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The “hanko”: the Japanese seal shunned by the authorities but adopted by foreigners



For several years, the Japanese government has led a crusade against hanko : this Japanese personal seal – also used by companies – is considered a major obstacle to digitalization.

In fact, this equivalent of the signature in France is essential for almost all administrative and commercial procedures in Japan, and in particular for the validation of contracts. In 2020, the Minister of Digital Reform, Taro Kono, ordered all state institutions to put an end to its use, according to a daily article Nihon Keizai Shimbun of the time.

In this context, manufacturers and sellers of hankos are facing an existential crisis: according to the National Association of Hanko Businesses, an industry cooperative, the number of member stores of the organization has almost halved since 2014, reports the newspaper Asahi Shimbun.

Artisans and shopkeepers are not, however, remaining idle and trying to find a survival strategy. One of them is to sell hankos to foreign tourists, who are increasingly numerous in the country.

“For foreigners, this is a very nice gift”

Thus, Kamakura Hanko, a boutique specializing in high-end seals with traditional sculptures, has a few more foreign customers each year. According to the reporter who visited the city of Kamakura, south of Tokyo, the business hosted 65 tourist groups last year, and that number is expected to be exceeded this year. “For foreigners, a handmade seal with their name engraved on it is a very nice gift,” declares the boss, Mitsuno Tsukihiro. Faced with the craze, “certain store owners have started to learn English”, writes the newspaper.

In some cases, the Japanese seal can even become a diplomatic gift. In April, Katsuichiro Senda, deputy mayor of Kamakura, visited France’s twin city of Nice. He then offered a hanko artisanal to the mayor, Christian Estrosi.

“If we succeed in promoting our product and attracting foreign markets, this will allow our sector to survive,” hopes for his part Tsukihiro, cited by the newspaper.

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