The Tokyo rail and metro systems make up one of the largest rapid transit networks in the world. More than 14 billion people walk through its turnstiles every year. That’s about 40 million rides every single day. On a typical morning during rush hour, commuters stand cheek to jowl in cramped train cars.
But last year, at the start of the COVID epidemic, after the Japanese government declared a state of emergency, the trains emptied out. Most, but not all. At the height of the pandemic, many people still found themselves commuting on a daily basis, and not just in the metro, and not just to one place.
Many of these people had to take the risk because they needed documents to be stamped with hanko. Hanko, sometimes called insho, are the carved stamp seals that people in Japan often use in place of signatures. Hanko seals are made from materials ranging from plastic to jade and are about the size of a tube of lipstick
The end of each hanko is etched with its owner’s name, usually in the kanji pictorial characters used in Japanese writing. This carved end is then dipped in red cinnabar paste and impressed on a document as a form of identification. Hanko seals work like signatures, only Instead of signing on a dotted line, you impress your hanko in a small circle to prove your identity. But unlike a signature, which you can make with any old pen or touch screen, in Japan you need to have your own personal hanko with you whenever you stamp something, and you have to stamp it in person.