If you have spent any length of time in Japan, you have encountered name stamps, those handheld seals used to mark documents. Embossing a bit of salmon-colored ink using one of these personal or corporate sticks says to the world, “Hear ye, hear ye, let it be forever known that I do hereby extend my approval and authority over the content and matters indicated in this manuscript.”
These seals, known generically as inkan or hanko, usually contain the owner’s last name or corporate name. For individuals, there are four common varieties.
- A jitsu-in is the most official type of stamp, typically custom-made, and useful on all types of documents.
- A ginkō-in is another custom-crafted stamp, intended for use with bank accounts.
- A mitome-in is an informal type of stamp, used in places where someone in the West would write their initials. If you have a common last name, you can buy one of these stamps ready-made from local stationary stores.
- A teisei-in is used to mark corrections. Smaller than other stamps, they often have room for only the first character of the owner’s last name.
Although governments and business have been reducing reliance on these stamps in recent years, they are still mandatory for a variety of transactions, such as the purchase of an automobile. Truth be told, you can get through life here with just a jitsu-in, as it can be used for any stamping purpose. But for security and convenience reasons, people still use a mix of stamps. I myself have the first three, although I should go out and get a teisei-in at some point.
Since they are so important, I keep my jitsu-in and ginkō-in in a safe place. But I stash the less-important mitome-in right near my front door, ready to grab at a moment’s notice. These stamps are used most often for confirming package deliveries from carriers like the post office, Sagawa Express, or Kuroneko Yamato. For many parcels delivered by these agents, especially when payment is due at the destination, whoever accepts the package must acknowledge this by impressing his or her seal on the waybill.
At least, that is what happens when the friendly, prompt deliveryman brings the box to the front door of a native Japanese resident. When I open the door, with my American face and manners, the carrier usually just points to a spot on the form and says, “Sign!” I used to dutifully write my scrawl where indicated. But about a year ago, I bought that mitome-in for just this situation.
I needed to wait only a few weeks before testing it out. That day, an efficient Kuroneko driver arrived at my door with package in hand. I grabbed my new seal and applied it thusly to the receipt. As I did this, the driver ruminated, sotto voce, “もちろん、印鑑を持っていますね” (“Of course he has a name stamp”). It is hard to convey in print, but the way he said it felt like, “What was I thinking? Naturally, a foreigner who lives in Japan and whose name is on the nameplate outside his home would have a seal, just like me.” This exact scenario happened again about a week ago, where a different carrier seemed to have a “eureka” moment, realizing that, in the end, we weren’t all that different.
From what I can tell, these delivery services only ask someone to sign if they assume a seal would not possibly be available. That is, they only ask it of foreigners. For everyone else—for Japanese citizens, that is—they wait for a stamp. Through this relatively insignificant act, a separation is made between those who grew up here and those who look fresh off the boat. By itself, it’s not a big deal. But it is just one of many encounters in everyday life in Japan where the expectations for foreign residents are different because everyone assumes it must be that way.
As the foreign population in Japan grows over the next several decades, it will become increasingly important for these residents to participate in every aspect of society. Japan has a strong sense of insider and outsider, and foreigners are the ultimate outsiders. But with an increasing number of non-Japanese choosing to make Japan their new, permanent home, they need a clear path to insider status. Small though it may be, using a mitome-in to accept packages will help make that happen. I could see it in the eyes of those two drivers. When they saw me grab my seal, something clicked for them. In that moment, I was no longer a foreigner who didn’t fit the standard, but an ordinary resident who appreciated efficient service.
Japanese citizens and their government will implement most of the societal changes needed to transform foreigners into insiders. But immigrants can help speed this up by proactively adapting to the culture. If you live here in Japan, I encourage you to purchase a mitome-in, place it in your entryway, and greet delivery agents with a smile on your face and a seal in your hand.
[Image Credits: ひつじ07/photo-ac.com]