April 27, 2020 / 11:51 AM / a month ago

To push telework, Japan taking another look at ancient "seal" custom

TOKYO, April 27 (Reuters) - With efforts to promote telecommuting lagging despite the coronavirus crisis, Japan is taking another look at an ancient custom that stubbornly remains an analogue anomaly in an otherwise high-tech nation: the need to stamp documents with seals.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called on citizens to stay at home, aiming for a 70 to 80 percent reduction in contact to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus, but the goal has proved elusive.

In particular, many workers have been forced to commute to their offices because of a reliance on hard-copy paperwork for key contracts and proposals, and the need for much of this to be stamped with a traditional “hanko” or seal.

On Monday, though, Abe instructed cabinet ministers at a meeting of the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy (CEFP), to overhaul regulations and identify inconvenient and unnecessary steps in administrative procedure such as a traditional seal or face-to-face paper submission - a prelude to scrapping or simplifying them eventually.

Usually a small cylinder carved with the characters for a person or company’s name, “hanko” or “inkan” are pressed on red ink pads and then stamped on documents as needed.

A custom originally imported from China over a thousand years ago, the use of hanko was formalised by Japan’s modern government in the mid-1800s, with citizens required to legally register one with their name to use on important papers and documents.

In business, they can be used on virtually everything, from contracts to applications and even just to show that everybody in an office has seen a particular memo.

The government this month compiled an economic stimulus package for the coronavirus outbreak which includes subsidies for companies - but applying for many of these will require stamping the forms with a seal or visiting offices in person.

Comments were not immediately obtainable from hanko maker associations, but many Japanese have expressed their frustration with the custom on social media.

“Just to complete my work, how many thousands of times - no, hundreds of thousands of times - have I had to press my hanko on papers?” wrote Twitter user “Mayumi_ma-na.”

“There are plenty of sectors that no longer rely on these seals! Why can’t we just sign things?”

Japan had over 13,400 coronavirus infections, with more than 370 deaths, public broadcaster NHK said on Monday. (Reporting by Kaori Kaneko, editing by Elaine Lies and Chizu Nomiyama)

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