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Japan's Seal of Approval

The ancient hanko has long substituted for a signature in the nation. And though critics say it is vulnerable to fraud, the stamp shows no sign of disappearing.


TOKYO — It can cost as much as $10,000 and as little as 80 cents. It's essential for emperors and paupers, those buying a $20-million house or a $20 newspaper subscription. It's a 5,000-year-old technology with deep security flaws but even deeper cultural roots.

It's the hanko, Japan's version of the signature.

"I don't exist in this society without my hanko," said Kyuyoh Ishikawa, a calligrapher and director of Kyoto Seika University's Institute for Writing and Civilizations. "Take them away and real society becomes impossible in Japan."

The hanko, Japan's counterpart to the Chinese chop, is a cylinder carved on one end with characters that, when stamped in ink, leave the owner's imprint. Most Japanese have several. Men's are generally bigger than women's, and bosses' larger than those wielded by their subordinates.

The most secure forms of hanko are reserved for banking or real estate deals, while off-the-shelf varieties are used for such everyday tasks as taking delivery of a package or registering a bicycle. It's one of the first things people look for on any document to make sure everything is official, authentic and trouble-free.

The hanko has a long, distinguished history. Then again, so does fraud. Nobleman Fukumaro Oishi was banished from society in AD 887 for making a counterfeit hanko. He was lucky. Many who followed in his footsteps were crucified.

Hanko technology hasn't changed a great deal since its origin in ancient Mesopotamia and China. It's still essentially a version of the hieroglyphics once carved in stone. But the tools available to thieves have changed. Scanners, computer graphics and cutting-edge printing technology make duplicating imprints easier than ever.

"Forgery cases have increased a great deal over the past 10 years," said Susumu Kobayashi, president of the Kobayashi Document Analysis Institute, who does work for the police. "Japan should really replace the hanko system."

This is sacrilege to traditionalists, who view the stamp as the embodiment of all things Japanese. "We started our history with hanko; it's in our DNA," said Mari Minamoto, a hanko expert and soothsayer. "Criticizing hanko is like criticizing the tea ceremony."

The stamp shows little sign of disappearing. It even has its own national day. And although some expect the hanko to evolve as credit cards and Internet banking grow more popular, the humble stamp remains an integral part of culture, superstitions, financial life, human relations and history.

Japan's first evidence of the written word was found on a solid-gold hanko dating to AD 57. Hanko stamps initially were held only by the emperor or, as an extension of his authority, his most trusted vassals. As an old expression has it, your hanko is your most valuable possession--after your life.

Over the centuries, hanko gradually succumbed to the trickle-down theory. Nobles started acquiring their own after 750. Samurai gained access to the club during the Middle Ages, along with an exclusive right to use red ink. The great unwashed masses followed after modernization in 1870.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur used a hanko after World War II to pass down his edicts during the U.S. occupation. Novelist Ogai Mori evoked the stamps' timelessness in his haiku: "Passing spring. I just spend my time stamping hanko."

At his small shop in Tokyo's tradition-bound Asakusa neighborhood, Makoto Hayashi sits hunched over a workbench meticulously carving in reverse several tiny, perfectly formed characters on a hanko.

Hayashi, chairman of the Tokyo Hanko Assn. and son of a kimono maker, has spent the past five decades perfecting his art. "I can carve 40 Chinese characters on a single grain of rice," he boasts in a room piled high with books, old invoices, dusty glass cases and carving tools.

Hayashi is seeing fewer customers these days, however, as discount competitors employ new technologies to churn out signature seals at a fraction of the $80 or more he charges. "No matter how hard we work to convince people we're making art, all they want is lower prices," he says. "It's really tough."

A few blocks away at the headquarters of Mr. Hanko 21, Japan's largest hanko chain, young workers with a few months of computer training create custom-made stamp patterns on computer screens in minutes. A few clicks of the mouse, and the image is relayed digitally to automated cutting tools at 240 stores nationwide.

Company founder and President Takashi Ito predicts that half of Japan's 6,000 mostly old-style hanko shops will be out of business by 2005 as more efficient players gain a greater share of the $650-million market.

"Traditional shops are dark, narrow and won't even tell you what they're charging you until you sit down," he said. "Stronger companies who understand the customer will survive, and the weak will die."

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