete.  Still, it is a quick and easy way to have your own customized hanko completed during your travels!
So there you have it--a bit of trivia on those red seals you'll see and the hanko that make them.  I hope that you take the time to pick one up along your journeys in Japan.  If nothing else, they make a fun way to sign off your postcards that you'll be sending back home from your travels! 

Mike B