Friday 6 September 2019

Hanko Personal Seals and Disappearing Elephants: Environmental (Un)Consciousness in Japan

Hanako Statue, Kichijoji Station
Recently, the World Wildlife Conference on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) closed, something which didn't really make the news in Japan; indeed, environmental news is very poorly covered here. For example, the outcry over the burning of the Amazon was barely mentioned though it was a big story in the foreign media. Also, you would be hard-pressed to find a Japanese who has heard of 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (Japanese readers can read up on her here). The lack of CITES coverage was particularly strange since a key question was whether Japan would close its ivory market, as a number of other countries, including China, have done in recent years. In the end, a resolution calling for Japan (and the EU) to end the trade was defeated, though the EU announced it will soon be introducing new regulations. Once this is done, Japan - even now the largest legal ivory market in the world - will become pretty much the only advanced country with a legal ivory market.

So why does Japan need ivory? The simple answer is the hanko (ハンコ) or personal seal - more formally known as an inkan (印鑑) - which accounts for about 80% of Japan's ivory consumption. These are typically used in place of a signature, finger-size stamps that are pressed in red ink - though some, known as shinto-in (浸透印) are self-inking - and then pressed onto paper. There are three basic types. First is the mitome-in (認め印) which is used for daily tasks such as receiving parcels or on documents such as CVs/resumes. Second is the ginko-in (銀行印) which is needed by most banks in order to open a bank account. Third is the jitsu-in (実印) , an officially registered seal used for business contracts or when buying a house or car (see here for a easy to follow chart of the three types). Cheaper ones made of wood, plastic, or rubber can be picked up off the shelf for next to nothing in a ¥100 shop - if you're lucky enough to have a common name - but if you have an unusual name or want a more complicated hand-carved one, you can choose buffalo-horn, titanium, or, yes, ivory and pay up to ¥20,000 (£150/$190).

For the non-Japanese coming to live in Japan, one of the first things you need to do is to make a simple hanko in order to be able to open a bank account. I remember thinking up some crazy kanji which matched the sounds of my name and popping down to the hanko shop to get a wooden one carved (for banks, complicated is better so it can not be easily copied). You need to be careful, though, because anybody will be able to withdraw money and make automatic payments if they have your hanko! Japanese tend to think this is very handy since you can ask someone else to do your banking business if needs be but from a Western point of view it seems like a risky business (though some banks are beginning to move away from this "1800s technology"). After that I became quite endeared with hanko culture and made a bunch as souvenirs for family and friends when I went back to England. I remember my grandmother would always stamp her letters thereafter with the character for granny (sobo=祖母) whenever she wrote to me!

Some years later, my original cheapo hanko had chipped and my mother-in-law made a new one for me. I didn't really give it much thought until one day at dinner she mentioned that it was made from ivory. I was shocked - I had never even realised that ivory was used or available - and felt terribly guilty at being part of the market that supports the international illegal ivory trade. A little research showed that Japan allows trading of ivory brought into the country before the CITES international trade ban of 1990, though declaring that ivory was legally obtained pre-1990 required nothing more than a document attested to by family members, a massive loophole. Japan did belatedly act this year: since July 1 dealers have been required to prove by carbon dating that specimens were legally obtained. This resulted in a massive pre-July rush by dealers to register ivory before the new rules came into force, meaning a huge stockpile continues to be bought and sold. Personally speaking, I find it difficult to understand why Japan continues to support the tiny ivory business in the face of international condemnation. Certainly, there is no nationalist "tradition" agenda surrounding ivory today, something which drives Japan's continuing whaling (though Chaiklin argues that ivory and ivory carvers played a role in the expression of nationalism during the Meiji Period). Perhaps the lack of interest in environmental issues outside Japan mentioned at the start of this blog is the only explanation?