Kanin (official seal) (官印)

A Kanin is an official seal given to government officials and offices to prove their social and public status in China and Japan. Kanin were originally designed only for actual use, but their high artistic quality was recognized approximately after the age of the Sung Dynasty and they became the subject of collection and appreciation and also used as a reference material for tenkoku (seal-engraving).


The system of kanin had already started in the Spring and Autumn period but it became firmly established as an unified system after the Qin Dynasty which was the time when the centralized authoritarian rule and the constitutional system were established.

Under the centralized authoritarian rule, each local government office and the officials working there executed the authority devolved from the central government to run the local government. Their main businesses included approving decisions within their jurisdiction and sending applications and reports to the central government, and on those occasions, official documents were required to be issued with attached evidence which proved the event had been performed officially. For such occasions, the government offices and officials were also required to prove that they were in an official position approved by the nation. Kanin' was created to easily provide official evidence for those cases.

The types of kanin differed between government officials and offices and also, kanin were provided to military officers. Generally, a title was carved on the kanin for government officials and an office name was carved on the kanin for government offices. Kanin was seen as a symbol of government officials because government officials attached inju (a thick string for kanin) to the grip of kanin and always wore kanin on their obi (a waist belt). This is the reason the phrase, 'Inju wo obiru' (to wear inju on one's obi) is generally used to express becoming a government official.

Kanin came to be stamped on papers after the age of the Tang Dynasty, but until the period of Wei and Jin in the Northern and Southern Dynasties, kanin were stamped on 'fudei' (a lump of clay) which was used to seal a bundle of mokkan or chikkan (narrow, long, and thin pieces of wood or bamboo strung together that were used to write on in ancient times).


The following is the historical development of kanin in China.

Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States period

Currently, the existence of the oldest seal in China called Koji (an old-time seal for official or private purpose) goes back to the age of the Yin Dynasty. However, many of them are with patterns, and even though some are with words, it is thought that most of them were used as Shiin (private seal).

It was after the Spring and Autumn period that what can be called 'kanin' appeared. According to "The Zuo Zhuan" (The Chronicle of Zuo), in 543 BC, Chancellor 季武子, who controlled the politics of the house of lords at that time, attacked a village, a public land, to privatize it, taking advantage of Duke Xiang's absence.
Then, 季武子 dispatched his subordinate to watch Duke Xiang and, in order to smooth over the incident, 季武子 later forged and sent him a Jisho, a report sealed with fudei, which said, 'The person in charge of the governance there raised an insurrection, so I put it down.'
This is an example of a high official, but this tells there was already the custom of providing official seals to government officials at that time.

Although most of the unearthed kanin are from the Warring States period and some of their engravings are not decipherable, there are some seals carved with government posts of the period, such as 'Shiba,' 'Shito,' and '司工.'

The characters on seals are colored gold and are usually in hakubun-style (incised character), and the seal material is metal, mostly copper. The style of placing characters depended on the region.

Qin Dynasty

The Qin Dynasty unified China in 221 BC and strengthened the foundation of the centralized authoritarian rule by unifying a lot of rules and systems such as literal characters and the system of weights and measures. Because of this situation, kanin came to be managed by Fusetsurei, the subordinate officials of Shofu (a governmental title, one of nine Ministers), and the unified rules were established. Subsequently, 'Ji' and 'In,' which had been mixed up, started to be used separately. The kanin for emperors was called 'Ji' and the other normal kanin was called 'In' and the style became unified.

The kanin in the Qin Dynasty used small seal script, the official script, in hakubun-style and were made of copper. The most distinctive feature was the way of placing the characters; first a 'Ta (田)' shape was cut into the stamping surface as a framework, then characters were put inside the small frameworks. This style is seen only in this period and called 'Shinin' (Qin seal).

Han Dynasty and Xin Dynasty

After the Qin Dynasty was overthrown in 209 BC, the centralized authoritarian rule was carried over to the Former Han Dynasty and kanin were manufactured and provided. Even when Wang Mang usurped the throne and founded the Xin Dynasty, there was no big impact on kanin, and kanin kept being provided until the Later Han Dynasty was overthrown in 220.

The system was carried over from the Qin Dynasty, but became slightly more complicated.
Ji' started to be used not only by emperors but also Imperial families and lords who claimed the title of King, and the seals for shogun came to be called 'Sho.'
Also, social position was discriminated by the color of inju (a thick string of seal) and the material and shape of the grip. A kanin was a square sun (a sun = 3.03 cm), but lower class government officials were not allowed to have one of that size and instead, they had to use the seal called "半通印" which was half the size of the original one. Moreover, based on the Five Phases theory, the number of characters was fixed at 5.

Unlike the characters of kanin in the Qin Dynasty, those in the Han Dynasty didn't use the small seal script, which was the official script, but used the seal script, which was arranged specially for seal with more squared shape. Hakubun-style and copper material were used. Regarding the way of placing the characters, the framework used in Qin seals was disused, and the characters were directly placed on the stamping surface. Because of the squared characters, it gave the impression that the stamping surface was packed with the characters when many characters were used. This style was seen only in the Han Dynasty, so it is called 'Kanin' (Han seal).

Speaking of Han seals, 'Wa no na no kokuo in' (the seal for the crown of Na province in Japan), commonly called Shikanoshima Island Gold Seal found in Japan, is also a Kanin.

The period of Wei and Jin in the Northern and Southern Dynasties

During the period of Wei and Jin in the Northern and Southern Dynasties, which continued from 220 when the Han Dynasty was overthrown to 589 when the Sui Dynasty unified China, the powerful nations such as Wei, which was one of the three nations in the Three Kingdoms period (of Chinese history), provided kanin. Following this case, the nations of the Northern Dynasty also provided kanin.

In this period, kanin were basically the same as those in the Han Dynasty, but the quality varied as the wars and political instabilities continued. Especially, many of those made by the dynasties of northern ethnic groups were rough as they were not used to the kanin system itself.

The distinctive point of this period is that shubun-style (raised character) appeared for some kanin where hakubun-style had been the basis. Because paper came into wide use from this period, including official documents. The reason hakubun-style had been common was because the characters had to stand out on 'fudei' used to seal a bundle of mokkan and chikkan. On the other hand, shubun-style was more easily read than hakubun-style when stamping on papers, so shubun-style kanin began replacing hakubun-style rapidly after that.

Sui Dynasty and Tang Dynasty

During the Sui Dynasty and the following Tang Dynasty, because of the establishment of the ritsuryo system (a law system), the centralized authoritarian rule became as firm as a rock. But the kanin system was reformed so that the system of providing kanin to all the government officials was abolished and kanin were provided only to the offices.

Unlike the square shaped seal script, the kanin in the Sui and Tang Dynasties had distinctively decorated and elegantly winding script, which was rearranged from the curve of the small seal script. Besides, because of the wider use of paper, all the seals changed into the easily read shubun-style. It was as huge as two square sun and the base part of the seal became thinner and the grip became larger, so the features changed a lot from Han seals. The style of kanin in this period was called 'Toin' (Tang seal).

After Sung Dynasty and the end of the Chinese kanin era

Although there were some changes to the system, kanin were still being provided after the Northern Sung Dynasty and lasted until the Qing Dynasty which was the last dynasty of China.

After the Northern Sung Dynasty, the characters of kanin were decorated more and more, and they gradually became a tool to show the authority of the governmental officials and lost the function of being read. The installation of Kujo seal script symbolized the situation. Kujo seal script is a decorative script with elongated and sharply undulating strokes, so it looks like just a cluster of thin lines if many characters are engraved on the seal.

During the Qing Dynasty, not only Kujo seal script but also other decorative style scripts and other characters than Chinese characters as well as patterns were actively used. Kujo seals lost their original function as a seal since the words and symbols engraved on them could not be easily read anymore.

In 1911, China as a dynastic nation ended when the Republic of China was founded after the Xinhai Revolution. At the same time, the kanin system was abolished, putting an end to its nearly 2500-year history since the Spring and Autumn period.

Japanese kanin

In ancient Japan where the culture and administrations were developed under the strong influence of China, the kanin system was installed at the same time as the importation of the ritsuryo system.

The existing oldest seal in Japan is the above-mentioned 'Wa no na no kokuo in,' which was made in China during the Han Dynasty, but it is not clear if it was actually used. Apart from the 'Wa no na no kokuo in,' the oldest seal which has been confirmed to have actually been used, was made during the Nara period and the Japanese kanin history started with it.

Nara period and Heian period

The seal system during the Nara period was transferred from China and it was the national authority to make seals, and the national permission was required when seals were made for private individuals. In other words, 'In' meant 'kanin' under the ritsuryo system in Japan.

According to the rules of Taiho Ritsuryo (Taiho Code) enacted in 701, there were 4 different types of kanin which were called Naiin, Gein, Shoshiin, and Syokokuin. Naiin was the seal for emperors with the inscription 'Tenno Gyoji' (seal of the emperor) on it; it was three square sun and used for iki (a letter of appointment) of officials higher than Goi (fifth rank) and the official documents given to provinces. Gein was the seal of Daijokan (Ground Council of State) with the inscription 'Daijokanin' (the seal of Daijokan) on it; it was 2.8 square sun and used for iki of officials lower than Rokui (sixth rank) and draft documents of Daijokan to Bunseikan. At first, Daijokanin was stamped on the whole part of documents but in the later Nara period, only the 3 areas in the header, footer, and center, plus 1 area near the date were allowed to be stamped. Moreover, Shisho (people who performed miscellaneous duties relating to documents) in Shonagon kyoku (Lesser Counselors' Office) stamped documents under the supervision of Shonagon after Shonagon had reported an application for sealing and been granted the Imperial sanction. That was called Shoin (a formality to seal documents issued by the government). At the beginning, Shonagon controlled Shoin as their official duties but after Kurododokoro (board of archivists) was founded, it became the official duties of Kurodo (Imperial archives keeper). Shoshiin Seal was used in ministries and departments, such as Sho, Dai, Ryo, and Shi, and all the officials kept their own seal and those seals were used for the documents given to Daijokan and to other offices. Shokokuin Seal was used in provinces when sending official documents to the capital of Japan. These were the official seals in Japan, to be called kanin, and there were seals for district, township, and temples and shrines as equivalents of kanin.

One of the purposes of using kanin and the equivalent seals in Japan was to distinguish whether a document was genuine or not, and another purpose was to show the authority of the Japanese nation under the ritsuryo codes. An obvious example of the latter purpose can be seen in the Imperial order 'Heiden-ji Bunsho' (Heiden-ji Temple document) on May 20, 749 in Totomi Province, which was fully covered by Naiin 'Tenno Gyoji' including even where there were no words. In another episode, the Johei and Tengyo War in the middle of the tenth century was originally thought as a duel among the Taira family but later came to be regarded as a treason because TAIRA no Masakado surrounded and captured the local government of Hitachi and stole its kanin. This is also an example which shows the authority of kanin.

Thus, for the sake of principle, kanin was the only seal under the original system, and the petition on Daijokanpu (official documents issued by Daijokan, Grand Council of State) in 868 said, 'There are seals for shoshi (officials), but no private seals for the subjects because of consideration to Kushiki-ryo (Kushiki Code),' and private seals were not allowed. However, FUJIWARA no Nakamaro was granted the use of 'Emi家印' (the seal of Emi family) as a special case when he was given the kabane (hereditary titles used in ancient Japan to denote rank and political standing) of 'Emi' by the Empress Koken in 756. Even in this case, he was not allowed to use his family seal without permission.
However, the amendments to the ritsuryo system issued in 756 recognize the use of seals saying, 'It became common practice for all the seal-owning families to cast private seals and secretly use them which is unavoidable.'
Also, it allowed the use of private seals, which is believed to have spread widely from the middle of the Heian period by officially stipulating the rule to limit the size of seals to 1.5 square sun.

Also, Japanese kanin were strongly influenced by those in the Sui and Tang Dynasties as they were used during the same time as those periods, and look similar to the seals in the Tang Dynasty.

The end of the Japanese kanin era
The rules of kanin gradually collapsed while the control of the administrative agencies under the ritsuryo system, such as the central and local government agencies, weakened as the ritsuryo system was loosening. Moreover, the appearance of Kao (written seal mark) gave the final blow to kanin.

Since the time of the ritsuryo system, to make the official document effective, it not only had to be stamped with the kanin, but also had to be ratified with the signature of officials of the government offices. The signature came to be written in a more cursive style and became Kakihan, also known as Kao, and the original style of Kao was already seen in the early Heian period. Kao developed rapidly and took the place of kanin which had lost authority. As a result, kanin was completely demolished at the end of the ancient Japan, and Kao came into general use after a new Kakihan style 'Nigotai' which was a way to represent someone's name by combining a part of 2 characters of a name (for example, by combining a part of 'Yori' and a part of 'Tomo' to represent 'MINAMOTO no Yoritomo') appeared during the period of the government by the abdicated Emperor.

Even after that, there was 'Goin' (the seal of pseudonym) used by the Buddhist monks who came to Japan from the Southern Sung Dynasty to Japan, which proves that seals did not stop being used to prove official status. As examples of Goin, Doryu RANKEI at Kencho-ji Temple used 'Rankei' as the inscription of his seal and Sogen MUGAKU at Engaku-ji Temple used 'Mugaku' as that of his seal. After a while, Goin was generalized among the monks in Gosan (Zen temples highly ranked by the government). Also Goin spread to Buke (samurai families), and during the Sengoku period, busho (Japanese military commanders) used seals such as 'Kokuin' (a seal with black ink) and 'Shuin ' (a seal with red ink) as official seals. However, because these seals are not included in kanin, it means that the genealogy of Japanese kanin had completely ended by the beginning of the medieval period.

Collection and appreciation

After the Northern Sung Dynasty, the literati made kanin a subject of collection and appreciation. Until that time, seals were only for practical use, and not seen artistically, but the more kanin were found, the more they interested the literati, and many of the literati started buying, collecting and appreciating kanin.

As a result, the interest in the seal script increased and it blazed a trail for the research of ancient characters in the area of the old document study during the Qing Dynasty. Moreover, as part of that trend, some people started thinking of making seals by themselves, and before long their idea led to tenkoku (seal-engraving).

Even nowadays, kanin are treated as a subject of collection and appreciations from the view point of calligraphy, antiquities, and archaeology, and kanin are dealt as art objects.


It was after the Edo period when Chinese kanin became widely known in Japan. Around that time, tenkoku (seal-engraving) took a firm hold in calligraphy, and through Chinese compilation of seal marks, people gradually started appreciating kanin.

Also, the interest in kanin during the Japanese ancient times grew and private seals as well as those of temples and shrines, which were known collectively as 'Yamato old seals,' became a subject of appreciation. Shiojiin' in the Kyoto National Museum, one of the existing fine seals, is from the early Heian period, which had been handed down at Shio-ji Temple in Akita Prefecture for a long time and was moved to Sekizenin Temple, a branch temple of Shogoin Temple in Kyoto Prefecture during the Edo period. However, unlike Chinese cases, it is very rare that an actual seal still remains like this and, most of the cases, we can only see the stamp marks on the official documents such as family registration forms.

These days, like in China, kanin are treated as a subject of artistic appreciation through various views such as calligraphy, antiquities, archaeology. Because more actual seals remain in China than in Japan, it is often the case that Japanese antique dealers import Chinese seals and deal them as antiquities.

[Original Japanese]