Getting Accommodation - Part Three: Your Hanko
I mentioned last week that in getting an apartment, you don't necessarily need a Hanko to complete your contract. This is because instead of a hanko you may be able to register your signature at your embassy and thus you can give the realtor a certificate of proof of your signature instead. Thus, you really can 'sign' the contract instead of stamping it. Note, however, that your Hoshonin will still need a hanko and a Seal Registration Certificate proving it is his/hers.
However, even though you don't need one, many foreigners find that owning and using a Hanko is both convenient and, in some legal contracts, necessary, thus they go and get one. After all, the entire Japanese system is arranged around this little piece of wood or bone...
The hanko, also known in Japanese as an "inkan" and in English as a seal, comes in two legal flavors: a Mitomein (unregistered seal) and a Jitsuin (registered seal). Hankos are easily available by simply going to your local Hanko store and giving them the pattern you want engraved on it. Most foreigners use Katakana for their Mitomein, but I've seen Kanji with the same phonetic pronunciation used as well. These mass produced seals are not particularly hard to get, and can be made by anyone. You don't need to prove who you are. Typically they're used for daily transactions, such as receiving parcels, just as you would use a signature in the West. In essence, they're an affectation and basically unnecessary.
The Jitsuin on the other hand is a deadly serious piece of equipment, and once registered serves as your personal identity on all types of legal contracts, including bank loans, sale or purchase of real estate, marriage and divorce, etc. You can simply take your unregistered seal to the ward office and have them register it. However, note that in this case, you will be required as a foreigner to only use the script that is used on your Alien Registration Certificate (the one you have to get as a resident before 90 days pass after arriving in Japan).
The system for ensuring the correct usage of a Jitsuin is that once registered, you also receive a small laminated card, called a Seal Registration card ("Inkan Torokusho"), which must always be presented to the ward office in order to receive a piece of paper called a Seal Registration Certificate ("Inkan Toroku Shomeisho"). This document is used in conjunction with the Jitsuin to prove to the other contracting party the authenticity of the inkan you are using. Sounds more complicated than it is, but I can say that it is a pain to have to keep going back to the ward office for fresh Seal Registration certificates - even though it doesn't expire it is better to have a recent update of the Seal Registration certificate as it adds more credibility to your seal.
The thing that really strikes a foreigner in Japan, is the vulnerability that you have with a Hanko. Basically, if someone is able to acquire your Hanko and a Seal Registration Certificate, they can claim that they represent you (you're sick, or overseas, or something) and can contract you to bank loans, divorces, and a number of other things. This is a truly scary scenario, and one reason why Japanese guard their hanko so carefully. In fact, the reason that there are two forms of Hanko is that many people leave their Jitsuin locked up in a safety deposit box, and use their Mitomein whenever possible.
There are numerous stories of divorces where one of the couple has forged the other's approval on divorce forms, only for the remaining spouse to find out about it months or years later. Although there are ways to undo such mischief, basically it involves long and expensive legal proceedings, to prove that you didn't in fact press that inkan on the paperwork. Moral of this story is to guard your Jitsuin well, and don't let anyone use it outside your sight.
Anyone registered as a foreign resident, age 15 or older, can register his or her hanko. Usually, the person owning the hanko must be the registrant, but if you are sick or otherwise indisposed, you can nominate a representative to do it for you. Also, if you are not yet a registered foreign resident, you can still get a hanko registered as a Jitsuin by having a witness come with you to complete the registration process. The witness needs to already have his or her own Jitsuin, and be more than 20 years old.