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Explained: How a traditional practice is coming in the way of Japan’s Covid-19 response

As the number of Covid cases in Japan rise, the hanko tradition is coming under fierce criticism, with industry leaders demanding that the tradition be abandoned.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: May 16, 2020 12:52:38 pm
Explained: How a traditional practice is coming in the way of Japan's Covid response There are specific types of the hanko that are used for authorising different kinds of transactions, such as those requiring registered seals, bank documents, and for day-to-day use. (Getty Images)

In Japan, where the government has been fiercely engaged in tackling the novel coronavirus pandemic, a centuries-old ritual is sharing the blame for impeding social distancing efforts.

The extensive and almost unavoidable use of the ‘hanko’– a personal seal generally made from wood or plastic — for authorising official documents ranging from contracts, marriage registrations and even delivery slips — has been forcing several employees to go to the office to get work done.

What is a hanko?

The hanko is a personal stamp that is equivalent to a signature in other countries, and is an essential part of several transactions. Small-sized and circular or square-shaped, the stamp is wet by an ink pad called ‘shuniku’, and the mark that it leaves on a document is called ‘inkan’.

The use of the traditional seal can be traced back to almost two millennia, when an emperor from China’s Han dynasty gave a solid gold stamp to an envoy from Japan in the year 57 AD.

Since then, for many centuries, only important places of work such as government departments and temples used these stamps. It was only during the Meiji era of the late 19th century that a law was passed to create a national certification and registration system, and the use of hanko became widespread.

Explained: How a traditional practice is coming in the way of Japan's Covid response On April 27, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for a relook into the practice and pushed for the digitisation of contracts. (Getty Images)

Even today, when many countries have seen a push towards paperless systems and adopting digital signatures, the hanko remains popular in Japan.

There are specific types of the hanko that are used for authorising different kinds of transactions, such as those requiring registered seals, bank documents, and for day-to-day use.

Why the use of hanko has come under a cloud

In response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, Japan has been aggressively promoting a work-from-home policy, and on May 4 extended its period of national emergency until the end of the month.

Yet, the centuries-old practice is causing employees to go to their workplace, as companies prefer to keep their registered seals at the office premises for security reasons. Many are thus having to take packed trains to work, chiefly for stamping-related work.

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According to a CBS report, so far, only 43 per cent of firms have changed to using digital seals. Even for availing benefits of the government’s recently announced stimulus package, stamped forms and personal visits are required, a Japan Times report said.

However, as the number of Covid cases in the country continues to rise, the hanko tradition is coming under fierce criticism, with industry leaders demanding that the tradition be abandoned.

On April 27, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for a relook into the practice and pushed for the digitisation of contracts. Japan’s minister for science and technology policy, who also heads a pro-hanko group in the national parliament, has also expressed his reservations.

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