Hanko Seals Become Hot New Japan Tourist Souvenir

Hanko Seals Become Hot New Japan Tourist Souvenir

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Hanko seals
Picture: HiroS_photo / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Hanko seals in Japan may one day go obsolete due to digitization. But thanks to tourists buying them as souvenirs, they're more popular than ever.

What do you get as a souvenir when you travel to Japan? Some come back with stacks of manga and video games. Even more people enjoy taking some of Japan’s traditional arts home with them. Now, local media reports, inbound tourists are treating themselves to a uniquely Japanese gift: hanko, or seals, engraved with their names.

A rush of foreigners buying hanko

Picture: yasuyasu99 / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

An hour’s train ride heading south from Tokyo connects to the seaside city of Kamakura, where tourists rave over the scenic Enoden train and the Great Buddha statue. There, a new and unexpected attraction has emerged among foreign visitors who want to carve their names into memories to bring home.

Their eyes are set on hanko (ハンコ), also called inkan (印鑑), which are seals that serve as signatures on official documents in Japan. (Technically, the hanko is the device used to make the seal; the inkan is the impression itself. However, some people use the terms interchangeably.)

The number of foreign tourists making reservations at Kamakura Hanko is increasing at double the pace of last year, when only 65 groups visited. Including those who come without reservations, approximately 40% of profits were from foreign customers.

The shop has drawn in more Americans and Europeans, and there has been an overall increase in inbound tourists. Japan hit a new record of over 3 million foreign visitors in March.

The hanko trend among tourists began last year, according to shop owners. Stores like Kamakura Hanko handcraft and sell the seals after consulting with individual clients to decide what letters, fonts, and materials go into the design. A personalized hanko comes out at a price range between ¥10,000 to ¥30,000 (about USD $64 to $194).

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The Mayor of Nice, France, however, got his for free when Kamakura City had the Frenchman’s name carved into a hanko as a gift.

Hanko as art

Foreign tourists reportedly use their hankos made in Kamakura to seal documents rather than sign them or even use them as decorations.

The growing fascination with hanko among foreigners runs opposite of the declining use of the seal among Japanese, who are using it less often due to increasing digitization. Tsukino Mitsuhiro, 44, the spokesperson of Kamakura Hanko says that his foreign customers admire the seal for its aesthetics rather than practical applications.

“There are a lot of foreigners who think ‘kanji and katakana are cool.’ So hankos with people’s engraved names are popular as an art piece,” Tsukino told a reporter for the site Kanaloco.

Some tourists come with background knowledge of hanko’s history and “praises it as a culture that represents Japan.” Many are surprised to learn that hanko are used, not only for signing contracts, but for documents relating to marriage and divorce.

Dual-language hanko

Picture: Canva

West of Kamakura in Yamanashi Prefecture’s “Village of Hanko,” seals with both kanji and English are a hit among foreign tourists. A Swiss exchange student, 16, made a hanko with the name Dushan by selecting kanji that made corresponding/similar vowel sounds.

Du→道 (Do), which means “path”

Shi→志 (Shi), which means “determination”

An→案 (An), which means “idea”

Using the hanko that engraved both Dushan and 道志案, the exchange student sealed a letter of gratitude to their host family.

Will hanko disappear one day?

People have used hanko as individual signatures in Japan since the Heian and Kamakura eras. Busiensses and governments still use them for all manners of signing official documents today.

However, many business and government experts have bemoaned that hanko have hampered digitization efforts in Japan and kept the country stuck in the Analog Age. Several years ago, the newly-formed Digital Agency of Japan, led by Liberal Democratic Party politician Kono Taro, vowed to lead the charge in digitizing hanko signatures. Calls for their replacement accelerated during the pandemic. Critics note that hanko are far from secure, as anyone with your seal can press it onto a document.

However, as Gendai Media reports, the digitization effort appears to have stalled out. If anything, paperwork in Japan is now more complicated. If you need to send a signed document in email, you need to print it out, stamp it with a hanko, scanned, and mail it back to its recipient – a process little better than sending the doc via the mail. The introduction of the My Number system has also made paperwork more complicated in the country.

The author at Gendai, Noguchi Yukio, laments that these failures are keeping Japan “stuck on 1980s technology.” That’s bad news for Japan and its overall business productivity. On the other hand, it’s good news for hanko shops, which can continue to make good money off of Japan’s record influx of tourists.

Sources

はんこはクールな土産物 鎌倉で外国人観光客の購買急増、市も魅力PR. カナコロ

「ハンコ」が外国人を魅了“当て字”に感激…どう使う? “手作り”…街に観光客. テレ朝

印鑑の歴史。Hankoya

そういえば「脱印鑑」はどこへ行った~デジタル庁でデジタル化はむしろ事態悪化、事務負担はかえって増えるばかり. Gendai Media

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