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Basic introduction to Japanese Calligraphy

Mention “Japan” and certain images come to those who are unfamiliar with the nation. Younger generations’ impressions will be soaked in anime-style hyperkinetic energy: pachinko, robots, vending machines stocked with panties, and the alien heights of youth fashion, all set amidst oceans of neon light.

Others might think of travel bureau depictions of misty mountains in dark emerald green, of kimono-clad figures walking down cobblestone streets lined in traditional wooden structures. This is such a common phenomenon that the Japanese themselves have been known to comment on it half-sardonic as the quintessential Japanese ideal of “Mt. Fuji and geisha.” It goes without saying that both of these are extremes that border on the satirical, but it also should be noted that these elements are indeed present, as any caricature will have a basis, however tenuous, in reality.

Providing a kernel of truth to the latter impression is the continuing vitality of many of Japan’s traditional cultural practices. One class among them is unified in being not mere “practices.” They are “ways” (the literal translation of the suffix dō) and extend beyond simple schools of methodology into realms philosophical and spiritual. One of the most visible in Japanese everyday life is the traditional practice of calligraphy, called shudo.

Some Other Japanese “Ways”

  • Kyudo (弓道) – Archery using the traditional asymmetrical Japanese longbow
  • Judo (柔道) – Literally “the soft way,” an official Olympic sport since the 1964 Tokyo Olympics
  • Kendo (剣道) – Classical fencing done with bamboo swords and armor
  • Aikido (合気道) – A “cousin” martial art to Judo, with a very strong religious and spiritual element
  • Sado (茶道) – The art of the Japanese tea ceremony
  • Kado (華道) – The arrangement of flowers and other plants; also known as ikebana

The Soul and Spirit of the Brush Stroke

For many people, their hobby is a respite from the everyday. Out on the golf course in the smell of freshly-cut grass, tucked in a chair with a favorite movie buffered and ready to play, or finishing the last few details of a watercolor, we step away from hang-ups on the past and anxieties of the future to simply exist in the now.

However, shudo is so much more than simply a hobby: it takes the absorption and relaxation that comes with writing out kanji (the Japanese characters inherited from China) and adds a philosophical and spiritual dimension. With those elements, the act of calligraphy enters into the world of the sublime.

The school of Buddhism that shares the closest ties with shudo is Zen Buddhism, a sect of Mahayana Buddhism heavily influenced by the writings of the Daoist sages. “Zen” means “mindfulness,” and though meditation is now synonymous with the act of sitting contemplation, there were originally many types of zen, and for a devotee of Zen, calligraphy presents the perfect act for the mindful surrender of self that is necessary for enlightenment.

The paper itself is a representation of the primeval emptiness from which both “something” and “nothing” are born. The brush-holder subsumes themself into the act of writing, and the distinction between the person, the brush, the paper, and the ink is removed. As ink fills the paper, both ying and yang emerge in coordinated, enlightened simplicity, not unlike the more pragmatic artistic focus on the use of “empty space.”

On a more historical note, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, the great Japanese monk Kukai (or Kobo-Daishi), was also famed as a calligrapher, and his name is present in two different Japanese sayings that reference his skill with the brush. The first translates to mean, “Even Kukai makes a mistake with the brush,” which, like the English “Even Homer nods,” means that the very best of are not immune to error. The second, “Kukai does not choose his brush,” means that a master can always make do with the materials at hand.

An Introduction to the Nuts and Bolts

“What of the actual process of shodo itself?” you might ask. Though there are a few customs to the practice, such as being seated seiza (legs below your hips) and holding the brush vertically with a three-finger grip, probably the most important part is the rules for the drawing of character or characters you’ve chosen.

Unlike with English letters, the process with which you draw a Japanese character has a set stroke order. Though there are general patterns and rules, there are exceptions as well, and when you first decide to take up calligraphy, it is best to not only have a model character ready to copy from but also familiarize yourself with the stroke-order of the character. The direction you move in the brush is important, too, and contributes to the trailing “comet” appearance of a thick line.

The Tools of the Trade

  • Washi (Japanese paper) – Often made from historically-available materials, like the paper mulberry, the oriental paperbush, bamboo, etc; the most typical 25 cm by 35 cm paper is called hanshi
  • Shitajiki (mat) – A mat placed below the paper; often made of wool felt, because wool naturally repels moisture
  • Bunshin (paperweight) – A long, thin weight placed at the very top of the paper
  • Fude (brush) – The better brushes are made of actual animal hair, e.g. horse, weasel, goat, cat, etc.
  • Sumi (ink) – Comes in small sticks. Ink quality improves with age, because the gelatin breaks down and allows for a crisper “three-dimensional” quality
  • Suzuri (inkstone) – Often made of slate, a few drops of water are applied to the surface of the stone and the ink stick is ground against its surface to collect in the small trough below

Though various types of calligraphy are practiced the world over (just think of the gorgeous illuminated initial characters in pre-printing Medieval texts), the Japanese approach is unique both for its philosophical element and its integration into everyday cultural practices. Reflecting the spirit of Japan, yamatodamashii, examples of calligraphy can be found decorating restaurants, traditional inns, schools, and office environments. From art activities at elementary school to nationwide shodo competitions, Japanese calligraphy is a vibrant “way” still alive and well in culture today.