Kanji Clinic #70, The Japan Times, May 5, 2005
"Choose wisely your steady companion the hanko"
Many newly arrived foreigners to Japan, accustomed to scrawling their signatures on important documents back in their home countries, are surprised to learn that in this country they must obtain a name seal, or “hanko” (判子, also called 印鑑, inkan) in order to open a bank account or purchase a car. Postal and home delivery services often expect recipients of registered letters and packages to produce a hanko, and foreigners are likely to find themselves regularly stamping a variety of forms in the workplace.
Unlike Japanese with relatively common family names, foreigners cannot pick up a mass-produced hanko at their local 100 yen shop. Unless their new employer has a custom-made hanko waiting for them when they arrive in Japan--as mine did for me two decades ago-- foreigners must order theirs from a hanko maker, beginning at a cost of 2,500-3,000 yen for a standard model.
The first step is to decide which name--given, family, or both-- to have engraved, in what order, and in what script: romaji (the Roman alphabet), katakana, hiragana, or kanji. For some foreigners, the name they elect to use on their hanko becomes an important part of their identity during their stay in Japan. I recently asked non-Japanese visitors to KanjiClinic.com to report on the names gracing their name seals, and their responses reflected an interesting array of choices.
Some reported having one or both of their names engraved in romaji. Others went with the initials of their first, middle, and last names. One, Taylor Horner, used a capital “T” above a representation of his family name in katakana (Tホーナー).
Many elected to use only their family name written in katakana. Chris Barlow, accustomed to writing his family name (バーロウ) horizontally in katakana, got a surprise when he saw it written vertically on his hanko: The squashed-up characters, positioned from top to bottom in the round rim of the seal, looked remarkably like the face-- eyes, nose, open mouth, and beard--of a plump version of Mr. Barlow himself.
Some respondents with longish names, like Cory Carufel (コーリー・カルフェル), also went for a single name, knowing that their full moniker in katakana would not fit easily on the thumbtack-sized seal. Cory had his first name, コーリー, put on his hanko. Other foreigners avoided the use of one of their names for a different reason: Troy Miller’s given name in its Japanese incarnation, トロイ(to-ro-i), means “stupid,” and so his seal reads ミラー(mi-raa, Miller).
Peter Henti had both his given and family names, in that order（ピーター・ヘンテイ） put on his hanko, but found that Japanese people-- who write family names first, followed by given-- assumed from his seal that his family name was “Peter.” Foreigners who prefer to be called by their last names (i.e., “Doe-san” instead of “Jane-san”) may want to consider putting their family name first on their katakana hanko.
Finally, of particular interest to a kanji aficionado like me were the name seals of respondents who utilized kanji to represent the Japanese sounds of their names. Most had been able to find kanji that had positive meanings as well as appropriate sounds. Richard Halberstadt used 利茶道 (ri-cha-dou, profit-tea ceremony), and reports “overwhelming positive reactions” to it from Japanese people.
Less fortunate hanko-wise was Michal (pronounced “Mi-ha-u”) Zielinski, whose tutor chose the kanji for his hanko, 美春 (mi-haru, beautiful-spring) before Michal became kanji-literate. Some of his Japanese friends expressed the strong opinion that 美春was more appropriate for a woman. And Andrew Davis is having second thoughts about 泥鼻子(dei-bi-su, mud-nose-child) after some “fairly strong negative” reactions to his hanko.
Foreigners from non-kanji using countries who have a valid alien registration card are eligible to register a hanko at their local town or ward office, but the name on this official seal (実印, jitsuin) must appear in romaji or katakana, not in kanji. For everyday tasks, a non-registered seal (認印, mitomein) in any script will suffice.
Since I married and changed my name to Noguchi some years ago, a number of off-the-shelf “Noguchi” name seals have come into and out of my possession. But every now and then I like to take my one-of-a-kind maiden hanko out of its red velvet case, press it onto the tiny red ink stamp nestled beside it, and stamp out 静来 (shizu-ku, quiet-comes), the two kanji characters my employer chose to represent the sounds of my maiden name, Sisk. Seeing my old seal reminds me how much of a treasure a handcrafted hanko can be.
I am grateful to all KanjiClinic.com visitors who shared their hanko stories with me.