Are Japan’s ubiquitous personal seals endangered?

Mar 21, 2019

DUST SETTLES over the shelves in Fujio Kawasaki’s shop. Customers once sought out this corner of Tokyo for quality hanko, the personal seals Japanese use as signatures. Among the goods on display is a seal carved from elephant tusk, a relic from a bygone era. Nobody will fork out ¥80,000 ($720) for such items these days, says Mr Kawasaki. Now he fears the government will force him out of business altogether.

Hanko are a feature of life in Japan. Every adult—even the emperor—has one. They are required to buy a car, rent an apartment or get married. Managers use them to sign off on the endless faxes, memos and other antiquated documents that continue to circulate in offices.

All this paperwork makes Japanese offices among the least efficient in the rich world. Dogged by low productivity and hence poor profitability, Japan’s three biggest banks have begun allowing customers to open accounts without hanko. Most Japanese will soon be pressing fingers to screens instead of wood to paper, predicts Noriaki Maruyama, president of an online bank. Local governments are starting to process transactions electronically, too. The Digital First Bill, currently zipping through parliament, seeks to do away with yet more forms and stamps.

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