- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 18, 2003

TOKYO — Hideo Matsuzaki creates names that will last a lifetime, one deft knife-stroke at a time.

The 71-year-old master craftsman has a list of celebrity clients and a job description with no equivalent in the West: He engraves personal seals that Japanese use instead of signing their names on the proverbial bottom line.

For centuries, people in this country have put their seals on everything from imperial proclamations to IOU’s. Mr. Matsuzaki figures he has carved tens of thousands of the tiny cylinders of wood and ivory with exquisite Japanese characters since he first picked up a blade more than 50 years ago.

But his could be a dying art.

Critics say seals — and their owners’ identities — can easily end up in the wrong hands. More are being stolen, and technology has made it possible to forge them from a sample of an imprint. Thus the government is under pressure to rethink the seals’ power as a legal instrument.

Mr. Matsuzaki, whose talents have earned him national recognition and a pair of former prime ministers as customers, says the seals aren’t the problem.

“They can’t be faulted,” he said. “It’s up to people not to lose them or have them stolen.”

Seals have deep cultural roots intertwined with Japan’s pictorial writing system, both of which were borrowed from China.

First wielded by the emperor and his court in the 8th century, seals were adopted by merchants after the country emerged from feudalism. They made their way into the pockets of commoners in the 19th century, when the government began raising armies of often-illiterate conscripts who “signed” for their pay with a seal.

Today the average adult Japanese owns about five seals, according to an industry group. Only one — registered with the government to certify ownership — can be used for important legal documents.

Since the registered seals are considered too valuable to carry around, unofficial seals are used for bank accounts, special deliveries and other everyday situations for which people in other countries would pick up a pen.

Government bureaucrats and white-collar workers are among Japan’s most prolific stampers. Invariably carrying a row of seals are the countless documents circulated before countless meetings in this consensus-oriented nation.

Proponents of the system say it’s safer than signatures.

“Your handwriting changes over the course of your life, but the imprint of a seal is unique and it’s forever,” said Ken Matsushima, chairman of the Federation of Japanese Seal Engravers Cooperatives.

For important transactions, the identity of the holder of a registered seal can be double-checked by demanding a certificate of authenticity, he noted.

But police report a 50 percent jump in the past five years of burglaries targeting seals or bank-account books, which until recently carried the imprint of the account holder’s seal.

Criminals have started using scanners and computer-operated engraving equipment to copy seals. The nation’s biggest banks are fighting lawsuits by customers who claim their accounts were emptied by impostors using stolen or forged seals.

Critics say seals can also be weapons against their owners in the hands of an unscrupulous family member or colleague.

“Lives are being destroyed,” said Toshimasa Yamada, a lawmaker who is leading a campaign to repeal one seal law that states a contract with a seal is presumed to have been stamped by the owner unless he or she can prove otherwise.

Complaints of misuse are common.

Among those cited by Mr. Yamada: A divorcee claimed she discovered her seal on a loan taken out by her ex-husband after he disappeared, and an elderly woman said her senile husband was tricked into stamping a contract.

Others say their finances went awry after handing over seals to financial advisers who promised to handle complicated paperwork.

Mr. Yamada argues that doing away with the presumed-consent law would force banks to have agreements signed in front of witnesses. He recently squeezed a concession out of Japan’s justice minister to hold a parliamentary hearing to consider reviewing the law.

But in the meantime, many Japanese are being cautious.

“These days I’m reluctant to take mine out of the safe,” said Osamu Kobayashi, 57, an advertising executive. “I think the whole system is out of step with the times.”

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