Coronavirus prompts Japan to rethink stamping documents by hand

The use of seals, or "hanko", on official documents goes back hundreds of years in Japan and spread among the general public in the 19th century.
The use of seals, or "hanko", on official documents goes back hundreds of years in Japan and spread among the general public in the 19th century.PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called for an urgent review of traditional office practices like stamping documents by hand, which are hampering efforts to rein in the coronavirus.

Some workers are forced to get on crowded trains and show up at their offices to affix their personal or company seals to documents, hindering Mr Abe's effort to contain the virus by getting the public to cut their contact with others by at least 70 per cent.

"I want the relevant ministries to conduct necessary reviews rapidly," Mr Abe told a meeting of his economic and fiscal policy council on Monday (April 27), according to the website of his official residence.

He singled out changes to the "system and custom of seals and submitting paperwork" as necessary for promoting remote work.

Mr Abe's government itself has also hindered social distancing efforts. The process of applying for government subsidies to prevent job losses during the current crisis has required small businesses to hand over papers in person at unemployment offices, exposing them to the risk of infection.

The use of seals, or "hanko", on official documents goes back hundreds of years in Japan and spread among the public in the 19th century. A seal dipped in red ink is often required to verify personal or business transactions.

Reluctant to shrug off those customs, Japan has been criticised for decades for its inefficiency at white collar work. A survey by the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and Industry conducted partly by fax last month found that only 26 per cent of the 1,333 companies that responded had introduced working from home.

"Using a seal is nonsense," Mr Hiroaki Nakanishi, head of the big business lobby Keidanren, said on the group's YouTube channel.

"Everything can be done with a signature or an electronic signature. Using a seal as proof of identity doesn't fit with the current digital age," he added. He suggested the seals themselves could be kept as works of art.

 
 

Apart from technical issues, almost half of respondents cited the difficulty managers face in assessing employee performance when they cannot see their team in person as a reason for avoiding remote work.

Japan has recorded about 13,400 cases of the coronavirus and just under 400 deaths, far lower figures than other major economies. Nonetheless, the government is leaning towards extending the state of emergency that is currently scheduled to end on May 6, national broadcaster NHK reported on Sunday.