This is to be the year the Japanese government casts out into the digital deep. Prime minister Suga Yoshihide has tasked his “digital transformation minister” Hirai Takuya with taking government services online in 2021.
The advent of the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent need to transfer stimulus payments into citizens’ verified bank accounts spurred this development. But it has been a long time coming. Sniffy pundits, foreign and domestic, have been insisting for years that Japan leave the dark ages of envelopes and paperwork and catch up electronically with the rest of the world.
To be sure, Japan’s is a paper-heavy bureaucracy. I first came to the country in the waning days of the previous century, and from the beginning I realized I would be spending a lot of time waiting for my turn to fill out forms at various counters. Top of this form, bottom of that form, name and address in this box, age and sex in that one, again and again and again. No blue ink. Write your birthdate using reign years, not calendar years. This Chinese character is illegible—cross it out with two parallel lines, initial the deletion, and rewrite the character. Name in wrong order—here’s a new form, try again.
I don’t know how many forms I have filled out in my long sojourn here, but it’s quite a lot—at banks, city halls, post offices, DMVs, places of employment, the immigration office. (Surely the first thing one does upon reaching the netherworld is to produce an ID card and register in triplicate.)
Amid all this maddening form-filling-out flutter, however, there is a bright spot: the hanko. In the West we would call it a chop or a seal. It’s the little wooden implement, usually lacquered black and about the size of a cigarette (although there are many varieties besides this most common one) that is carved at one end with the characters of the bearer’s last name. (Mine is carved with “Morgan” in katakana, the script used for foreign loanwords.) Instead of signing documents in Japan, one takes out one’s hanko, presses it into one of the round pads of shuniku vermillion ink that are ubiquitous wherever forms are to be filled out, and, having put a thickish rubber mat under the document, presses down hard on the circled character reading in, or “seal impression.”
It’s not as easy as it looks. One must make sure the hanko is aligned properly, and then one must hit the little circle right on the nose. Push hard and rock the hanko side to side a little to make sure the ink takes all around. Don’t twist the hanko or the ink will smear. Remove the hanko, accept the tissue paper the person behind the counter will thoughtfully proffer, wipe off the hanko tip, and you’re done. The form is now officially filled out.
There is something deeply satisfying about signing documents in this way. One invests sweat equity—just a little, just for a second—thereby imprinting one’s physical existence onto a piece of paper.
This is how things used to be done everywhere. The Bible speaks of scrolls sealed with wax into which leaders had impressed their seals. Signet rings have for millennia been the way that the rich and powerful put their mark on proclamations going out in their name. For most of recorded human history, in both the East and West, some form of the seal has been used to bridge the human person and the written word. With our bodies, and with an enduring physical emblem of our name and/or the office we hold, we have affirmed that what is written is what we mean, that what is said is true. Our physical existence backs up the utterances we make.
It is surely no coincidence that the wax or ink used to make the seal-mark is usually red. In Japan and elsewhere, documents of great importance were sometimes sealed in blood, emphasizing the connection between language and bodies. The Bible speaks of God sealing our souls, and, in the latter days of the law, of the seals of judgment being broken by the Lamb, He who made the old covenant new by the shedding of His blood.
Historically, it is a recent development that we merely sign documents. Of course, in the past very few could read, so a seal had to suffice. But there is more. We are not just letters spelled out in a certain order, first, middle, last name, done. We’re not our John Hancock, no matter how big we write. We are names and bodies, bodies and souls. When we purse our lips and press down hard with our hanko—stamping our existence in paraffin or in silk-based vermillion ink (which in Japanese is called, literally, “vermillion meat”)—we affirm that we are here, and that with our whole person we mean what we say. We own our words.
There is also something, if I may hazard the extension, Eucharistic about the seal. The Eucharist is symbolic, not in the sense that it stands for the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ—the Eucharist, Catholics believe, is quite literally those—but in the sense that, having received the Eucharist, we are again recognizable to the Living God. In sin we disfigured ourselves and rendered our existence illegible to the Perfect God Who made us. In the Eucharist, we are made visible again. Our side of the equation now matches up with God’s. Like a tally stick broken in two—like the original symbolon—the halves fit, and the relationship is confirmed.
This is a mystery, but what we do know is that it is both spiritual and bodily. We are made whole with God, Catholics believe, through the Eucharist. It is an affirmation that we are as we are—flesh and soul, not two but one. Our name and our “meat” are alike our identity. If we’re going to heaven, we are going in our resurrected bodies. Maybe there is a desk run by St. Peter where we have to show our ID. That ID will be the Eucharistic transformation of our body, our blood and our soul into those of Christ. All in, no half measures—that’s who we are, and how God will know His own handiwork.
It should come as no surprise that it is the hanko, more than anything else, that modernists want to abolish when they insist that Japan get with the program and go digital. No more whipping out silly carved sticks and dipping them into ink, they say. That was ancient technology even during the Edo Period. It’s the twenty-first century, and the future is online.
I disagree completely. The more I have learned about the digital transformation of human life, the warier I have become. It is fine to process payments efficiently, fine to streamline government and reduce the time that we have to spend in rows of hard chairs waiting to have our numbers called. But as everything goes digital, I find that we risk losing our embodied humanity. We melt into a backdrop of data. Our bodies seem like albatrosses, useless hunks of “meatware” that have no purpose if everything is to be conducted online. Increasingly we reject, often unknowingly, the heavy half of ourselves, the half that hurts, ages, and dies. But we are not created to be online avatars. We are human persons. We are body and soul, both.
The hanko, for all the annoying paperwork and bureaucratic inefficiency it engenders, is a testament to our human nature, a little celebration that we are made in the image and likeness of God. We are not just names, not just signatures, but sealed by God. When we affirm words, we should affirm them bodily, in the way that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.
The digitization of the Japanese bureaucracy appears inevitable. The hanko, although still used everywhere today, may be destined to end up in museums alongside the typewriter and the floppy disk. That’s too bad. We in Japan never gave it much thought before—the hanko is as much a part of our accessory tool kit as housekeys, train passes, and ball-point pens—but the seal has a deep meaning. As the digitalization of our lives gathers speed, I find that I want to cling, ever more tightly, to those things that remind me I am a body, sealed with a soul.