What is a Hanko? What is an Inkan?

If you’ve been living in Japan for a while you’ve probably had to set up a bank account, apply for a phone, sign a job contract…something that requires your signature. If you’ve ever signed for something, have you ever wondered why that signing space for most Japanese documents is so freakin’ small? Well, the reason is that most times when a person signs an official Japanese document in Japan, they don’t use a written signature at all, they use a personal name stamp called a hanko.

What is the difference between a Hanko and an Inkan?

I truly don’t think there’s a difference. I went to the post office yesterday to open a bank account and one of the clerks referred to my hanko as an inkan. I think the terms are interchangeable. The term hanko (はんこ or 判子) means “seal” while inkan (いんかん or 印鑑) can mean stamp or seal.

What kinds of Hanko/Inkan are there?

I perused a one of the small hanko shops near my house and there are hundreds of options, there were metal ones, wooden ones, red ones, green ones…I do not like them Sam I am…wait..sorry…my brain went Doctor Seuss for a minute. Needless to say, there are quite a few different options to choose from, and depending on the material, personal stamps can get pretty expensive. I have two different types of hanko, a circular stamp and a square stamp. I have looked at both stamps and can’t make out what the square one says whatsoever. The circular one is very simple and says Ash in katakana. From what I understand (and have seen) businesses use the square ones more often than not and individuals (i.e. personal signatures/documents) use the circular ones.

How much does a hanko/Inkan cost?

I am really trying to save money, because I won’t get my first paycheck until May 31st (OUCH!!). I was actually able to get my stamp through my company, and it cost me only 1000 yen. I don’t know if that’s normal, though. I think in general, a cheap hanko runs about 2000 yen. I’ve seen others that cost as much as

Do you have to have a hanko/inkan if you live in Japan?

From my personal experience, I did not need an hanko/inkan to survive my first three years in Japan and I was able to secure a bank account, apartment, receive packages, join a gym, join a karate club and much much more. I think most organizations understand that you’re not Japanese and try their best to accommodate you. In those situations where they ask for a stamp, I would simply say I don’t have one and the attendant lets you make a small signature in, or near, the space where you’re stamp is supposed to go. If you are a bit more gung ho about adapting to Japanese culture, then having one is a good idea and will definitely save you some time.

Where Can I Buy a Hanko/Inkan?”
There are many shops that make hankos/inkans for Japanese people and for foreigners. I’ve never had one made personally, but I’ve seen shops all over the place. The company that Interac used to do mine was INSERT NAME HERE!! If you’re unsure of where to go to get your stamp, I think you might try going to your local mall.

What if somebody steals my hanko/inkan and uses it?

I really wouldn’t worry about this at all because if a document is important enough to need your John Hanko** they will ask you for your alien card, address, etc. to verify your identity. I wouldn’t worry…not at all.

The Hanko/Inkan is a big part of Japanese culture and has probably been a custom for hundreds, if not more, years. Especially when you can get a hanko for such a low price, I say why not? “When in Japan, do as the Japanese do,” right?

**Hey! Did you like my joke? It’s funny because John Hancock kinda sounds like John Hanko…sigh…okay…I’ll stop.
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  • -chuckles- I got the joke. I’d been looking into this myself lately. I have a fascination with all kinds of writing utensils and in my eyes the Hanko falls under it. I hope that I’m able to get one eventually.. though I’m worried about the translation of my name.

    • Donald Ash

      Really? That’s great, you actually laughed at my joke! I have tons of cheesy jokes in my head and believe you me, you’ll definitely be seeing more of them as you read. Yeah, with hankos, I think that’s a major concern for some people is getting it done right.

  • Mark

    Donald, that joke WAS funny. I laughed too. I think most Japanese have at least two hanko — a legal one and an everyday non-legal one. In my experience the latter is used most for stamping mail deliveries so a) get one that’s self-inking and b) keep it in your genkan! I guess you’ll need a few of them as my company also uses them for signing internal documents. The legal one (which I’ll call inkan now so you can tell the difference) may or may not be the same as the one you use in the bank — ie you may have two of them, too. I’ve been in Japan three years and only just realized that you need to register your inkan with your local ward office in order to do some legal things with it, such as sign a lease on an apartment. That’s even though nobody else is going to have an inkan with a weird katakana foreign name like mine!! The lease company gave two options: registered inkan or registered signature. The former cost about 300 yen including a certificate. The latter you get at your Embassy and can cost you the contents of your saving account. Incidentally, when you register your inkan you get a laminated credit-card sized card. My Japanese wife says you must guard it with your life as people can use that card to open bank accounts in your name and other nasty things. So now I have two things to hide away (laughs). You should also note that if your wife decides to divorce you, all she needs to do is stamp a divorce form (also easy to pick up at the ward office) with your inkan. You can be divorced without even knowing it! So you have to hide your inkan from your wife somehow. Put it somewhere she’ll never dare go. Like your sock drawer. I guess the same applies for foreign wives of Japanese men. Finally, though we paid to have our everyday hanko made with my name (just written in katakana, no fancy design like the inkan), does anybody actually care what it says on it? You might as well just pick up a cheap self-inking stamp with any old surname on it. Or, if they do it, one with just your first syllable in katakana, though I’ve never seen them. (The racks of hankos in 100 yen shops are just wooden ones that don’t self-ink, so avoid those.)

  • Mark

    Oh, one more thing I forgot. Boy, aren’t hanko complicated? If you choose to have your official legal inkan written in katakana, then your registered name at the ward office has to also be in katakana. (Don’t try to come up with some fancy kanji for your legal inkan, the ward office will not accept a kanji name from a foreigner.) So when I registered mine, after 3 years in Japan with a perfectly good romaji foreign name, suddenly I also had to change my name from romaji into katakana. Eek! Now my name is some unpronounceable gloop. By the way, Donald, your text is BIG!!!

    • Donald Ash

      Thanks for the post, Mark. Sounds like you’ve definitely had to go through some hoops to get your hanko registered. But it least it’s cool now. Great info!

  • If you are going to Taiwan anytime soon…you can get hanko for dirt cheap in Taiwan.

    They have a jade/flower market every weekend in central Taipei.

    They can do it then there, and cheaply!


  • Rachael

    I just got one as a gift from a friend, a pretty expensive one, too, it looks like, and I was wondering how to take care of it. Can’t the ink dry, build up, and get crusty, making the stamp illegible? Can i just use some water and a old toothbrush, or is that a bad idea? Mine is wooden, btw.

    And really cool thing I saw at the shop we went to; the owner had certified mammoth tusk that you could get your inkan made out of. It was running at ¥1,630,000, though. Still, if I ever became rich, that would be an awesome thing to have. And a super cool conversation starter.

    • Mark

      Thing is, the only people who ever see my hanko are bank tellers. Not really much of a conversation starter there…it’s not the sort of thing I whip out to show off to friends. Do they do mammoth tusk iPhone cases? As for cleaning it, I guess cleaning it with a soft toothbrush might work. But to be honest, how many times a year does it get used? Five? Ten, tops? It’s nice and red from the ink, but the wood seems tough, and it’s not likely to gunk up I think. Plus it gets scraped by those hard paper squares in banks, and they don’t seem to damage it, so it must be pretty sturdy.

    • Donald Ash

      That’s a really good question Rachael. I’ve never really looked into how to care for a hanko. It’s a great question. I have to say that I’m not sure on this one… you’ve stumped me :O :) . Mammoth tusk?!? Whoa, that’s crazy expensive! You’re right, though, it would be a cool conversation starter.

  • Chris

    It looks like no one has replied to this recently, but I just wanted to share my personal experience with anyone who might be interested. When I first came to Japan in 2008, I went to a 100 yen shop and picked out a hanko/inkan for 栗須, which is read the same as my first name クリス. There probably aren’t many foreign first names that have corresponding family names in Japanese, though. I guess I got lucky. However, my understanding is that you can basically use whatever characters you want. Over the years I’ve opened multiple bank accounts with both my 100 yen kanji hanko/inkan and a katakana one that I had made up more recently for about 1000 yen. I’ve signed multiple leases for apartments/my current house and opened accounts with Softbank and au. I’ve even used my katakana hanko/inkan, which has not been registered with any ward office, to complete all of the paperwork to get my current car (this includes the loan, too). Just make sure that whatever you use to open a bank account matches the one you use for any other applications you fill out (i.e. when you get a cell phone, set up furikomi for your rent/utilities, etc.)

    Anyway, my point is, if you come to Japan and you’re strapped for cash, just go to a 100 yen shop. You can think of it this way, how many people’s signatures even closely resemble their names? Seriously, have you ever been able to read a doctor’s signature? It’s the same principle here, as long as there is a consistent signature/seal, nobody really cares.

    • Dave

      Thanks Chris, great info here. Much appreciated. I actually bought one today without research and it cost quite a bit. I will write off the cost as a souvenir…wishing I had of checked your post beforehand though.

  • Ursula Maria

    I know I’m late to the game but here a short explanation what the difference between a hanko and an inkan is.

    Hanko is the physical object with which you stamp the paper.

    Inkan is the stamp on the paper.

    Basically you use the hanko to create an inkan.

  • BCD

    Just a quick question. My hank has a dot on the handle which I presume is to indicate either the top or bottom but I don’t know which? Had it at least 15 years and only thought to ask now!

    • BCD

      Hanko, sorry!BCD

      • J

        It indicates the top.

  • Kirk S

    Thanks a lot Donnie! Article is very helpful and so are the comments.

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