The 7th-century technology helping keep millions of Japanese from working at home

On May 4, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe extended Japan’s state of emergency until May 31, amid fears of a second COVID-19 wave in Japan. A month earlier, Abe had asked people to reduce social contact “by 70-80%.”

Unlike compulsory lockdowns prevalent worldwide, Japan’s measures are unenforced and rely on voluntary cooperation. Nonetheless, as COVID-19 cases and deaths have risen in the country, people are taking social distancing more seriously.

However, a report last month found that 64% of small and medium-sized enterprise employees in Japan were still not allowed to work from home. Surveys by the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and Industry and other institutions have found similar results, revealing widespread reluctance to the promotion of telecommuting in Japan.

One significant barrier to telecommuting is Japan’s “hanko” system. Hanko are tradition personal signature seals that continue to be used today as part of Japan’s heavily paper-based systems. This small hallmark of Japanese life has proven to be a genuine barrier as employees trying to shelter at home have been forced to go into work to put their stamps on documents.

The seals are usually cylindrical with a surface area no larger than a fingernail. Most adults have a personal stamp carved with their name in Chinese characters. People use the seal with red ink to sign contracts, approve proposals, or verify they have seen a document.

Credit: Asahi Shimbun

The custom was originally imported from China in the late 7th century. The reform sought to model Japan’s government on that of Tang dynasty China, and since the mid-1800s, citizens of Japan have been able to legally register a seal.

A recent survey by the Japan Association for Chief Financial Officers (JACFO) found that 40% of companies working remotely still required employees to go into the office sometimes due to the use of paper-based systems. One employee told Japan Times that even having COVID-19 cases in her office building was not enough for her company to waver the use of hanko. “There is a conservative culture where companies don’t want to change how they work,” said Hiroshi Yaguchi, executive director of JACFO.

One initiative to replace hanko has put forward by Shachihata, an office supplies maker in Nagoya, a city where just 9% of respondents in March said they were working remotely. With their platform, customers can access documents via desktop or mobile and stamp them using electronic seals registered with the service. The platform surpassed 50,000 registrations by the first half of April.

Last month, when a reporter asked Technology Minister Naokazu Takemoto if he thought the hanko culture was an obstacle to working remotely, Minister Takemoto replied that it was “an issue between private-sector businesses,” evading intervention on the issue. His response was met with criticism online. Minister Takemoto’s reaction was not surprising, however. Despite being Technology Minister, the minister paradoxically is the Chairman and Founder of Japan’s “Hanko Council,” a group of parliamentarians working to protect the hanko culture.

Now, faced with mounting public pressure and an extended national emergency, Prime Minister Abe has directed a review of laws requiring hanko seals to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in government offices. Private-sector members of the government proposal also made an emergency proposal for review after it was revealed economic packages the government was introducing also required physical hanko stamps.

But why have business leaders been reluctant to reform the hanko system? One reason is its reverence in culture, where forging a hanko could once be met with the death penalty. Ultimately, hanko is another key aspect of Japanese work life, like after-hours drinking with colleagues and partners, which has not been allowed to be challenged before the COVID-19 pandemic.

And a little nudge against hanko could go a long way. A tweet by Yoshitaka Hibi, a professor of Japanese literature at Nagoya University, went viral on Twitter last month, receiving over 28,000 likes. He wrote, “Why do we have to put each other at risk just for something trivial like a hanko? This is our chance. For the love of God, someone please destroy this custom.” Shortly after, his school announced they would no longer require students to receive a hanko from professors for their classes.

The changes to the hanko system made within the past few weeks show that when push comes to shove, traditions can be reformed. A survey in February by Keidanren, Japan’s national business association, found that nearly 70% of members said they had or were planning to introduce telecommuting policies after a government push to free up space on Japan’s transportation system for the Tokyo Olympics. Hopes are that hanko could soon see similar sweeping reform.

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