While a signature is all you need to authorize a contract in most countries outside East Asia, in Japan—as well as Korea and to a lesser extent China—a personal seal, known as inkan or hanko in Japanese, is what you’ll need
Signing contracts, doing your banking (at a bank) or receiving a parcel are just three such cases. The necessity for a hanko and even the type of hanko may vary depending on the situation
Although the Japanese government is (reportedly) phasing out the use of hanko in many situations, you should expect the seals to stick around for a good few years yet
Jitsu-in (実印) Ginko-in (銀行印) Mitome-in (認印)
A jitsu-in (literally meaning “actual/true seal”) is the one you would use when signing a contract. If you’re a freelancer and you need to sign a contract with a company, you need a jitsu-in. The same goes for other situations like setting up a company or buying a house.
For the jitsu-in to have legal standing, you must register it at your city office. After you’ve registered it, they’ll also issue you with a “inkan card” which will allow you to print certificates of seal registration
A ginko-in is simply a hanko for financial transactions. Instead of registering it with your city office, you just register it with your bank(s). It can be used to withdraw money from your account or sign up for a loan, so you should look after it.
While Japanese patrons are typically required to register a ginko-in when they open a bank account, most banks don’t require it of foreign customers
One big exception is when you start a company. Since a company isn’t a real person and can’t sign anything, you need to register a ginko-in when you open an account
A mitome-in is your regular, everyday hanko which you use for everyday things—like receiving parcels or for stamping on an invoice if you are a freelancer. The mitome-in is not registered anywhere and has no legal standing
Some people use the same inkan for all three different purposes, but given that the jitsu-in is equivalent to your signature, and it can be easily copied, the less you use it the better
you do run into a situation where you require a hanko, the whole process from ordering your inkan to registering it can be done in three days or less, so there’s no rush to get yourself inkan’d up before you actually need it
The only rule for what can be put on a hanko is that it has to be at least part of your name. You can use your whole name, your last name only, or even just your first name
You can’t register an inkan with characters that aren’t part of your name (either Latin alphabet or katakana)
You can have your name on the inkan in either Latin alphabet or in katakana
you choose katakana, make sure you have a katakana version of your name registered (this may be recorded on the back of your residence card) at your city office or they may reject the inkan
The diameter of the inkan must be between 8 mm and 25 mm
Hankoya used to be a fixture of every neighborhood of Japan, but with chains taking over and a lot of the ordering now happening online, hankoya are more difficult to find than they used to be
When ordering, you start by choosing the material. Prices start at ¥2,047 for the smallest, cheapest wooden hanko and go up into the tens of thousands of yen if you want to rock a hanko made from premium materials like silver or titanium
Once your hanko has arrived, take it along with either your residence card or your “My Number” card to the inkan registration section (yes there’s a special section) of your local city office. Fill out a simple form and pay ¥50 for your inkan card and you’re done
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