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Local makers bemoan blame placed on Japanese seals amid coronavirus teleworking

A statue of a hanko seal is seen standing in front of Kaiiwama Station of the JR Minobu Line on April 28, 2020. (Mainichi/Shota Kaneko)

The novel coronavirus is jeopardizing the status of Japanese hanko seals, a familiar aspect of daily life and corporate culture in this country.

While the national government is promoting teleworking to prevent the spread of the virus, there are many cases where employees must show up to their workplaces in order to stamp these seals onto official documents. Several government authorities and companies alike have been pushing to abolish this official seal custom. But officials in major seal-producer Yamanashi Prefecture west of Tokyo lament the current reality of the stamps being the target of blame.

The situation revolving around Japanese seals has changed drastically since April following the surge in coronavirus infections. Major IT firm GMO Internet Inc. announced on April 17 plans to "completely abolish official seals used in customer procedures and employ only electronic agreements for contracts." The group made the decision in response to the reality of workers coming to the company in order to stamp documents amid the move toward teleworking. A public relations representative said that the company is receiving mostly favorable reviews from customers regarding this shift. The representative commented, "If even one case involving paper-based contracts arises, those in charge of dealing with them have to show up to the workplace."

During the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy on April 27, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe instructed Seigo Kitamura, minister of state for regulatory reform, to re-examine administrative procedures that currently involve affixing seals on written documents as a general rule. Reform of regulations for related procedures was also discussed.

Hiroaki Nakanishi, a non-governmental member of the Council and chairman of the Japan Business Federation, or Keidanren, called the Japanese seal custom "nonsense" and something that "should be preserved as works of art" and can be replaced by electronic signature. He commented in a press conference on the same day, "The culture of relying on seal impressions as an identification system doesn't correspond with this digital age."

Defense Minister Taro Kono also revealed in a press conference on April 28 that electronic approval will be used for internal decision-making among high-ranking ministry officials in the positions of minister, state minister, and parliamentary vice-minister, as well as the chief of staff for ground, maritime, and air self-defense forces. This measure is aimed toward reducing infection risks for administrative officers.

As the anti-seal movement has been emerging, the reporter asked a lawyer involved in corporate law about the legal positioning of seals. According to Attorney Satoshi Sekiguchi, "Generally, seals and the affixing of seals do not have any legal basis." So why then do people press seals onto documents? The attorney explained, "It's proof of the existence of the involved party's intent, indicating that party created the document themselves. As seals are regarded as extremely trustworthy in Japan, it has become a custom to affix seals onto official documents."

The prefecture of Yamanashi is known as a massive producer of hanko seals and is one of the leaders in the number such items shipped in Japan. The town of Ichikawamisato proclaims to be the "No. 1 village for seals in Japan." Several voices in the town were understanding of telework, but felt as if seals were being accused as the reason workers must show up to work. Takaaki Suzuki, chairman of a cooperative association of seal distributors and manufacturers based in the same town, commented, "This seal culture has supported the daily lives and operations within Japan, including business contracts and the establishment of corporations." Another seal maker within the prefecture also said, "Despite the trends of the current age, it is not necessary to place so much blame on seals."

Suzuki also spoke of cyber security among other issues, and said, "It may be good to consider the usage of both electronic signatures and physical stamping on documents." A representative of the prefectural government of Yamanashi also said, "Japanese hanko seals are also traditional crafts and are significant items used in various settings. They are also an important piece of culture, and we would like to do what we can do, including making requests toward various parties."

What will the situation surrounding seals be like hereafter? While indicating the likelihood of electronic signatures becoming widespread in the future, attorney Sekiguchi predicts, "For sectors that are thought to be cautious about confirmation of the party's intent, the seal culture is unlikely to disappear. For example, the custom of seals will most likely remain for a while in the real estate industry and finance industry, which hold many transactions including for large sums of money."

(Japanese original by Kenji Noro, Regional News Department)

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