Coronavirus has Japanese businesses mulling a future without hanko

Amid government stay-at-home requests to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Japanese companies are increasingly trying to implement work-from-home policies. But some say the use of traditional seals, called hanko or inkan, as proof of agreement is hampering their efforts.

“I have to go to the office today just to stamp my hanko.”
“My husband has to take the train to his office because his company still uses hanko.”

Social media posts lamenting the country’s continued use of hanko have become common over the past months.

According to JIPDEC, an organization promoting the development of digital economy and commerce, only 43% of Japanese companies were using electronic contract systems as of January this year.

A group of about 30 companies, including a number of tech firms, recently conducted a survey on its members’ work-from-home policies. Of members that have implemented telework, 90% said their employees still have to go to the office because some procedures require the use of hanko.

Asteria uses an online system to stamp hanko on business documents.

One of these companies is Asteria, a Tokyo-based tech firm. It has abolished the internal use of hanko and has digitized all of its business procedures in order to allow its 70-member staff to stay home. The company has also requested permission from its partners to switch to electronic contracts. But CEO Hirano Yoichiro says some clients require paper copies of documents with seals. This means that some of his employees still have to go to the office on a regular basis.

Hirano Yoichiro, CEO of Asteria.

Some firms are turning to alternative forms of proof of agreement. One system allows companies to place documents in online cloud units, accessible by smartphone. A real estate firm says switching to the system has reduced its use of paper documents requiring hanko and helped cut the number of employees coming into the office.

Many firms have turned to the system after the government announced a stay-at-home request in early April. It is currently used by more than 65,000 companies.

In order to promote telework policies, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has instructed ministers to revise business practices that require physical documents and seals.

But a shift away from hanko would be bad news for the companies that make or sell them. Kobayashi Akio, chairman of the Japan Seal & Stamps Business Management Association, says he doesn’t oppose the introduction of electronic seals. But he does think physical seals should continue to be used, as digitization would cause problems for people who are not used to the technology, such as the elderly.

This is currently the case for many small- and medium-sized business owners applying for emergency government subsidies. Applications must be submitted online and many people who are unfamiliar with the format—and more used to filling out physical forms which they stamp with their hanko —are reportedly having difficulties.