Yesterday I had some errands to run around Sannomiya (downtown Kobe), so I met Quinn for lunch and then set about them. A fair number of these had to take place at the bank. I always find the bank to be a confusing and frightening place, so I tend to save up my bank visits until I have four or five things to do there.
They don't really do personal checks here, and credit cards are sort of exotic. So there are basically three ways to pay for things. One is cash. The other is to wire money from a convenience store -- when we get our electric bill, for example, it comes in the mail with a barcode on it. We can take that to a convenience store (e.g. 7-11) where they scan the barcode, take a cash payment, and then give us a receipt for our electric bill payment. It seemed really weird the first time, but it's actually a fairly convenient way to do things. The third way is automatic withdrawals -- most of our bills just get taken straight out of our account, which requires filling out a form with the proper account numbers and signatures in advance.
Quinn has been taking classes at a yoga studio in Rokko, and they prefer to get their monthly tuition payment by automatic withdrawal. Twice now the form has been returned by the bank because my signature wasn't quite right. My signature tends to be on the messy side and that was never a problem before, but here they're quite particular. It has to look exactly the same every time.
Most people don't use a signature at all; they carry around a little personal stamp (called a hanko) that works in place of a signature. Almost every adult in Japan carries one of these things on their person all the time. Because the space for signatures is the size and shape of a little stamp rather than a line for a signature, my signature often turns out sort of odd-looking, which only compounds the problem. Actually, I'd registered my signature with "Craig" and "Jolley" on the same line and had mistakenly signed the forms with "Jolley" directly below "Craig", which was not deemed to be the same signature at all. One of the secretaries in our lab had ordered me a hanko to use for RIKEN paperwork, so I figured I would simplify things and register that as my signature at the bank.
After lots of stamping and signing and filling things out (and an hour of my life that I'm never getting back), things appeared to be taken care of and I headed back to work. A couple of hours later I got a phone call from someone at the bank. After my repeatedly asking her to please repeat herself and slow down and use easy words, she tried explaining things to me in her broken English. She seemed very concerned with whether my stamp was self-inking or whether I had to use an ink pad. I thought that the self-inking feature was pretty cool, actually. I spoke with Maki, the secretary who had ordered the stamp, and she confirmed that it was in fact an automatic self-inking stamp. I was informed that this was not acceptable, and I was stuck with my (often ineffective) signature. I expressed my confusion to Maki, and she figured (correctly) that she might be able to get more information out of them than I could and called back.
Apparently, the self-inking stamps are mass-produced, and two that are made for the same name will produce identical stamps, making it not sufficiently unique for a signature. I can't imagine that there are actually that many stamps with my name floating around Japan, but that's (apparently) not the point. A real hanko is hand-carved (usually from wood) and each one is slightly different. So Maki put in an order for a wooden hanko for me. As long as I don't have to use my name for anything before it shows up, I should be fine.