Thursday, June 25, 2009

Signed, Sealed, Delivered

My signature is atrocious. Anyone who takes a moment to look at my hasty scribble will surely snicker at the childlike mess of pen strokes that are somehow supposed to suffice as evidence of my identity. I’ve tried to improve it and to craft something a little more… distinctive. Something with a bit more aesthetic appeal than the scrawl I produce. But to no avail. Even Japanese people scoff.

Luckily, in Japan, in the land where the writing is complex, where the characters are beautiful and where calligraphy is an art form, a signature is not necessary. Instead, the Japanese use a seal to stamp official documents. This seal is called an “inkan” or a “hanko”. There are many different kinds but they are all stamps that print a name in red ink on a white background.

When I started working here, I didn’t have a seal and my colleagues decided to give me one as a gift. It’s an absolutely essential piece of office equipment and I use it many times every day to stamp internal documents. For seals used in the office, Japanese people have their surname engraved in a circular seal that is about a centimeter in diameter. Japanese surnames almost always have two characters, sometimes one and rarely three. Western people have several choices when creating their own seal.

  1. Write your name in katakana and put this in the seal. Katakana is a phonetic syllabary that is used to spell out the pronunciation of foreign words. Foreigners almost always write their names in katakana. In converting to katakana, Japanese syllables must be chosen so as to approximate the original pronunciation as closely as possible. If you choose katakana for your hanko, you will probably only be able to squeeze in 3 characters on two lines. My name is アンドリュー, which is 6 characters and just fits. It is pronounced, “an-doh-ryew”.
  2. Choose kanji for your name and put this in the seal. Kanji are characters imported from China that have meaning and can have multiple pronunciations in Japanese. For example 川 is river and 木 is tree. 木 can be pronounced “ki” or “moku”. Since there are various characters for a given pronunciation, foreigners have many choices when attaching kanji to their names. My friends attached the following kanji to my name: 安藤龍. Approximate meanings are 安: tranquil, 藤: wisteria tree, 龍: dragon.
  3. Write your name normally in the alphabet and put this in the seal. I was told that you can have up to two lines with up to 6 characters on each line. My surname and first name both have six characters. Perfect.

I went for option 3 and this incurred a surprising amount of fascination from my colleagues. They had never seen a seal with English characters before. Here it is:

Hanko Stand

Hanko Stand Close-up

If you choose option 1 or 2 then you’ll also have to choose a font and style. To illustrate the choice available, I found some samples where the name 徳川 (Tokugawa) is used. Tokugawa Ieyasu is a famous character from Japanese history.

認め印/篆書体 認め印/太枠篆書 認め印/吉相体 認め印/古印体 認め印/隷書体
篆書体 太枠篆書体 吉相体 古印体 隷書体
ていしょたい ふとわくてんしょ きっそうたい こいんたい れいしょたい

If you’re like me, you’ll find some of these hard to identify with the original characters. In the office, some of my colleagues use seals with styles that are difficult to read. Documents are passed round and once you’ve read the document, you're supposed to stamp it. When I started out, it was difficult for me to tell who had read the document and who hadn’t. I therefore couldn’t work out who to pass it on to. I’m used to it now but it was a challenge. I’ll do another post in the future on how this document stamping exercise works.

Most people will have several seals. One or two for the office, one to keep at home by the door to sign for deliveries, one official version which you use for important documents and maybe more. Your official seal will be used for things like renting an apartment, buying a vehicle or getting married. The official seal is called a “jitsu-in” and these are closely regulated by law. The size, shape, design and font are all specified to be within certain limits. There is also a “ginko-in”, which is the seal used for opening a bank account.

Carving seals is an old profession in Japan and most people go to a specialist to get their jitsu-in and ginko-in. If you have a common name, then you can buy a seal to put by the door from your local miscellaneous goods store:

Hanko Stand  
Hanko Stand Close-up

These days, seals can also be ordered online but a specialist will be able to design something unique to you. This provides security, especially important with the bank seal. It’s important to keep your official seal in a safe place since it is proof of your identity. It’s easy to forge a signature but it’s easier to stamp a seal if you’ve got it to hand. In my company, the important seals are kept in a safe.