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Japanese Seals

Japanese seals, called either inkan or hanko, are similar to signatures on official documents. They date back to the first evidence of writing in Japan 57 A.D. and have particular significance in Japan, symbolizing the authority of their owner.

Originally, seals were used only by emperors, with their direct appointed vassals handling the seal in order to carry out the emperor's decrees. Noblemen eventually used seals in the 8th century, followed by samurai in the 12th century A.D. By the end of the 1800s, seals were no longer exclusive to the upper class and used widely among all Japanese people.

Inkan is the most commonly used seal, while hanko is less formal. The size of the stamp produced by a seal is often telling of the owner’s status. Compared to the average person’s seal, the seals of government officials are much larger. Status is also visible in the amount of decoration on the handle of the seal. A government official's seal is likely to be ornately carved, while the average citizen might have little to no exterior decoration.

Quick Facts

  • The first known Japanese seal dates back to 57 A.D. It belonged to Emperor Guangwu of Han and was made of solid gold
  • There are four seals that a Japanese person might possess: jitsuin, ginko-in, mitome-in, and gago-in. Jitsuin is the most formal and is legally binding. Ginko-in is used mostly for banking, mitome-in is used to for mailing or billing, and gago-in is primarily used by artists to sign creations
  • There is speculation that the importance of seals on documents and contracts may no longer be relevant to contemporary society due to technology improvements and counterfeit risk

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