Hyousatsu: Why do Japanese people typically post name plates in front of their houses?

The capital respects privacy, although in front of the house or flat of the Japanese, there is a nameplate (Housatsu) of the owner. Why is that so?

What is Hyousatsu?

Hyousatsu (表札) is a nameplate placed at the Japanese gate or Genkan (the reception hall at the entrance) (the reception hall at the entrance). On Hyousatsu, the name of the host is shown, although typically it is still the last name, and sometimes the names of some other family members are also added.

This nameplate becomes a sign to quickly identify who the house belongs to, especially assisting the postman to detect the specific address of the receiver and deliver the letter to the door. Besides, it also affirms the position of the family. As a result, the Japanese take considerable care while designing Hyousatsu for their families.

Hyousatsu is usually placed at the gate, or Genkan, of a Japanese house. Via Etsy

Previously, the nameplate was made of wood, and the host’s name was inscribed vertically from top to bottom in Japanese style. However, today’s Hyousatsu materials and patterns have become very diversified, ranging from metal, wood, ceramic, marble, and plastic, and the letters are also printed horizontally in Japanese or Latin in any manner, depending on which letter is the owner’s favorite.

History of Hyousatsu

Although it appeared in the Edo era (1603–1868), however, Hyousatsu was not prevalent at that time and was only seen in Samurai houses. The first is because commoners these days just have first names without having an official surname. The commoners, including farmers, artisans, and merchants, who wished to have their own surname had to pay a sum of money to the lord of the district in which they lived.

Next, Edo people normally stay in one spot for a long period and rarely move to other towns, so only a name is enough. Especially in hostels, the list of occupants is posted at the door. The landlord and tenant are considered one family, thus even if there is no nameplate, they can still be contacted through the owner.

Therefore, few people are prepared to spend a considerable amount of money to have their own surname yet rarely use it. In cases with the same name, just telling the name of the village where you live will readily authenticate your identification, and if you are a merchant, say the name of the shop.

But all changed after the Household Registration Law was promulgated in 1872; from here on, commoners also had surnames like Samurai. Likewise, when the postal system was formed in 1872, with mail being sent by address and name, nameplates began to be used as a symbol of who resided in the house.

During the Taisho period (1912–1926), along with the great development of the economy, the public transportation system such as trains and highways was constructed, and the postal system of Japan also adopted laws. stricter on the address of the recipient.

For individuals registered with the same receiving address, the courier was forced to knock on doors. Therefore, to distinguish each residence, the Japanese began to place Hyousatsu nameplates in front of the house to make it easier for postmen to carry mail.

Hyousatsu helps postmen conveniently deliver letters and goods. Photo: Japan Living Guide

In particular, following the Great Kanto Earthquake on September 1, 1923, Hyousatsu became very popular in determining who was still living and who had moved to another location due to broken houses caused by disaster. 

Superstitious notions concerning Hyousatsu

In addition to identifying the owner of a house, Hyousatsu also helps to display family prestige, such as in the nameplates of Itochu Corporation or other enterprises called after the founder’s surname.

In addition, many Japanese think that 70% of the family’s luck derives from the material of Hyousatsu. Accordingly, the two materials that are supposed to bring the most fortune are Hinoki wood of the Pine family, symbolizing “youth” and “spring,” full of energy, and stainless steel, which stands out for its endurance.

Via kaiun-pro.jp

Besides, the color, inscription, and hanging direction of Hyousatsu also determine the fortune of the family. Wooden nameplates will be the appropriate choice for traditional homes. Maximum Hyousatsu are normally set a little above eye level to suit feng shui, with black calligraphy in clear strokes to attract the most wealth.

Hyousatsu is also related with two more superstitious ideas. In the book “Strange Customs of Japan” (日本のヘンな風習), the Japanese also have a custom to hang monkey masks next to Hyousatsu to pray for passing the exam successfully, just like monkeys never fall from the sky tree.

Via Asahi.com

In Japan, stealing Hyousatsu is one of the techniques to pray for passing the exam. Accordingly, the Japanese think that if you steal 4 name plates from 4 different households, you will master the exam, which derives from the pun “4軒盗る – Shiken toru” (stealing from 4 houses) (stealing from 4 houses). Similar to “試験通る- Shiken tooru – Pass the exam.” After passing the exam, the student will return to the residences where he took the Hyousatsu to lay the letter and thank you present in front of the Genkan.

In the memoirs of novelist Ibuse Masuji, he once remarked that he too had his house nameplate stolen, and had to eventually adapt to paper nameplates. Or Ishida Kazuo, the ninth-dan Shogi chess player, had Hyousatsu stolen during the student test season.

Is it required to hang Hyousatsu in front of the house?

There is no questioning the benefits that Hyousatsu delivers, such as making it convenient to receive correspondence, without causing misunderstanding, developing confidence with neighbors and especially people will remember you for prompt support if calamity comes.

However, with Hyousatsu, strangers might readily discover your home address, placing you in danger if you are taken advantage of by crooks, especially women who live alone.

To prevent hazards, many Japanese people have chosen to cover their names with Latin characters rather than Kanji on their nameplates. After all, the decision whether to install Hyousatsu at the front door is not necessary in Japan at all but relies on the family.

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