Japanese stamp, "Hanko", "Inkan"

The Importance of Hanko in Japanese Culture

A seal or a printing stamp in East and Southeast Asia is sometimes used instead of a signature in office documents, contracts, personal paperwork, works of art or anything that requires authorship or acknowledgement. In western world, a seal is known among traders as chops or chop marks.

Stamps date back to 5500 BCE in the Middle East where it was used as personal symbols engraved on stones, clay, wood and shells. It all began when cattle farmers wanted to brand their livestock. People soon followed suit using the same method to identify their personal property. Hanko eventually found its way to Europe then to Asia.



In Japan, seals are referred as inkan (印鑑) or hanko (判子). Hanko or han are commonly used by many Japanese in everyday situations. The first evidence of writing in Japan was of a hanko that dates back to 57 CE. It was made of solid gold and was given to the ruler of Nakoku (a state which was located in and around modern-day Fukuoka City), by Emperor Guangwu of Han. The seal is known as ‘King of Na gold seal’. Initially, only the Emperor and his most trusted vassals used hanko as it was considered to be a symbol of the Emperor’s authority.

During the Feudal Period, the samurai were allowed to utilize hanko with the exclusive use of red ink. After Japan’s modernization began in 1870, hanko became popular throughout Japanese society.



Types of hanko

There are several types of hanko, whether official or non-official.

Jitsuin (実印) – an officially registered with the authorities at city hall or local ward office. This type of seal is used to conduct business and other important or legally binding events. (i.e. purchasing land, marriage documents, etc.)

Mitomein (認印) – this is an unregistered seal. It is usually used for less formal situations usually for signing for postal deliveries, utility bill payments and other low-security everyday functions.

Ginkōin (銀行印) – used specifically for bank affairs. A bank may ask for your hanko to open an account and will keep the seal in their records.

Sanmonban (三文判) – these are the inexpensive prefabricated hanko available at most stationary shops. These are usually not accepted for business purposes.

Company seals

The kaisha jitsuin (会社実印) or registered company seal, like the personal registered seal, is listed with the authorities, or the houmukyoku (legal affairs bureau). This is used to execute contracts and formal documents submitted to government offices. Many companies also create a banking seal called a kaisha kinkoin (会社銀行印) and kaisha mitomein (角印) for invoices and receipts.

There two different shapes of hanko used. The round hanko is used by individuals while a square hanko is used by organizations.