Hanko and Signature Have Vanished Overnight, But Piles of Paper Will Remain
Overnight Change at the End of 2020
In principle, for certain types of documents to be submitted (e.g., legal documents such as power of attorney etc.), the Japan Patent Office (JPO) only accepts original documents; scanned copies are not acceptable. Moreover, for these documents, the JPO previously required a hanko seal (a name seal, universal in Japanese culture, that functions in place of a signature) or a hand-written signature (for foreign users).
Amid the pandemic, in response to an urgent need to make working-from-home more common as a social-distancing measure, the government announced in October 2020 that Japan would say goodbye to hanko seals and piles of paper by the end of 2020, in an effort to focus on digitization. As a part of this grand national digitization plan, on December 28, 2020, the JPO announced that for all kinds of documents (except for documents necessary for particular procedures wherein a counterfeit would lead to serious damage (e.g., a right transfer), and documents governed by PCT rules), hanko seals and signatures will no longer be required.
But What Does This Mean?
This swift change is, naturally, a great achievement. The benefit for users is huge; for example, an applicant will no longer be required to obtain a hanko or signature from a CEO for a power of attorney etc. However, since everything other than the necessity of hanko or signatures will remain unchanged, this year-end change may not yet be such an ambitious achievement.
Specifically, as the JPO still requires the original copy of these documents, a physical document must be submitted. This means that it is necessary to prepare a physical document including everything that used to be required under the previous rule, except for a hanko or signature. In the case of a power of attorney, the names of delegators (as well as the names of representatives (CEO, president, etc.), in the case of a juridical person) and the completed date must be filled in (typed in).
In practice, the Japanese counsel can ask for permission to do so from a foreign client, while showing a draft for their review (via e-mail, a suitable online platform, and the like). An additional benefit is that it is unnecessary for a foreign user to send out the hard copy of a completed document by courier or international mail to their Japanese counsel. However, this only benefits users. Therefore, for the time being, the JPO will still need to deal with piles of paper until their digitization plan (which will likely include rule changes to allow legal documents and the like to be submitted digitally) is completed in the future.
In this regard, a 2018 JPO research report, outsourced to AIPPI-JAPAN, states that “physical legal documents etc. submitted to the JPO are digitized on the JPO’s side in order to process these documents, including checking the formality thereof followed by substantial examination, in an efficient manner. However, these digitization processes require a certain amount of time . . . it is necessary to reconsider how to deal with these legal documents etc.”