In a small, non-descript underground store in the Shibuya shopping and entertainment district, Mr Hideki Arami is hard at work carving a hanko, or seal, by hand.
The youthful-looking 50-year-old is working in the same shop, Todo Insho, that was started by his grandfather in 1957, succeeded by his father and carried on by him since 2006.
“It takes at least 10 years to learn how to make a hanko,” he says, as wraps his lithe hands around a carving tool and a hanko he is working on, held in place by a wooden clamp.
And that is only if one has the talent, he adds with a bittersweet smile, recalling his own long struggle under his father’s apprenticeship from 1993 to 2003.
Business has been good, says Mr Arami, who receives about 50 to 60 orders a month for his hand-carved, individualised products in boxwood or ox horn material, that cost up to 150,000 yen (S$1,900) each.
In fact, in months when there are 80 orders or more, customers have to wait a month or longer for their seals as it takes three to four hours to carve one, and he can only do three or four of them a day at most. The waiting time is even longer if the customer chooses a complicated motif for the seal.
Seals are a bread-and-butter business in Japan, where seal imprints of the family or full names, rather than signatures, are used in official transactions related to banking and contracts, a practice that can be traced back to as far as the eighth century when Japanese officials used a hanko to authenticate documents. In the 1870s, legislation was passed which required seal imprints to be registered and used for important transactions such as birth and marriage registrations. Companies, too, use seals in their transactions, as do employees, in seals that indicate their titles.
The Japanese also reach for their seal rather than the pen even for transactions in daily life, such as when taking delivery of documents or goods they have bought online.
Most Japanese carry at least two seals – a good quality one for important transactions and a cheaper one, for other dealings, that can cost as little as 100 yen, if one has a common surname that is stocked by a 100-yen store.
In recent years, the market has been dominated by machine-made seals. Lifestyle chain stores also sell them, even the good quality ones, a trend that Mr Arami says goes against the idea of the seal imprint as proof of one’s identity.
“Many people are effectively using the same hanko,” he says of machine-made products which make seals based on a common digital representation of a name. Seal carvers, however, rely on their creativity to come up with slightly different ways of carving the same Japanese names.
As seal imprints have to be registered at the district offices to be recognised legally, they are supposed to be unique, and not shared. Hand-carved products such as Mr Arami’s fulfil the function well, although they do cost about twice that of the machine-made ones.
While the hand-carved seals can last for life, if used with care, most people end up using a few of them due to changes in family or work situations such as marriages. There are also some who believe that a new seal can bring luck to new enterprises, such as a new position at work or a new job.
However, even if more users opt for the hand-carved versions, there may not be enough seal makers like Mr Arami to handle the work.
“Seal carving is detailed work which requires very good eyesight, and many seal makers who are 65 and above have had to give up because of poor eyesight,” says Mr Arami, whose father also had to cut down on his work due to his failing eyesight.
Even though business is good, Mr Arami has been cracking his head over increasing it.
He has taken up a suggestion by some of his customers who are foreign residents in Japan from countries such as Spain, Holland and the US, that he look overseas for business.Impressed with his work, they had said that his seals may find interest from those looking for a unique trinket for themselves or as a gift for others.
With the help of Internet translation tools, he recently started a webpage in English for orders from international customers.
Among the offerings is a 1 million-yen gold-gilt hanko that Mr Arami is confident will find a taker before long.
At Todo Insho, he stocks machine-made seals, which he agrees are good value for everyday purposes.
With an eye on the many tourists who throng the Shibuya area, he has also come up with some ready-made seals meant to be souvenirs.
Mr Arami hopes his efforts pay off because they will determine whether his 12-year-old son will be able to become the fourth-generation seal carver in the family.
“I hope he can take over, but the recent trend towards a paperless society is a worrying development,” he says.
What if, after 10 years of learning the craft, his son is unable to make ends meet, he ponders.
Mr Arami can probably take heart from the fact that the hanko culture in Japan is unlikely to disappear. Major Japanese banks do not accept signatures for opening an account, even for foreign residents.