Hanko is a small piece of wood, ivory or plastic used to affix oneís name to a document.
Shaped like a short fat pencil, hanko have etched into one end, the kanji characters of the last name of the owner - in a sense a signature stick.
More than a simple quick way to put oneís signature on paper, the hanko is used to give authority to the signing of documents.
On pieces of paper circulated among a group, the using of hanko is a signal of consent or agreement to the contents of the document.
In many cases, Japanese companies have memo forms where there is a rectangular box in the corner of the paper where several hanko can be stamped to show the document has been seen, and the contents are agreeable.
Just like one can buy stickers and fridge door magnets with a personís name already etched or painted on, so to in Japan can one purchase hanko.
In office supply stores and other shops you can find hanko in order of the kanji characters with the most common last names already on the end of the hanko.
Persons who canít find their family name among the most common displayed, or who want to have a special configuration, can have hanko custom made.
Custom made hanko are often chosen by businessmen who want to impart a special configuration to the character arrangement.
Sometimes a person might have more than one hanko with a ďspecialĒ one used in those cases when the owner wants a bit of luck in signing a document ie. the box on the form to purchase a car or signing oneís first mortgage, etc.
If the situation consequently turns sour, people have been known to throw that hanko away and blame the circumstances on a hanko that had had bad luck instead of blaming other more related reasons.
In comparing the sprawled signature of a North American business person to the hanko of a Japanese, one of the advantages of hanko is consistency and speed in signing.
A person can quickly shuffle through the corners of a pile of documents while stamping with the hanko.
Also, like many things in Japan, hanko can be seen to be efficient in terms of size - the space on forms for placing a hanko is usually a small round circle. There is no need for a long line for a Western personís signature.
Of course this sometimes makes it difficult for Westerners living and working in Japan to sign documents such as forms in the bank or utility bills because there is literally no space to accomodate their way of signing.