HANKO’s History in Japan

A seal, in an East and Southeast Asian context is a general name for printing stamps and impressions thereof which are used in lieu of signatures in personal documents, office paperwork, contracts, art, or any item requiring acknowledgement or authorship. The process started in Middle East and soon spread across Asia.

In Japan, seals in general are referred to as HANKO.In Japan, seals (hanko) have historically been used to identify individuals involved in government and trading from ancient times. The Japanese emperors, shoguns and samurais each had their own personal seal pressed onto edicts and other public documents to show authenticity and authority. Even today Japanese citizens’ companies regularly use name seals for the signing of a contract and other important paperwork.

The first evidence of writing in Japan is a hanko dating from AD 57, made of solid gold given to the ruler of Nakoku by Emperor Guangwu of Han, called King of Na gold seal.At first, only the Emperor and his most trusted vassals held hanko, as they were a symbol of the Emperor’s authority. Noble people began using their own personal hanko after 750, and samurai began using them sometime during the Feudal Period. Samurai were permitted exclusive use of red ink. After modernization began in 1870, hanko came into general use throughout Japanese society.

Government offices and corporations usually have HANKO specific to their bureau or company and follow the general rules outlined for jitsuin with the following exceptions. In size, they are comparatively enormous, measuring 2 to 4 inches (5.1 to 10.2 cm) across. Their handles are often extremely ornately carved with friezes of mythical beasts or hand-carved hakubun inscriptions that might be quotes from literature, names and dates, or original poetry. The Privy Seal of Japan is an example; weighing over 3.55 kg and measuring 9.09 cm in size, it is used for official purposes by the Emperor.

Some seals have been carved with square tunnels from handle to underside, so that a specific person can slide their own HANKO into the hollow, thus signing a document with both their name and the business’s (or bureau’s) name. These seals are usually stored in jitsuin-style boxes under high security except at official ceremonies, at which they are displayed on extremely ornate stands or in their boxes.