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19th-century ritual forcing Japanese workers into trains and offices amid coronavirus crisis

Tokyo — Despite an official work-from-home campaign and the unprecedented coronavirus crisis putting Japan under a state of emergency, Sayaka Azuma still regularly commutes into her office in Tokyo's Nishi-Azabu district.

Everyone else from her tech firm, Venture Republic, is holed-up at home. But once a week, Azuma must return to her desk — solely to perform a ritual that dates back to the 19th century. Opening a velvet case, she grabs a wooden hanko, or hand seal, applies some vermilion ink, and starts carefully stamping a stack of official documents, affixing the stylized corporate seal to each page.

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Sayaka Azuma sits at her desk in Tokyo, with her traditional hand seal, known as a hanko, visible on the desk in a blue velvet box. TBS

"For security reasons, I'm not allowed to take the company seals home with me," she told CBS News partner network TBS. "So I have to commute into the office to use them."

Azuma is not alone: Many workers say they're compelled to keep riding packed trains into the city purely for hand stamping duty, or to print out documents or do other clerical work that would seem superfluous in our digital age.

The persistent use of the hand seal in the Japanese business world is one reason commuter traffic remains stubbornly high in major cities — well below the target of an 80% reduction experts say must be reached in order to control the coronavirus epidemic here.

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People wearing face masks walk to work the day before a state of emergency is expected to be imposed, April 6, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. Getty

One nonprofit organization's research, conducted this year, found that only 43% of Japanese companies had adopted digital seals. Even among high-tech firms in Tokyo that have embraced telework, nearly all were still forced to deploy employees for hand-stamping duty.

For more than a century, dating back to an era of low literacy, the Japanese have wielded intricately carved hand seals — not their John Hancocks — to endorse contracts, buy real estate, incorporate businesses and even sign school permission slips. Somehow, amidst automation and digitization, the hanko has managed to hang on. 

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A screengrab from the Inkans.com website shows advertisements for some of the personalized hand seals, or hanko, on offer. Inkans.com

The old custom has a stalwart ally in the current government cabinet. Naokazu Takemoto, 79, who was inexplicably handed the government's information technology portfolio, is a big backer of the antiquated practice.

Takemoto gained renown last year after his website went offline, and stayed that way, for months. He leads a parliamentary group dedicated to the preservation of hand seals. Asked whether it was finally time to give hanko the boot, Takemoto told reporters in mid-March that such a migration was, "up to the private sector."

"The root of the problem isn't hanko — it's our paper-centric office work culture," writer Soichiro Matsutani argued on Yahoo News. "A lot of offices are frozen in the 1970s or 1980s, and never moved beyond word processors, copying and fax machines." 

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But this time, with lives and livelihoods at stake, calls for abolishing the seals are growing louder. A closely watched IT firm, GMO, has announced that it's stamping out use of hand seals for good. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, seal maker Shachihata has unveiled a cloud-based signature service that allows users to apply an analog-looking, vermilion-hued company or personal seal to documents online. 

The company gleaned about 2,000 orders in February for its "seal that doesn't require an inkpad," which carries a unique digital signature to prevent forgery. By April, orders had surged to 110,000.

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