Hanko is acknowledged to clarify the rights and obligations and to have a role of social identification process in Japan traditionally. Seal has been taking the position of signature as common authentication and identification method in Japan for over 1000 years.

Whether a seal has social significance or social influence gives rise to difference in its naming if it’s just a stamp or seal that arises social responsibility. This characteristic had turned up in the period of “Qin (秦)” and “Han (漢)” dynasty in China and Japan has handed down this tradition even now.

For example,  a specific seal like Jitsu-In (registered seal) and bank seal submitted to a local government and a financial institution is defined as “Inkan(印鑑) “.

So a seal which is engraved with just your name on its face cannot be called”Inkan(印鑑) ” but we commonly recognize and call it as “Hanko” or “Inshou (印章)” which is translated as “seal” in English.

Looking back over the history of seal , the purpose of use of seals can be roughly classified into social identification and artistic pursuits. However, when arguing the origin of “hanko(判子)”, we need to know the world seal history and how it was used so far because its origin has actually difficulty to be defined whether it had a significant role as social function or not when it came into the world.

Can “Pintados” be regarded as a seal?

When Spain conquered Philippines, Spanish people found that natives were using a stamp made of clay. It was called “Pintados” in Spanish. Its impression was engraved with
a geometric pattern and primitive animals. It was mainly used for tattooing on skin. “Pintados” was adopted as archaeological term to explain a small tool to stamp pattern on something.

Is it possible for us to regard “Pintados” as a seal? In my point of view, “Pintados” cannot be defined as seal. To define it as a seal, it needs to not only be stamped on something but also have a social function. In other words, its usage needs to have a function that clarifies rights and obligation of people in the society like properties and ownership can be protected and social position or status can be identified by a seal.

In fact, before Mesopotamian civilization turned up, a seal was used as just a tool to get a tattoo on skin and to print decorative patterns on clothes, trees and livestock. It had a less influential to the social system at the time.

Seals unearthed near Sesklo temple in Greece and ancient Chinese seal unearthed in Yin State in Henan province in China (which is said to have existed in the period of Yin) and ancient Japanese clay seal unearthed in Hokkaido Japan (which is considered to have used in the later Jomon period ) turned out not to satisfy a condition to play its role of social function.

With the lapse of time, a custom of displaying social position by the size of seal and religious ritual certification procedure had appeared except for identifying the ownership of goods. It can be said that seal had enhanced its influence in the society from generation to generation. In Japan, there had used to be as much names of seal as number of its roles 1000 years ago. That’s why Japanese seal has too detailed name up to present time.

One Comment

  1. Daniel

    Hi Yu,

    I’m a radio and podcast producer from Australia, currently in Kanagawa. There is a lot of interesting information here. I’m currently doing some research on hanko for a podcast story I’m working on. Do you have an email address so I could write to you directly?


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