Leaving Your Mark with a Japanese Hanko
If you've been involved in traditional martial arts for a while, you've seen plenty of them--the red stamps with kanji, usually on your rank certificates. Students in the Western world find these stamps unfamiliar and may wonder, "Are they used only on certificates? Are they used only in the martial arts"?
These are good questions! The ubiquitous red stamps are made by an object called a "hanko," which is used by individuals in Japan the way a signature is used in the West. It's a personal seal, unique to the person who possesses it, and is used for documents and correspondence, both legal and formal as well as informal.
It is used on transactions from personal correspondence to banking and real estate. For important transactions, such as real estate purchases and loans, a special, customized ("jitsuin") hanko is used, which is registered with the local government. The jitsuin used for significant legal transactions is compared against the registered copy to ensure authenticity.
Hanko come in different materials, like stone and wood, and a variety of shapes. Individuals typically use a round hanko, while organizations use a square shape. Look on your certificates; the stamp on them is likely square. The red ink impression produced by the hanko is called an "inkan." The term "hanko" and "inkan" are used interchangeably, however, to refer to the stamped impression.
Because of their uniqueness and significance to Western students of Japanese martial arts, a hanko is a cool thing to have. Who wouldn't want a personal stamp with their name translated into Japanese? Dojo instructors and students alike would appreciate having a quality stamp for personalizing correspondence and other documents where they want to leave their mark.