Becoming Official In Japan – Part Two – Getting A Hanko

The next step to becoming official was to get a hanko. A hanko is a stamp that is used instead of a signature for most things in Japan. They are used in banking, for signing contracts, accepting packages, pretty much anything you’d use a signature for in the west.

Most Japanese have at least two – one for really official things like marriage contracts, buying a house or car, and an everyday one for accepting packages, signing a memo in work etc. Some people will have a third mid-range one for banking too. The more official ones (called inkan) are registered at the local ward office and are locked away in a safe or hidden at home, the less-official ones (called hanko) are just kept anywhere – in a handbag or by the door at home.

Most inkan are handmade by a professional. Almost every small town will have a shop, even mine. For an everyday hanko, you can buy them off the shelf if you have a common Japanese name. Obviously, as a foreigner I had to have mine made. You can pay anything from ten dollars up to thousands depending on what you want yours made of, from plastic or wood up to ivory or semi-precious stones. I went with wood and paid 50 dollars. It turns out that this was really expensive, but I went to my local little old lady shop and it was the cheapest one on display. I didn’t really have the Japanese to haggle. I wrote out my name in katakana, pointed at the one I wanted, then came back 5 days later to pick it up.

You can choose almost anything you want for your hanko – I chose my full name in katakana to match my gaijin card just to make things easier. If your name is James Smith you could have that, or J Smith, or Jim S, or JS, or whatever. You could go all out and have someone convert your name to kanji and get that.

I got a pink case with my hanko, with a little ink pad and everything. I didn’t choose it, but when I opened the box there it was. I suspect that a lot of the 50 dollars I paid went for the case.

I had to use my hanko to open a bank account and get a cellphone, though I suspect that a signature would have been fine for the cellphone, the woman was surprised when I whipped it out of my bag.

A word of warning though. Make absolutely sure that you spell your name correctly for the person in the shop. Have them read it out to you. Do not realise three weeks later that actually your hanko says Jum Smath. You’ll feel like a fool going back to the shop and getting them to change it. Belieeeeeeeve meeeee.


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