During a recent ceremony at a Buddhist temple in Shinjuku, a priest chanted sutras to memorialise the departed. However, he wasn’t eulogising a person, but hanko: corporate and personal seals used to authenticate contracts and a host of other documents. The funeral for the approximately 50 seals was requested by three companies, including Sakura Internet, which said the chops were no longer needed to validate contracts.
Funerary rites to express appreciation to inanimate objects are nothing new in Japan. They are regularly held for dolls, and have even been given for needles, pagers, and Aibo robots. But the ritual performed for hanko signals a shift to digital processes in communications, business, and other transactions across a range of industries and professions.
Japan has clung stubbornly to old-world paper technologies such as cash, business cards, and fax machines, and hanko is the granddaddy of them all. Seals for authentication date back more than 3,000 years to China’s Shang dynasty and were formalised in Japan in the mid-19th century.
It took the coronavirus pandemic to change things. Complaints that face-to-face meetings for hanko impressions were hindering companies from introducing telework seem to have finally pushed the Japanese government to embrace digital alternatives. However, even as recently as June, a group of Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers was demanding the hanko system be preserved. Taro Kono, minister in charge of administrative reform, has said that more than 90% of 10,000 types of administrative procedures that require hanko can be simplified. Last month, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga instructed his government to do away with hanko, allowing more government services to go online.
Less than 12% of administrative work in Japan is conducted online, Reuters reported, and the annual personnel cost of not going digital is equivalent to 323 million working hours or nearly $8 billion.
“Digitalising procedures for businesses is definitely to be welcomed,” says Tobias Schiebe, an attorney at Arqis, a Tokyo-based European law firm that specialises in corporate, commercial, HR, and data law.
“Not only will it make administrative tasks more cost-efficient and faster — both for the public purse and for businesses — but it will also allow businesses to grant their employees more flexibility regarding remote-work models if paperwork is no longer necessary. Also, the government should lead by example in this regard, thus increasing trust in the legal reliability of digital procedures.”
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