You experience a lot of “firsts” when you come to a new country. They pile up right at the beginning of your experience, like when you use a new currency for the first time, eat a meal for the first time, have your first (stumbling) conversation with a local, etc. It’s all very exciting (and in some cases, overwhelming), but with each step you feel like you’re scaling a mountain of newness.
Those experiences grow fewer and further in between as time goes on. This goes for life in general, not just for visiting a new country. Things pop up here and there for you to take care of: filing your taxes, perhaps applying for a driver’s license, maybe planning a wedding, or buying a house. When you encounter a “new” thing after a long time of the same-old same-old, you might find yourself thinking: “wait, I have to learn again? Oh no.”
I found myself in this boat recently. I had to open an additional bank account at a new bank. “No problem!” I thought. I’d opened my first bank account years ago with no problem. I headed to the bank branch with my identification in hand and approached the reception area, where I was very promptly greeted in excessively polite Japanese.
“Thank you very much for coming to our bank today. How may we be of service to you?”
Me: “I’d like to open a new account.”
Bank reception worker: “Thank you very much. Do you have personal identification and your personal seal?”
Me: “I have identification, but not a seal. I don’t have one.”
Bank reception worker (GASPING AUDIBLY): “I’m very sorry, but you MUST have a personal seal in order to open a bank account.”
Me: “I can’t just use my signature?”
Bank reception worker: “No, I’m very sorry. To open a bank account in Japan you MUST have a personal seal.”
It was at this point I thought briefly of arguing with this person and pulling out the bank card I had from my other account at another bank, which I had used my signature and personal identification to get with ZERO hassle. I could see no way this information would benefit either of us.
Me: “I’ll arrange to get one, then. Thank you.”
Bank reception worker: “You could try at the 100 yen shop to get one…”
Me: “Thank you.”
I exited the bank and Googled around for a bit on my phone. There seemed to be many online resources, so I resolved to check them out when I got home to my PC. The 100 yen shop suggestion was completely out of the question for me. Why? Think about the little personalized stamps and key chains you see in little shops in your country. They have common names from your culture printed on them. In the USA, there are dozens to choose from with names like “Jeff”, “Kevin”, “Melissa” or “Liz”. There is never an “Alisha”, even in the states. Knowing this information, I was fairly certain that in a country where I live surrounded with names like “Tanaka” and “Watanabe” there was zero chance of me finding a stamp to suit me in a cheap shop. I figured I could just buy ANY stamp and call it my hanko, but I’m too stubborn for that. Besides, who knows? I might use it in some other capacity someday.
While Japan is world renowned for being a very technologically advanced society, there are many aspects of regular life here that are also very, very traditional. The “personal seal” (called a hanko or an inkan, depending on small differences) is one of these such traditions. Individuals and businesses can create customized “stamps” or “seals” bearing their name (in the case of personal seals) or business name and address (in the case of company seals). These can be very simple stamps, or they can be extremely elaborate. Prices can range from 100 yen (if you have a common name and want to pick one up at the local 100 yen shop) to hundreds of dollars, if you’re willing to shell out for fancy materials.
These seals/stamps can be officially registered at city offices as your “official” seal. It is “connected” to your identity and is yours alone.
With these ideas in mind I took to the internet. A quick Google brought me to Hanko-ya.com. I was initially rather overwhelmed by the sheer number of options there are available for personal stamps. I was interested in the cheapest, simplest option I could find. I started on the sidebar on the left, where I chose “Bank Stamps”, which is indicated with the red box below.
I thought my choices would narrow down quite a bit once I selected a category, but I saw there were still several to choose. I, being motivated by price, immediately had my eye caught by the kanji for “cheap”! Perfect!
Clicking the link automatically scrolled me down the page to a shiny section where I got some more information about this “cheap” stamp. The site also displayed estimated delivery dates, product ranking information, and three different sizes I could choose from. There’s also icons for guarantees, design checks, and add-ons. My goodness. Once more, because I wanted the cheapest option humanly possible, my mouse immediately went to the shopping cart button for the cheapest of the three sizing options.
I was next greeted with a very exciting confirmation page. “Yes, indeed, that is the product I just selected,” I thought, before pressing the “Continue with Order” button.
Then I got to the fun part. This is the page where you get to choose your design (in theory). It is on this page that customers get to choose how they would like their name to appear on their personal stamp; vertically or horizontally. There are also a number of different designs and presentations customers can choose from. Apparently some have to do with luck or prosperity. I simply chose the one I thought looked nice and would display my name clearly. Once I chose my design, I had to enter my name. The site specifies that you must enter only one name (meaning either your first name or your last name). I went with my first, in katakana: アリーシャ (Arisha, the Japanese pronunciation of Alisha).
Also on this page are a number of add-ons you can choose to go along with your order. These include swarovski crystal decorations and fancy stamp cases. I opted for none of these.
The one option I did select was the “design confirmation via email” option, which was free (it’s the center radio button in the below image).
Inside the brown box my package was shipped in, I found these things: an informational pamphlet, a receipt, and a very exciting looking box.
Inside was a thrilling card promising 10 years of faithful service from my shiny new hanko.
Inside a small paper baggie inside this box was my personalized seal. It was, of course, shiny and new when I first looked at it, but by the time I took the pictures for this blog entry I had used it a couple times and it is therefore slightly discolored.
No ink for stamping with was included in the set. I opted to purchase my own case/pad/ink at the local 100 yen shop. It was much cheaper for this all-in-one case than it was for any of the add-on options on the website when I ordered.
With all of this in hand, I headed back to the bank where I approached reception and confirmed that yes, I did indeed have my personal seal and was therefore ready to open my account. I was taken to a table to begin paperwork. Victory! After a long sales pitch for a credit card, I got to sit across from a customer service person where I made very important decisions like whether or not I wanted Disney characters on my new bank card. The customer service person checked over all of my information; inspecting my ID, my personal seal, and my application so carefully it was almost funny.
Finally, we reached the point I had been waiting for. CONFIRMING THE APPLICATION TO OPEN THE ACCOUNT. Positively giddy with excitement, we (together) once more went over my application, and I confirmed that yes, indeed, I had correctly written my name, phone number, address, and work contact information. In confirmed that yes, I was NOT going to choose the card with the Disney characters printed on it. I confirmed that I would like access to their online banking system (seriously tough decisions, here). At last, the clerk asked me to add my seal to the application.
I picked up the little piece of wood and gleefully mashed my stamp into the ink so hard it bubbled up a little on the sides. I then planted that sucker right smack dab in the middle of the indicated little box on the application. I held it there for an excessively long time with extra pressure to make sure the whole design transferred to the paper. When I finally lifted it up (triumphantly), my name was there in red ink. SUCCESS.
I exited the bank that day with a temporary bank book, a new account, and a promise my card would come to me in the mail (sans any Disney characters, thank you).
With the bank account thing done and over with, I now leave my little stamp at home near the front door in case I ever need to use it again. I always figure I could use it to sign for packages the post office brings, but hey, THEY have no problem with me signing for anything. Besides, they’ll just put a pen in your hand and flat out say: “could I have your signature, please?” Perhaps there will be a use for my stamp someday. I have not registered it yet at my city office, but I might in the near future.
Overall, procuring a hanko was a pretty painless process for me. I got one I’m happy with in a quick, easy manner, and I can use it for all sorts of dorky things. A Japanese friend maintains that she cannot read my hanko at all, which I find very odd and weirdly satisfying.
$30 for one little stamp I have needed exactly 1 time in the last four years. Regardless, I am now the proud owner of a hanko. I like to think that I have now joined the ranks of one-name people like Prince, Beyonce, or Madonna; others that are officially recognized by one name, and one name only. Yes, that’s right, Tokyo.
I am アリーシャ.