When I first arrived in Japan I was surprised at the number of things I could do without this stamp. We had been told that to open a bank account, buy a cellular phone, pay our bills and register for classes we would need to make an 印鑑 “inkan”, the engraved name stamp used as a signature in East Asian countries with a Chinese cultural heritage.

It turns out that in recent years, Japanese companies have become a lot more accommodating to foreigners and their handwriting. Japanese family names tend to be only between one and three characters long (the common Suzuki is 鈴木) and fit very easily onto that little wooden stamp. My name on the other hand becomes seven characters in Japanese, nearly impossible to write. Other foreign names have even more syllables, prompting the Japanese post office (which provides insurance plans and savings accounts), major telephone providers and government offices to accept signatures in lieu of the stamp.

Really though, if you’re coming to Japan wouldn’t you want to get one of these cool looking stamps instead of just using your boring old signature everywhere? That’s how I felt, and so my Japanese friends came to the rescue with a home-grown solution. Ateji!

当字(あてじ)”ateji” is the practice of taking kanji (Chinese-derived characters) either for their sound or for their meaning, but not both. One form of ateji is when a word is made of characters that have the desired pronunciation, but the meaning of the individual characters is irrelevant to the meaning of the construction. An example is 寿司 “sushi”. The characters actually mean “congratulations, felicitations” and “to control, preside, manage” but in this sense they mean “vinegared rice with raw fish”. An alternate form of ateji is to take characters that have a desired meaning and modify or force an alternate pronunciation upon them – exceedingly common with names (and widely practiced in China with popular brands).

It is ateji that allowed me to make an authentic and not at all embarrassing inkan for my use in Japan. The characters I chose are 「旅葉督」read “Ro-ba-to”. The first character is “tabi” (usually read “ryo”) meaning “travel, journey”. The second is “happa” (usually ha, ba, pa) meaning “leaf”. The last is quite obscure, which works in my favour – it means “to press, to urge, to demand” and is read “to”.

The most obvious interpretation is that I took three nice-looking, well balanced characters and twisted their readings to match my first name – Robert (“roba-to” in Japanese). A parallel insight is that the imagery of the characters also reflects on the bearer – a traveler, like a leaf floating downstream (who signs the payment receipts on his letters of demand – bills).

But then something truly serendipitous happens. The viewer realises that my surname begins with the syllable “ba”, and so the “ro-ba-to” reflects not just my first name and a story about me, but more completely encompasses my identity. In Japan (and China etc) there is an ancient tradition of a superior bestowing upon his favoured subordinate a character from his own name. To receive a new name from (for instance) the Shogun using a character from his own name was the highest form of praise.

When my friends Mai, Kanako and Miho were helping me to choose my name they thought about using that 司 earlier from sushi, because it is also used in the word for priest 司祭 “shisai”. Of course, I told them it wouldn’t do since I’m not a priest, and they put it aside. The time came for us to find a character for the “to” syllable and Mai decided to look up some more words related to Christianity in Japanese.

Since the first missionaries arrived in the 16th century, many of the words and concepts of Christianity became established in Japanese so long ago that many of them have their own (ateji-based) kanji compounds. “Christ” in Japanese is usually キリスト (written in katakana like a normal loan word) but also has the construction 基督 from which Mai suggested I take my final character.

Now I have a three-character construction for my inkan. Ro-ba-to, representing my first name (Robert), the initial sounds of my given and surnames (“Ro” and “Ba”), an illustration of my place in Japan (as a travelling leaf) and, finally, A relationship between myself and my Lord in the adoption of one of Christ’s characters into my own name. To sweeten the deal, I had to choose which of the three characters would be twice as large as the other two, to fit the requirements of the round impression. Naturally, 「督」 took that position.

So there you have it, the story of my inkan. Deo gratias!