Hanko

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
The Tokyo rail and metro systems make up one of the largest rapid transit networks in the world. More than 14 billion people walk through its turnstiles every year. That’s about 40 million rides every single day. On a typical morning during rush hour, commuters stand cheek to jowl in crammed train carriages. The busiest stations even employ people pushers, known as oshiya, who make sure everyone is packed in before the doors close.

Daniel Semo:
But last year, at the start of the COVID epidemic, after the Japanese government declared a state of emergency, the trains emptied out.

Roman Mars:
That’s Tokyo-based producer Daniel Semo.

Daniel Semo:
Suddenly there were no oshiya to be seen. In fact, the trains were so empty in the mornings that, if you had to take one, there was no need to stand anymore. For a few weeks at least, most people had stopped riding the train.

Roman Mars:
Most, but not all.

Miho Tanaka:
It was kind of strange because everybody was supposed to stay at home but I had to go out every single day.

Daniel Semo:
That’s Miho Tanaka. She is not a health professional. Or an essential worker. She runs a company in Tokyo that helps foreign businesses set up in Japan. And yet, at the height of the pandemic, she still found herself commuting on a daily basis, and not just in the metro, and not just to one place.

Miho Tanaka:
So during the Covid, my day looked like visiting office in the morning, then take a train, then taking a bus, then go to another office. So I was a bit scared at that time.

Roman Mars:
But despite the obvious danger, Miho Tanaka had no choice. She was beholden to an old Japanese custom.

Miho Tanaka:
It’s just because every single time I had to stamp some documents with Hanko.

Roman Mars:
“Hanko” — or “insho” as they are sometimes called — are the carved stamp seals that people in Japan often use in place of signatures. Hanko seals are made from materials ranging from plastic to jade and are about the size of a tube of lipstick.

Daniel Semo:
The end of each hanko is etched with its owner’s name, usually in the Kanji pictorial characters used in Japanese writing. This carved end is then dipped in red cinnabar paste and impressed on a document as a form of identification.

Roman Mars:
Hanko seals work like signatures, only instead of signing on a dotted line, you impress your hanko on a small circle to prove your identity.

Daniel Semo:
But unlike a signature, which you can make with any old pen or touch screen, in Japan you need to have your own personal hanko with you whenever you stamp something, and you have to stamp it in person.

Roman Mars:
And there is a lot that needs stamping. Just ask Miho.

Miho Tanaka:
For example, on Monday, I visit a tax office. On Tuesday, I visit bank. On Wednesday, I visit the legal office bureau. And I brought hanko every single time to stamp different documents for different procedures.

Roman Mars:
To sign for a package, you need a hanko. To clock in and out at work, you need a hanko. To finalise business contracts you need a hanko.

Daniel Semo:
And there is not just one kind of hanko.

Roman Mars:
No, that would be too easy!

Daniel Semo:
You might have one cheap hanko you carry in your bag every day, and another fancy one stored in a safe deposit box that you might only use once or twice in your life. Miho’s job involves a lot of paperwork at government offices, so she often has to use different hanko for herself and her clients.

Miho Tanaka:
I have my personal hanko plus company hanko, and when I have to do some procedures in a bank, then I have to bring a hanko for bank.

Daniel Semo:
“And did you ever… do you ever get confused or take the wrong one, for example.”

Miho Tanaka:
“Always, yeah. Always.”

Roman Mars:
And Miho is not the only one stuck endlessly running around with their hanko. Last March, in the midst of the pandemic, even as everyone was being encouraged to work from home, many people in Japan still needed to do a lot of paperwork. For some, that meant getting on a train, and traveling halfway across the city just to stamp a single document.

Daniel Semo:
Like a lot of people, I often find hanko beautiful. Not just the kanji characters, or the physical seals themselves. There’s also just something undeniably cool about the act of impressing a hanko onto a document. It’s one of the small traditions that makes Japan, Japan. But even most Japanese people have gotten to the point where they are fed up with the whole hanko system. So how did Japan get here then? Two decades into the 21st century, why do the Japanese still need to use this ancient, analog thing?

Roman Mars:
Because hanko didn’t used to be everywhere in Japan. In fact, they weren’t even originally Japanese.

Philip Hu:
The earliest seal that is known to have gone from China to Japan dates to I think the year 57 A.D. and that apparently was given by the Chinese emperor of the time and that.

Daniel Semo:
That’s Philip Hu, curator of Asian art at the St Louis Art Museum and an expert in East Asian seals.

Philip Hu:
And interestingly, it was a golden seal. It was a seal made of solid gold.

Daniel Semo:
Hu says the earliest hanko were status symbols used by the likes of emperors, court officials and samurai. They were made of materials like soapstone and jade and were engraved using seal script, a form of calligraphic writing. But they were not the kind of thing you saw every day.

Philip Hu:
Seals were very much part of the imperial and civil bureaucracy of Japan, but at that time not popular among ordinary people.

Daniel Semo:
That’s because for much of Japan’s history, most ordinary people only had given names – or what in the west might be called first names. If you did have a surname, it was usually shared with your entire community. Only members of the feudal aristocracy had the kind of specific family names that you might put on a hanko.

Roman Mars:
And starting in the 1600s, Japan’s shogun rulers imposed a policy of strict international isolation, cutting Japan off from the rest of the world and effectively preserving this feudal system. So even as late as the 19th century, most people in Japan didn’t really use seals, or need them.

Daniel Semo:
But things would soon change, thanks in part to Matthew Perry.

[“FRIENDS” THEME]

Roman Mars:
No, not that Matthew Perry.

Nick Kapur:
So in 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry, who shares the same name with the “Friends” actor, he shows up with four modern U.S. naval warships and basically forces Japan to open back up.

Daniel Semo:
Nick Kapur is a professor of Japanese History at Rutgers University.

Nick Kapur:
And this has a huge impact. It’s kind of difficult to overstate just how much society changed.

Daniel Semo:
The arrival of Perry‘s fleet kicked off a period known as the Meiji restoration in which Japan transformed itself into a modern, industrialized nation-state. The old feudal system of the shogunate was done away with and replaced with a centralized state bureaucracy which proceeded to change almost everything about how society was structured.

Nick Kapur:
They passed a land reform. They instituted free public schooling. They instituted mandatory conscription. They created a modern military.

Roman Mars:
But in order to do any of that effectively, the new bureaucratic regime needed to make one additional change. Everyone in Japan would have to choose surnames.

Daniel Semo:
In the old feudal system, there hadn’t been any need for most people to possess distinct names. But the Japanese state now wanted to keep much closer track of who was who, so in 1875, a law was passed requiring every citizen to register a family name.

Roman Mars:
Those who were too slow in claiming a surname could even be penalized, and in the mad dash that followed, some people just made names up, usually by smashing together words and syllables that had never been combined before.

Nick Kapur:
So as a result of this, you know, sometimes even illiterate farmers just came up with crazy surnames.

Daniel Semo:
Even today in Japan, you can find families with names like cat house, cow poop, or simply the number 735.

Roman Mars:
Although my personal favorite sur-name has to be “god”. That’s it. Just “god” — “I’m Joe God.”

Nick Kapur:
And so Japan has maybe the largest variety of surnames of any country per capita.

Roman Mars:
But it wasn’t enough that everyone have their own unique-ish name. In this new modern Japan, everyone now also needed their own hanko.

Philip Hu:
Though the introduction of seals for everyday use by ordinary citizens was by design, it didn’t happen sort of organically. It was more or less by decree.

Daniel Semo:
Suddenly, hanko went from rarefied status symbols to something that almost everyone had, because they had to. And soon, seal manufacturing became its own major industry.

Philip Hu:
You would actually employ a seal carver. These were specialized vendors and all they did pretty much was carve seals for other people.

Daniel Semo:
Some carvers had large workshops. Others were itinerant street vendors who made their way from town to town.

Philip Hu:
And, you know, whenever the carver came by your village or your town and you needed a seal, you would immediately employ them before they moved onto another place.

Roman Mars:
Eventually, there came to be three different types of hanko, depending on the context. The regular, everyday hanko was called a mitome-in.

Philip Hu:
So everybody has one. Okay. In their sort of a little bag or whatever they carry around because it’s so often required for you to just indicate that a transaction has taken place.

Roman Mars:
There was also another type of personal seal used for banking, called a ginko-in. You might need one to make a deposit or a transfer at your local branch.

Daniel Semo:
And then there was a jitsu-in, which in English means a person’s “actual seal” or their “real seal”.

Philip Hu:
And a jitsu-in is basically a proxy for the person.

Roman Mars:
Jitsu-in were not used very frequently, but instead reserved for the most important kinds of documents in a person’s life, like mortgages and marriage certificates. It was kind of like having a social security number, if your social security number could only be written down in one place, and had immense sentimental value.

Daniel Semo:
Even today, families will have fancy jitsu-in made for their children when they come of age and then promptly store them in a deposit box for safe-keeping.

Philip Hu:
Because it’s basically saying that I am the person buying a house or I am the person that’s marrying you. And so it’s very, very personal.

Roman Mars:
In time, almost every element of government, business and social life was systematized and put onto paper, usually stamped with one of these three hanko.

Daniel Semo:
But Hanko would come to play an even more visible role in Japanese life in the 20th century — thanks to a business practice called nemawashi.

Takao Kawasaki:
Nemawashi is a very important consensus-building procedure.

Daniel Semo:
Takao Kawasaki is a retired consultant who worked for 40 years for a large Japanese glass manufacturer. And he says that building consensus through nemawashi means laying the groundwork for any big decision by lobbying and consulting with everyone involved prior to moving forward.

Roman Mars:
That means that if you have an idea, you have to first approach those concerned, one by one, discuss your plan, and get buy-in from each of them individually.

Daniel Semo:
This is all done before any larger meeting.

Takao Kawasaki:
So I have to repeat five, six or even seven times, repeat the same explanation to every person, to get his OK.

Daniel Semo:
And this is where hanko comes in, because as you move through the company, from the lowest ranks to the highest, once someone understands and agrees with your idea, they get out their seal.

Takao Kawasaki:
Then everybody press the hanko. And so a whole bunch of hankos are on each company document.

Roman Mars:
That document, full of hanko stamps, is called a “ringi”.

Daniel Semo:
And If you look at all the stamps around the ringi, there is a sort of implicit code you can decipher, which tells you about things like a company’s hierarchy.

Takao Kawasaki:
Bottom is a lower tank, top is the higher rank. And if you reach the department head, that level’s your Hanko getting a little bigger. So when you see the size of the Hanko, you can make a fair guess is, what sort of a level that person is in the organization. And naturally, CEO’s hanko is the biggest.

Roman Mars:
Although, if you really want to go big, be sure to google the emperor’s seal. It’s roughly the size of a pro-wrestler’s fist, it uses a special ink, it’s made of solid gold, and it weighs ten pounds.

Daniel Semo:
Even the exact angle of a stamp on a document can reveal something about the person’s place in the power structure. A CEO’s seal, for example, might be affixed perfectly straight up and down, with the top of the seal at 12 o’clock, while their top lieutenant’s seals would be slightly rotated. Middle-management would be angled just a bit further, and so on down the line, with each seal paying deference to those above it.

Takao Kawasaki:
Funny thing though, occasionally one stubborn person may not completely agree.

Roman Mars:
In which case, they might still sign off on the plan, but in order to signal that they weren’t totally on board, deliberately angle their stamp just a little too far.

Takao Kawasaki:
And he placed the Hanko forty-five degrees turned.

Daniel Semo:
Once finished, this hanko-strewn document is a sign that everyone has been consulted and brought in on the latest plan.

Takao Kawasaki:
So takes time, hell of a lot, yes. But by the time the final decision is made, everybody is in the same wavelength, same direction, same goals … So they boom, go! Without hesitating.

Daniel Semo:
For a long time, nemawashi was simply how business worked in Japan. It was a culture of consensus, in which everyone at a company took on risks and rewards together, and it was often credited with Japan’s incredible economic growth in the mid-20th century.

Roman Mars:
And as nemawashi’s most visible symbol, the use of hanko went unquestioned. But that would start to change in the 1990s.

[RECESSION NEWS CLIPS]

Ulrike Schaede:
An entire period, 1998 to 2003, was basically a period of recession and depression. It really hit Japan hard.

Daniel Semo:
Ulrike Schaede is a professor of Japanese Business at the University of California, San Diego. And she says that Japan’s recession in the 90s and early 2000s was so bad that the period would come to be referred to as the country’s “Lost Decade”.

Ulrike Schaede:
And, if you look at even the societal measures like robberies and break-ins or other kinds of social distress like divorce rates, everything went up. So those were really dark days.

Roman Mars:
And that widespread anxiety had a profound effect on the practice of nemawashi and the hanko system. Because it had been easy enough to stamp your approval on a business plan during the boom years, when most plans worked.

Ulrike Schaede:
People might have said, “Yeah, sure. Sure, that’s fine.” Even some skipped some steps and say, “Yeah. Sure. If we can produce it, we can sell it. Let’s go, go, go.”

Daniel Semo:
But once the economy spiraled, and the risks of stamping your hanko on something multiplied-

Ulrike:
Suddenly everything becomes much more complicated because people say “No, I don’t want to sign this” or “I need to get a little bit more hand-holding before I agree to this” or “I need something in return for agreeing to this.” So the metabolism of the companies slowed down. And this is the word that the Japanese used to describe this, they actually think that the metabolism of the entire economy slowed down.

Daniel Semo:
And if that wasn’t bad enough, this all happened at the same time that the internet was taking off. And a tradition requiring people to stamp paper documents using special seals to be physically carried on their person… at all times? Well, it hasn’t exactly proved internet friendly.

Roman Mars:
If anything, the hanko has shackled Japan to the old paper system.

Nick Kapur:
It really is quite amazing how much paper documents rule the day in Japan and because of the Hanko.

Daniel Semo:
Nick Kapur says that the need to physically stamp things disincentivizes people from ever digitizing documents, since it’s only a matter of time until you’d have to print any given document back out — just so it can be stamped.

Nick Kapur:
And everything shuts down until somebody can get into the office and get this hanko out of a drawer.

Roman Mars:
Work orders, expense reports, any kind of official company communication. They all need to be in hardcopy and certified with a stamp in person.

Takao Kawasaki:
When you go to the bank, when you go to any official something, even receiving the package from postal service, they usually prefer the hanko for the receipt.

Nick Kapur:
And the fax machine, I mean, people have commented on this a lot, that paper faxes are still the only way to get things done because everything requires a paper document that you can stamp on.

Daniel Semo:
Miho Tanaka remembers experiencing this kind of friction first-hand at her last job, waiting around the office for her boss to stamp a document that could just as easily be signed online nearly anywhere else.

Miho Tanaka:
Also like I cannot usually ask the other people to put the hanko on behalf of somebody else. And usually on one paper like five people have to put a stamp, so yeah, that’s very time consuming for everybody.

Roman Mars:
When things like PDFs and digital signatures first appeared in the 1990s, many people in Japan expected that a “digital transformation” was just around the corner, but it never really happened. And, ironically, that is in part because of the slowness of nemawashi and the hanko system.

Nick Kapur:
Like literally the rules are so strict that there’s just no way around that unless you change all these rules and that requires all these meetings and discussion and then people have to sign off on it — probably with a hanko.

Daniel Semo:
But lately, it seems as if the cultural tide may have finally turned. Some large Japanese corporations have been quietly retiring their hanko in recent years. And a younger generation of Japanese people like Miho — who have no memory of the pre-internet boom years — are using hanko less and clicking boxes more.

Miho Tanaka:
For example, my parents age, like 50-60, they think hanko are so important, but I think young generation wants to change ASAP because we all get used to smartphones and signature process, just like the other Western countries.

Roman Mars:
And now the same state bureaucracy that created the modern hanko system might have no choice but to kill it.

[MONTAGE OF JAPAN COVID SHUT DOWN NEWS]

Daniel Semo:
When covid first hit, there was a sense that Japan would be spared the worst of it, and could keep doing business as normal. But that didn’t last long.

Roman Mars:
Instead, the covid pandemic finally did what years of bureaucratic stagnation could not. Stories like Miho’s — of hanko procedures forcing people to brave train cars in the middle of a lockdown — have finally spurred the government to act.

Daniel Semo:
In May 2021, the administration of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga enacted a set of laws establishing a new agency to speed up the process of digitization. This involved getting rid of hanko for almost all government procedures.

Roman Mars:
Many believe this government move is a watershed moment, including Ulrike Schaeda.

Ulrike Schaede:
Once it has no longer legal standing, I don’t see how it can remain important in day-to-day life. And it’s a little bit sad actually, but if there is no purpose to it, then people will happily let go.

Takao Kawasaki:
Well of course it’s a tradition, but tradition can be killed

Daniel Semo:
Takao Kawasaki is a creature of the hanko-happy boom years if there ever was one, but he also no longer really sees the benefit of the seal system.

Takao Kawasaki:
To me, I’m a rather old man, but a radical old man. I don’t care. Because American business, European business, you know, have done the business for many, many years without a hanko. Why can’t we? Just a matter of change, a matter of accept.

Daniel Semo:
Still, there have been some who want to hold onto the old ways. They worry that an end to hanko also marks an end to the country’s culture of consensus and shared responsibility in favor of a more western model based on individual accomplishment.

Roman Mars:
One prefectural assembly has officially opposed the government move to phase out hanko. Another group of lawmakers in the national parliament recently formed a coalition to preserve them, kind of like a “Seal Appreciation Caucus”.

Daniel Semo:
And in fact, a lot of the people I spoke with, even if they recognize the practical need to phase it out for most situations, hope the hanko won’t disappear completely. Philip Hu concedes that maybe there shouldn’t be three types of hanko anymore, but can’t we at least keep one? He points to the jitsu-in in particular – the real seal – the one that’s only pulled out for the really big stuff.

Philip Hu:
I mean, I think it’s nice! I think the Jitsu-in is not such a bad idea, to have some kind of personal ceremony to mark a decision of considerable importance in your life.

Roman Mars:
Even Takao Kawasaki has a soft spot for the real seal. He says he fondly remembers using a jitsu-in when he bought his first home.

Takao Kawasaki:
My father made my jitsu-in when I got married and gave it to me. I still use it. And then my son was married, the same way I married and I gave it to him. Yeah.

Roman Mars:
A marriage, a birth, buying a house. These things are worth a pause — and perhaps a moment of ritual.

[BUDDHIST CEREMONY CLIP]

Daniel Semo:
On the edge of the entertainment and shopping area of Shinjuku in western Tokyo, there is a small Buddhist temple dedicated to Bishamonten, one of the seven lucky gods of Japanese folklore. This past October, a priest knelt by the temple’s altar, rang a bowl bell and chanted a sutra behind a plastic face shield. He was performing a memorial service for a batch of about 50 hanko, brought to the temple by a group of nearby office workers.

Roman Mars:
It’s not uncommon for inanimate objects to receive funeral rites in Japan. They’re a way to bid farewell and commemorate items that have served their purpose and are no longer needed, like scissors, sewing needles, and… hanko. In fact, October 1st is Seal Day, when hanko shops throughout the country hold memorial services for old retired seals.

Daniel Semo:
But at the temple in Shinjuku, there was a distinct sense that this funeral was different. That this time, it wasn’t only these individual hanko to which Japan was saying goodbye.

[BUDDHIST CEREMONY CLIP]

Roman Mars: :
That story was produced by Daniel Semo and edited by Joe Rosenberg. When we come back, we’ll talk to Daniel about a more problematic tradition involving hanko which Japan is also struggling to bring to an end. After this.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
So I’m here with Daniel Semo. Hey, Dan!

Daniel Semo:
Hey, Roman.

Roman Mars:
So I understand there was another element in the rise and the potential fall of hanko that we didn’t touch on.

Daniel Semo:
Yeah, you know, something I’ve been interested in with this whole story has been the different ways in which tradition can develop. I heard a lot about traditions in my reporting, and they can often grow in quite an organic way but sometimes it seems like they can just be fabricated.

Roman Mars:
Right, cause- well like in your story it was clear that hanko was a little bit of both – because it has this really old aristocratic provenance stemming from China, but the current sort of use of hanko is really like something much more recent and much more designed, concocted for the present day.

Daniel Semo:
Yeah exactly, and it turns out there’s another supposedly ancient (quote-unquote) “tradition” involving hanko that’s even more of a flat-out invention. And it starts with this guy named Hikaru Sakamoto, who was a traveling salesman from the prefecture of Yamanashi.

Roman Mars:
Oh, I like a good traveling salesman story! So what is it?

Daniel Semo:
Well, back in the 1960s, Sakamoto the salesman was going around Yamanashi selling jewelry to wealthy customers. This is when the economic boom was at its most boom-tastic, and people suddenly had a lot more money to spend. So he went into their homes and he looked around and noticed that they were making all these big expensive purchases, but when it came to hanko, they were still using these cheap, wooden hankos that were very common at the time. So, like any good salesman, he saw an opportunity.

Roman Mars:
So he saw all these cheap hanko and he was like, oh, I can really upsell this market to something fancier.

Daniel Semo:
Yeah, so he decided to make and market a new type of luxury hanko… made out of a material that was mostly just being used for things like pipes and cigarette filters at the time. It was ivory.

Roman Mars:
Hmm.

Daniel Semo:
So he started a company in 1967 and he began marketing heavily to department stores, and through mail-order catalogs and door-to-door sales. And I should be clear, he wasn’t the very first one to make hanko out of ivory, but he was definitely a visionary as far as the marketing goes.

Roman Mars:
Okay, so what was his marketing like?

Daniel Semo:
Well, he put up ads in magazines and newspapers with pictures and drawings of elephants next to some really purple prose that portrayed elephants as these sacred animals. Take this newspaper ad for example-

Roman Mars:
Okay, so this is a very busy ad with an elephant, you know, dead center in the middle and these little hanko sets that are kind of beautifully displayed-

Daniel Semo:
Yeah, and if you look on the left actually, there’s a pack of two. And the one on the left, it says it’s a jitsu-in which is a real seal.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Daniel Semo:
And the one on the right is a ginko-in which is the bank seal. So you can get your set of ivory for all your needs there right next to each other.

Roman Mars:
So what does all the ad copy– because it’s very dense with ad copy — so what does the ad copy say?

Daniel Semo:
Well basically it’s really talking up the elephant angle, and it’s saying that because elephants live long lives in tight family groups, that people with ivory hankos will also enjoy long lives with good fortune.

Masayuki Sakamoto:
And this advertisement said elephant ivory is the best hanko material – combining fortune, elegance, comfortable usage and durability.

Daniel Semo:
That’s Masayuki Sakamoto – no relation to our traveling salesman. Masayuki is a lawyer and environmental activist with the Japan Tiger and Elephant Fund. Here’s him reading the rest of the ad.

Masayuki Sakamoto:
“Elephant ivory since ancient times is a protector against evil and symbol of prosperity because elephants are not only the world’s largest animal, but also the one making harmonious family.”

Roman Mars:
So is Sakamoto here — Sakamoto, the salesman — is he tacking into some actual Japanese tradition here or is he just sort of making this stuff up?

Daniel Semo:
Hmm, you mean is ivory traditionally considered a lucky charm combining fortune and elegance and all that?

Roman Mars:
Right.

Daniel Semo:
Umm, no. He just made that up.

Roman Mars:
So if he’s sort of making this up whole cloth, how successful was this?

Daniel Semo:
It was hugely successful. I’ve heard the ads described as the Japanese equivalent of the “Diamonds are Forever” ad campaign. And soon, other companies were copying these methods and ivory hankos just became this hot new luxury good. And just how it only took a generation really to convince people in the west that diamond engagement rings were this age-old practice, in Japan consumers really quickly bought into this idea that if you were gonna get yourself a good proper hanko, it should be made of ivory. So just like that… you had a new “tradition” being created.

Roman Mars:
So it’s like a new tradition even on kind of a new tradition. Like all of it is pretty recent in the history of Japan.

Daniel Semo:
Yeah. That’s right. And the demand for ivory just grew and grew throughout the 70s and 80s and Masayuki Sakamoto says that Japan became the largest ivory importer in the world.

Masayuki Sakamoto:
“And 80 percent of the raw ivory was processed into hanko.”

Daniel Semo:
“If you say 80 percent of that ivory, like, how many hankos could that be?”

Masayuki Sakamoto:
“There is not enough information, but one document said in 1980, about two million Hanko was produced in one year.”

Roman Mars:
Two million hanko a year! That’s… I had no idea that would be the amount. I mean, now that you mention this ivory part of this, that is a horrifying number. I mean like, how many elephants had to die to feed this fancy hanko habit?

Daniel Semo:
There was a report released in 2018 by the Environmental Investigation Agency, which estimated that since 1970, more than 260,000 elephants had been killed to supply Japan with ivory. And again, most of that ivory was just going into making hanko. And in the 1980s, elephant numbers dropped so much that there was a big international push to ban the trade of ivory. Which eventually led to the ratification in 1989 of the ivory ban through something called CITES which is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. But the thing is, even though there was a ban, it didn’t necessarily have the full desired effect. Because remember that ad I showed you earlier? That was from 1998!

Roman Mars:
Woah. So you said that the ban was in 1989 so this is 9 years later. So there’s advertising that they have fantastic ivory hanko in an ad, 9 years after the ban.

Daniel Semo:
Yeah. That’s right and the reason for that is simple.

Masayuki Sakamoto:
In reality, just import is prohibited, but selling and buying is free in Japan, so it’s still legal in Japan.

Roman Mars:
Oh, so you can’t import any more ivory into the country, but all the ivory that was there in Japan before the ban, that can be turned into hanko and purchased and sold until it runs out.

Daniel Semo:
Exactly. And on top of that, Japan lobbied successfully for there to be two final shipments of ivory after the ban — one in 1997 and one, that China also got in on, in 2008 — and that ivory is still being used.

Roman Mars:
So are they almost out of ivory? Is this the end of ivory in Japan? Like if I walked into a hanko shop today, could I buy an ivory hanko?

Daniel Semo:
For the most part, yeah. It’s not advertised as heavily as it used to be, and some shops may just refuse to sell it, but it is available. And if you really want to, you can still get your ivory seal.

Masayuki Sakamoto:
Even now, anyone can buy ivory very openly. The regulation is just when you buy a whole tusk, you have to get the registration in advance. But if registered ivory tusks, you can buy freely.

Roman Mars:
Oh my god, you can buy an ivory tusk? This doesn’t seem like a ban at all.

Daniel Semo:
Yeah, it’s kinda crazy. And one concern with all this is that because there is still a legal domestic trade for ivory, some people worry that whenever you have a legal trade in something, that this continues to feed the illegal trade going into the country.

Roman Mars:
Totally because people could still hypothetically smuggle ivory into the country illegally, and it’s like laundered by the time it enters into retail. You could just say, “Oh, this came from before 2008 or the last shipment.” Is there a notion from your experts that the legal part of this trade is feeding the illegal import of ivory still?

Daniel Semo:
Yeah, there is and especially because the regulations are so lax, in a way. The only thing you have to register is that whole tusk but as soon as you cut a tusk in two, you don’t have to register it. I should say, though, that there has been more and more pressure building in the past decade or so, and two of the main online retailers now here in Japan, Yahoo and Rakuten, have actually banned sales of ivory on their platforms. And a lot of socially conscious Japanese consumers actually might feel a little conflicted about buying ivory now. And actually, the Tokyo Olympics, which are starting very soon, were supposed to be a big turning point for this because anti-ivory campaigners were hoping that holding a large international event in Japan would help to shine a light on the problem. You know, people coming from all over the world, many of whom might want to buy a traditional souvenir while they’re in town…

Roman Mars:
Like, they could pick up their own hanko…

Daniel Semo:
Yeah exactly. So they were hoping that kind of scrutiny might force the Japanese government to once and for all ban the sale of ivory.

Roman Mars:
So they were imagining the scenario of the Olympics and all these international tourists coming in and they walk into a retail shop to buy hanko and the retail shop is covered in ivory and they would be disgusted and this would cause enough pressure on the Japanese government to do something about the retail ivory trade.

Daniel Semo:
Yeah, that was the basic plan. But, as you probably know, because of COVID, there are no spectators allowed at the games now. And since we’re in a state of emergency here anyway, there probably won’t be much souvenir shopping. So this opportunity to really shine an international light on the ivory problem in Japan isn’t really gonna happen. And Masayuki Sakamoto says that even as most of the rest of the world has banned ivory sales of all kinds — the Japanese government continues to support them.

Masayuki Sakamoto:
Their ivory policy is just to protect ivory industry. Regardless of the change of the situation of African elephants and the change of the international countries. Only Japan has not changed.

Roman Mars:
That is so frustrating. It just makes me mad.

Daniel Semo:
Yeah, so just like the hanko itself, the use of ivory in Japan is a tradition that was easy to invent but has proven really hard to kill.

Roman Mars:
Thank you so much for adding this part of this cause I’m sure people who know hanko really well were kind of thinking about it so I’m glad that we addressed it. This is something that hopefully people will pay attention to in the future. I really appreciate it. It was super fascinating. I loved the whole story.

Daniel Semo:
Thank you, Roman.

———

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Danial Semo. Edited by Joe Rosenberg. Mix and tech production by Jim Briggs. Music by our director of sound Sean Real. Delaney Hall is the Executive Producer. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team includes Vivian Le, Emmett FitzGerald, Chris Berube, Christopher Johnson, Lasha Madan, Sofia Klatzker and me, Roman Mars.

We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building — in beautiful uptown Oakland, California.

You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99pi at 99pi.org.

Credits

Production

Reporter Daniel Semo spoke with Miho Tanaka – Founder, Startup Work; Philip Hu – Curator of Asian Art, St Louis Art Museum; Nick Kapur – Associate Professor of Japanese History, Rutgers University; Ulrike Schaede – Professor of Japanese Business, University of California, San Diego; Masayuki Sakamoto – Executive Director, Japan Tiger and Elephant Fund; Takao Kawasaki – Senior Consultant, Japan Intercultural Consulting.

This episode was edited by Joe Rosenberg

 

  1. Patrick Thompson

    I feel compelled to note that the YouTube clip of people being stuffed into train cars hasn’t happened for a good 10 years or more and does not represent pre-COVID Tokyo metro transit. It is true that rush hour trains are “cheek to jowl” as the author writes, but train staff are merely there to ensure safety along the platform and that the train leaves on time.

    As for Hanko, it’s still incredibly common for pretty every official document, whether it’s buying something with a credit card or getting an invoice for service done. I don’t see it going away anytime soon and Daiso and other Hyakuen stores (100 yen/$1 stores) continue to sell Hanko stamps.

    Traditions die hard in Japan, and some only just fade, but are still found around if you look, like a tired Coke vending machine that takes 500 Won coins from Korea (it turns out the 500 Won coin is essentially the same size and even design as the 500 yen coin, except one is worth about $5 and the other is about $1.50) free Suntory coffee anyone?

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