I enjoy posts like this sometimes because, while photos are fun, it’s nice to occasionally put my Japan experience to some use. So let’s talk hanko!
Hanko (判子), more comprehensively called inkan (印鑑), are seal stamps. As far as I know, they’re common throughout East Asia, or at least used to be, and originated in China, but I only really know about the Japanese version. There are four kinds of personal hanko, with varying degrees of formality, but they all serve the same basic function as a signature in the west.
My hanko is a mitome-in (認印). It’s mid-range on the formality scale and used for things like receiving postal deliveries, paying bills, and signing in at work. As a foreign English teacher, I never needed a jitsu-in (実印), which is the kind that people register for legally binding documents, so I only have the one. It’s made of wood and was special ordered. As with all mitome-in, it only has my family name, somewhat crowded because it’s printed in romaji.
Mostly, I used my hanko to stamp the attendance book at my schools when I got to work, which is a pretty common practice in Japan. As I said, mine was a special order (it cost ¥1,000/about $12), but generic mitome-in for names like Sato and Tanaka can actually be found at ¥100 stores. That’s also where you can find a good selection of hanko cases.
If I move back to Japan, I will have a new hanko made. This is because the one I have was ordered for me before I even got there. My Board of Education had a tendency to treat us like children who couldn’t be trusted and that left a bitter aftertaste. So, as some Japanese people get a new hanko after a major life change, I will get a new one if I go back. It seems like a really nice symbol of a fresh start. It’s an idea that I, at least, have always found really appealing.