JAPANESE HANKO STAMP – THE MOST STYLISH SIGNATURE

YOUR AUTOGRAPH HERE, YOUR INITIALS THERE.

SIGNATURE AFTER SIGNATURE, DAY AFTER DAY, AND SO ON.

AN ORDINARY PRACTICE, PART OF ANYONE’S DAILY ROUTINE.

ARE YOU REALLY SURE?

1. INTRODUCTION TO JAPANESE HANKO

Hanko, Penna e inchiostro

Hanko, pen and Shuniko (ink)

Certify documents.
Sign contracts.
Validate worksheets.

Give me your autograph here, then your initials there.
Signature after signature, day after day, and so on.
An ordinary practice, part of anyone’s daily routine.

Are you really sure?

Our planet, you know, is full of mysterious places.
Each country has its own uniqueness, uses and habits.
It is also true that our world is a highly globalized place.
Processes that appear to work for a country might be used by many others as well.

But we know it very well.
Differences make the world such an intriguing place.
|| Difference = Uniqueness ||
|| Uniqueness = Value ||

Ok … But what does all this have to do with “signing documents”?

Now we get there.
Speaking of “original ways to validate a document”, there’s a country (actually more than one) where the act of “signing with a pen” is not enough to convert a stack of printed sheets into official documentation.

Needless to say …
Once again we are talking about Japan! 😁
(Where else ?!)

Here in Japan (plus few other eastern countries) this procedure follows interesting different rituals.

Nope! In Tokyo people does not sign with a ❌!
Nor with a star, a smiling face, a Super Mario mushroom or other funny emojis (even though they have been invented right here by a certain Shigetaka Kurita).

So? What happens in Japan?

All Japanese citizens have a personal collection of Hanko, specific tools used to validate all sorts of official documentation.

Still don’t know what I’m talking about?

Let’s make it easy.
Hanko is a small stamp, created with the only purpose of “being the official signature of its owner”. Sooner or later, every Japanese person comes into possession of it.

Yep! One stamp here, another just below and a last one at the bottom of this page.
And … boom! Your document is now validated!

Did I make it too simple?
Let’s dig into it.

2. WHAT EXACTLY IS THE JAPANESE STAMP CALLED "HANKO"?

Hanko Inkan Japan Seal Red Mark

Japanese inkan, the famous red logo you can make with an Hanko

Every Japanese adult owns (at least) 2 of them.
A casual one, for everyday uses.
A fancy one, for special events.

As I said, they have “at least 2”.
But someone has kind of a great collection, though.

Why that?
Because there are many kind of Hanko, each one with its own power to validate only a specific type of document.

And so?
What are these Hanko in the end?

Hanko (判 子) are small stamps with a carved customized signature. They’re used in Japan (and few other Asian countries) to officially validate different bureaucratic documents.

These Hanko stamps imprint on paper a colored mark (usually red).
The mark so “printed” by its hanko is called “Inkan” (印鑑).

Yes, I’ve called it a “stamp”, but don’t get me wrong. This Japanese tool shape is quite far from the classic rubber stamps design.
In this Japanese version, it’s usually a small cylinder with a round or square section, made (better to say “carved”) from different hard materials.

Each cylinder has indelibly engraved the name of the owner or the company / organization that uses the hanko.

Japanese artists for centuries have been marking their works with these same stamps. That’s how they create those famous bright red logos!

Yes! The same red (super cool) brand you have surely spot while browsing online. Perhaps while exploring the fascinating world of bonsai, or maybe when you first see the notorious Ukiyo-e art.

Ukiyo-E-Hokusai-Museum

Ukiyo-e art by the majestic Hokusai sensei (his inkan on the bottom right side)

Once imprinted on a sheet, the red logo is called inkan.
It is usually square shaped, with the name (of its master) written in Kanji characters, carefully chosen for their particular sonority and meaning.

Quick off-topic:
Kanji letters are part of the Japanese written alphabet,
along with Hiragana and Katakana.

This bright red logo (inkan) represents the owner’s right to officially validate any documents.
A single hanko, owned by a single person, has its own unique logo, a brand that you can stamp only using that specific personalized Hanko.

I guess you’ve already understood how it works.

3. HOW TO USE A JAPANESE HANKO SEAL?

hanko isolated japan japanese stamp

Un semplice Hanko cilindrico in legno

The marking process is intuitive and easy to make:

Hold your hanko with some pride. Firm grip, strong gaze, smirk a little. With your free hand, catch your Shuniku, a Japanese ink-soaked pad, specific for hanko.

Dab for 5-6 times your Hanko on the Shuniku (ink applicator), evenly transferring the color to the embossed face.
Try not to exert too much force and do not repeat the process more than necessary: ​​the risk is that too much ink will accumulate, turning the final graphic result (of the inkan) low quality and difficult to read.

Time to place your hanko on the paper sheet. Keep it straight and apply an even pressure.
Remember to keep the firm grip and the determined look, as explained in the first point.

The validation procedure ends by bringing your Hanko back up.
Be careful to always keep it straight, while the other hand holds the same paper where you are firmly imprinting your unique brand.

Congratulations!
Now you can satisfy your inner creative child, marking everything with your original (and super cool) red-flaming logo.

I was wondering who knows who was the first Japanese ever to use a hanko. Any idea where this habit comes up…?

Who hid the pens that day?

4. EARLY ORIGINS OF HANKO IN JAPAN

Hanko Ancient Seal from China

A pretty old Chinese Hanko royal Stamp

HANKO ORIGINS - THE SAMURAI ERA

Let’s jump back in time, for a moment. Japanese Samurai were already well known for the design and refinement of their family symbols.
Imagine them flaunting and proudly showing the beautiful emblems of their clans, as often happened, in a life-long competition.

I’m talking about Kamon (家 紋), the official heraldic family crest of the highest-ranking Japanese clans.

You could spot this logo on the clothing of each family member or decorating houses (usually roof tales). But the important for the Kamon was played on battlefields.

Imagine a Samurai battle, a crazy crowd in a messy situation. Here’s where the kamon came more useful than ever, helping any man to easily distinguish his comrades from the fighters of the opposing faction’s.

The Samurai clan mark represented indeed the prestige of their lineage.
The shape of these logos were meticulously designed. The most used graphic motifs were geometric and stylized shapes. Minimalist and impactful logos. A cool style which still fascinates graphic designers from all around the world.

Their creators were using wild nature as prime inspiration. Dragons, tigers, lions, but even plants and flowers, with their profound symbolic meaning.
Another element, which is still used in modern logos, is flora indeed, still used to represent the strength and identity of a business.

As a designer, I have always had kind of perversion for these Kamon logos. Their minimal trait. The clean geometric composition. They have been quite an inspiration for several graphic works I’ve done over the time.

Japanese Samurai Family Crests

A selection of Kamon, the Samurai’s clan official symbols.

Can you imagine why I’m telling you about family crests?
I mean, what does that have to do with Hanko?
Simply because these Samurai symbols started it all.

These Kamon, a graphic representation of the identity of a clan, lay the foundations of what, after centuries, have become the hanko culture we all know today.

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HANKO ORIGINS - THE MEIJI ERA

It was only during Meiji era, around 1870, that a great change happened in Japan

A new law, promulgated by the Japanese government, made any public document (validated just with unregistered signature or trademark) no longer officially effective.

As you can imagine, the Hanko stamp culture rapidly spread throughout Japan, completing the adoption during post-war modernization era.

What consequences?

The demand for Hanko dramatically grown and the Japanese market had to quick adapt to all this new rhythms.

Here’s how.

HANKO ORIGINS - THE MODERN ERA

The Japanese market, in response to the big customized Hanko demand, rapidly adapts.

There was a sudden outbreak of brand new models and types of hanko. New modern products and specific accessories linked to this world.

All in the name of Hanko!

An example?
They introduced special customized cases for Hanko.
Small treasure chests, decorated in thousand different ways, to always keep your own stamp-signature with you (anywhere you go).

Then Japanese created Shuniku new portable ink pads, to always have with you a convenient supply of hanko ink. Or again, special brushes to clean up the carved face of the hanko (where the signature is engraved), after being “soaked” in the ink .

That’s it.
Wait…not really
That was only the beginning.

Both design and accessories for Japanese hanko stamps were constantly evolving, to keep up with the times, the new trends and the needs of the modern users.

That happened in 1965, when the first self-inking Hanko hit the market. Shuniko (the red ink pad) was no longer necessary.

The evolution then continues, with the (what I call) “ninja-hanko”, simple stamps ingeniously hidden inside common use objects (like a pen, for example).

And today? What’s new in the Hanko world?

Some rumors warn of a possible change on the use of hanko itself. For now the reality is just that: for Japanese citizens, Hanko still continue to be central in everyday life.

Why central?
Let’s understand why in Japan you are almost forced to use a hanko.

5. HOW IS JAPANESE HANKO STAMP USED IN EVERYDAY LIFE?

Hanko-random-fai-da-te-BJT

DIY Japanese Hanko

Today, very little has changed (at least until 2020, when the pandemic pushed Japan to start thinking a possible future without these small stamps).

For the time being, Japanese hanko are still needed for a variety of public transactions and bureaucratic operations.

Example.
Are you a resident in Japan and need to do your stuff at your bank?
If you want to do specific operations, you will have to use a hanko, a special one. A stamp created uniquely for that purpose, and officially registered at your bank.

Another usual “hanko situation” is at the post office.
But also in many workplaces (as you clock in).
It’s necessary even to validate marriage documents, car registrations, births and deaths certificates, and so on.

I could go on for a while.

In Japan, hanko have so many uses and each situation requires its own specific stamp.

6. THERE ARE DIFFERENT TYPES OF HANKO IN JAPAN

Different Hanko Seal from Japan

Japanese stamps in a Hanko shop, Japan.

We can divide these tools into 4 groups.
4 different Hanko, different in names and uses.

1. GINKOIN (銀行 印)
2. JITSUIN (実 印)
3. MITOMEIN (認 印)
4. SANMONBAN (三 文 判)

1. GINKOIN (銀行 印)
Japanese citizens need a Ginkoin to create and manage bank accounts or for other important monetary transitions.

2. JITSUIN (実 印)
It’s the One. The most important Japanese validation stamp.

It has to be registered in your public office, where all the info about your personal hanko are cataloged.
In addition might be necessary to make a certificate of registration for your signature stamp (called “inkan Shimesho”).

There are few situations where your Hanko signature is not accepted, until the certificate of authenticity of your stamp (Shimesho) is shown.

3. MITOMEIN (認 印)
The most generic among all Japanese hanko.
It covers a great variety of uses in everyday life.

4. SANMONBAN (三 文 判)
It is a ready-made stamp that can be purchased in various stores. these hanko are already imprinted with popular Japanese names.

A Sanmonban can be a life-saving tool for the bad day when:
You are late -> You leave in a hurry -> You forget your hanko on your kitchen table.

It is usually made of plastic or other “cheap” materials and certainly not handmade or handcrafted.

It is therefore the cheapest among all the hanko and you can found it in a self-inking version (Self-inking Sanmonban is called “Shachihata“).

7. WHERE CAN I BUY A REAL HANKO IN JAPAN?

Hanko shop -Box-BJT-image

Hanko box in a shop in Tokyo, Japan.

The basic models of hanko (not handmade), can be purchased easily in many shops all around Japan for a modest sum (Base price around ¥ 500 around € 4.00 / $ 5.00). Some stores are specialize only in this entry level types of hanko.

On the one hand, we have these cheap simple stamps, on the other hand there is a big market of high quality handmade  hanko.
These high-end tools are different in material, design and price. For example, among the expensive pieces you can find stamps around 1000 dollars each (or more).

Quite a sum, no doubt!
But how is such a price possible?

Well, we are talking about handmade Hanko, made from high quality raw materials with excellent durability performance, artfully created by the skilled hands of a Japanese craftsman or a professional hanko engraver.

What materials are these luxury hanko made of?

8. HANKO RAW MATERIALS FOR ALL TASTES

Hanko-corno-vetrina-Giappone-Tokyo

Storefront window of a Japanese Hanko shop in Tokyo

Over time, hanko have been made with a myriad of different raw materials.

Wood, hard stone, ivory, deer horn, buffalo horn, crystal, jade.
Just to name a few.

Luxury raw materials with an elevate resistance, made to last (hopefully) for long time. Small treasures, handed down from generation to generation.

Speaking of this luxury hanko market.
Do you know what the recent trend is?

Titanium! An more and more popular material for the modern Japanese stamp makers. Strong, light enough and corrosion resistant.

What about you? Have you ever imagined how would your personal hanko stamp be?
What material would you choose for your hanko?

Because you know, you can buy your own cool stamp even if you are not Japanese.

Why should you buy it?
Nice question.

Well, either for official use (if you are a resident of Japan) or for recreational purposes, as an original souvenir or a mark to stamp as signature wherever you want (for example I use mine on the back of the photos I print, and on my sketches and drawings).

The one in the picture is the only hanko I personally engraved. 😎
I was under the supervision of Naoto Sensei, a Hanko craftsman from Kofu (Yamanashi, Japan). In the photo he is refining my not-so-bad work. The 3 characters “YA – KO – PO” (ヤコポ) are written in Katakana alphabet (the one Japanese people uses to write foreign names / words).

Coming soon. The full history of my private workshop
with Naoto sensei, Hanko master from Kofu (Yamanashi, Japan).
Crazy day.. it all started me being lost his city.

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9. AUTHENTIC JAPANESE HANKO FOR FOREIGNERS

Hanko-Maker-Japan-img-BJT

Japanese Hanko Master, while fixing the hanko I made during his one-to-one workshop 🤓

Foreigners does not have precise rules when choosing the name to be imprinted on their hanko. I mean, of course there’s your name on it. But you can choose to imprint (on your custom Japanese hanko seal) the first name only, the surname only, or even both.

Which Japanese alphabet should you use then?

Do you remember? In Japan there are 3 main alphabets.
Hiragana, Katakana, Kanji.

Hiragana
Curve shapes, soft and sinuous lines.
It-‘s used for all the Japanese words (in combination with kanji)
Katakana
Minimal, strong and geometric lines.
It’s mainly used for foreign names and words, as well as for some specific grammatical expressions (e.g. onomatopoeia)
Kanji
Adopted from Chinese alphabet, each ideogram has a specific meaning, a unique style and an elaborate design.

When your personalized hanko is a simple (but super-cool) souvenir from Japan, you can obviously choose your favorite name and alphabet.

If you live (or you’re planning to move) in Japan, well… that’s a different story.

If you wanna live there, remember this.
Many local government offices do not accept Hanko for foreigners when they are written in Hiragana alphabet (or in Rōmaji, which is the Japanese name for our Latin alphabet).

Avoid any mistake!

When you order an hanko online or if you buy one from a Japanese hanko maker or craftsman, remember to ask for a signature in Katakana or Kanji alphabet.

They have scrupulous nature, the hanko artisans, better not to surprise them.
After all, they condense all their experience into a series of small, artfully made engravings. They must be scrupulous and obsessed with details, from the beginning till the very last finishing touch.

10. FINISHES AND ARTISTIC DECORATIONS OF JAPANESE STAMPS

Hanko-Collection-Artigiano-Kofu

Alcuni Hanko fatti da Naoto sensei, un amico artigiano da Kofu (Giappone)

After testing it with my own hands, I can say it with no doubts.
Sculpting the surface of a hanko is not really an easy task.

It requires an excellent knowledge of the raw materials and a degree of absolute precision and concentration. Strong skills that only an experienced Japanese Hanko artisan can embody.

There are stamps so beautifully decorated to be considered real works of art.

Are you not convinced yet?

Just try to think that the engraving space on the Hanko small face measures no more than 10 to 15 mm (0.4-0.6 inches).
The Hanko artisan must work within this small area.
A truly meticulous task!

But that’s not all.

What most affects the final quality of an hanko seal above all, is the precision and homogeneity of the carved lines.

Then of course do not forget a look to the design, because each hanko maker has his own style.
A well made Japanese Hanko is harmonious and balanced. Letters and design must be dynamic and strongly expressive. Click To Tweet

On each stamp, the Kanji characters appear intricate and not exactly easy to read. It might appear like a mistake … but the graphic complexity is actually a key factor to prevent the creation of fake seals.

Think about your house key: the more elaborate it is, the higher the security level.

The face of an hanko is not the only creative element.

Even the “handle” of the stamp can vary in shape and complexity of the engravings, making these small works of art look even more artsy.
An highly decorated handle is a clear indication of the authority and prestige of the owner.

11. 4 FACTS ABOUT HANKO

FIRST OF THEIR BREEDS

Some Hanko are reeeeeally old!
I mean…being 2000 years old guy is quite impressive!
Many of them are from China, though.

THE GREAT ARTISTS' LOGO

As said, it appears in many famous pieces of art!
Have you ever noticed asian artists’ signatures looking as a red little mark?

YOU MIGHT FIND IT IN YOUR POCKET

Other common places to find those Japanese red marks?
Give a look to Japanese paper bills.
Every paper bill carries the unique mark of the Japanese bank governor.

EVEN HERE ON BEST JAPAN TOOLS

Last pill: have you noticed my logo, by the way?
The design inspo was an Hanko mark!

12. IN CONCLUSION

Times change, everything is going digital, but hanko seals are still essential in Japanese culture.

Recently, new digital toys (digital electronic hanko) are emerging, they could surely solve some limitations of their predecessors.
But let’s face it, they have nothing to do with real analogic hanko, specifically handcrafted by an experienced Japanese craftsman.

The gratification after using these traditional Japanese tools (following the good old rituals) is something that cannot be digitized! Click To Tweet In conclusion, what is a Hanko in the end?
Hanko is art in red and white!
A tiny representation of that authentic Japanese sense of beauty.

Domo Arigatō 🙏
Thanks for reading.
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Written by: Dromediary