Calligraphy – one of Japan’s “cultured” arts

Japan has a number of traditional fine arts that have been practiced for centuries and are still going strong today:  flower arranging, tea ceremony, poetry and calligraphy, to name a few.

This week I had the opportunity to attend a calligraphy demonstration and workshop at Tokyo’s National Arts Center, conducted in English, sponsored by the Yomiuri newspaper and offered in conjunction with an exhibition of classic works of calligraphy.

Penmanship wasn’t really taught when I was in school, so my handwriting has always been poor.  It probably doesn’t help that I’m left-handed (many teachers who are right-handed, as all my primary school teachers were, don’t even try to teach left-handed students to write legibly).  (Contrast that with Japan, where calligraphy is a required school subject–in the place of penmanship, I assume.)

So, “crippled” as I am, I never thought I could do calligraphy.  But I was game to try and, although I can’t say I have mastered the art or even wish to take up calligraphy, it was a very interesting, and enlightening, experience.

We started with a brief lecture on the history and principles of shodo, as calligraphy is known in Japanese.  Shodo means “way of writing”.  Most traditional arts (both fine and martial) feature “do” (way/path/road) in their name:  sado (the way of tea, or tea ceremony), bushido (the way of the warrior), judo (the gentle way), kendo (the way of the blade).

Like many Japanese traditions, shodo has its roots in China and dates back to Wang Xizhi, a 4th century Chinese scholar credited with standardizing the writing of Chinese characters.  But Japanese evolved their own scripts from Chinese characters as well, including the hiragana and katakana syllabary needed to express Japanese grammatical structures (among other things), and as the characters evolved, so too did shodo.  Today there are five different forms of script in use in calligraphy:  seal script, clerical script, regular script, semi-cursive and cursive.  Each has its own appeal and, depending on the text being written, may be intermingled in a single calligraphic work.

We next got to observe a demonstration of calligraphy by a great master, Nishikubo-sensei.  He wrote two pieces, one a classical poem and the other one of his own poems.

He used clerical script for the first and a blend of regular and semi-cursive for the second.  I couldn’t read any of the first one myself, although I managed to figure out most of the second eventually.

Nishikubo-sensei was “performing” as he wrote, and I realized that part of the beauty of calligraphy is the privilege of watching it be done.  Perhaps that is why shodo and poetry composition often occur together, as at the Emperor’s special poetry party each year at New Year’s.


Following Nishikubo-sensei’s demonstration, it was time for our workshop.  We were each provided with a shodo set comprising ink, brushes, and an inkwell.

We were also given several sheets of sample characters, displayed with numbers to show the correct way to write the lines of the character, as well as a sample of the finished product.  Additionally, we had practice paper and some white square cards (called shikishi ) on which we could write our character once we felt we had mastered it.

We were shown how to sit (with a straight back) and how to hold the brush (ensure that it is always vertical and that your elbow pokes straight out from your body as you hold it).

Then we all practiced writing our chosen character(s), while our lecturer and some of his students wandered the room offering tips and encouragement.  Some of my fellow participants did quite well.

I chose to write the character “do” (also pronounced “michi”) of shodo.  It is a character I had learned to write many years ago, although it is also one that I struggle a bit with.  Perhaps I was hoping that practicing it with the instruction sheet showing the lines would improve my writing.  And since it means “way/path/road”, perhaps I thought it would be talismanic.

Although I got tips and feedback, including being told that my practice sheets showed my growing confidence, personally I felt that I could not master this art, or at least I could not master this character.  I felt I had “lost my way”.  You can see what I mean.

The exhibition at the National Arts Center, which is going on the road from this week to Kyoto (9/6-10), Nagoya (9/12-18), Fukuyama (9/22-24), Yamagata (11/1-5), Takamatsu (11/10-12), Sapporo (11/22-26) and Fukuoka (12/8-10), is packed with the work of great calligraphy masters and well known historical figures.  Many are so artistic that even though most foreigners won’t be able to read them, they can still be enjoyed as art.  As our lecturer said, “shodo is the art of the line”.

Calligraphy written by famous people is often preserved and displayed.  One of my favorite such displays can be found at Kamakura-gu shrine in Kamakura.  This shrine was established during the reign of the Meiji emperor (1868-1912) to deify Prince Morinaga, a 14th century member of the Imperial family.  A small structure built as a “rest house” for Meiji when he visited now displays treasures of the shrine, items associated with Morinaga, Meiji, and his reign, including calligraphy written by some of the great men of the Meiji Period.

The one on the left was by Admiral Heihachi Togo (1848-1934), the commander who defeated the Russians in a decisive naval battle in May 1905.  I can’t read it.  The one on the right was by Masayoshi Matsukata (1835-1924), the second Prime Minister of Japan under its modern constitution of 1890.  I believe it says “virtue glows white”. Calligraphy is indeed an art form that carries messages and meaning.

Another example of calligraphy carrying a message is found in a promotional video for Tokyo that is about to be released.  The video focuses on how the old and the new co-exist so well in Tokyo.  I have seen a preview and recommend watching for the release.  The video starts with a calligrapher writing the word Tokyo in giant characters with a brush as big as she is, a thrilling performance.  That calligraphy and a computer printout of the word Tokyo, the two words separated by a small red seal, then form part of the title credits for the video demonstrating how Tokyo is both old and new.

These days, the best way for a tourist to have a chance to observe calligraphy by a master is to request a “go-shuin” inscription at a shrine or temple.  Many travellers carry special go-shuin books that they have inscribed at each shrine or temple they visit as a testament to their visit.  Shrines and temples usually provide this service for JPY300.  These books make a great souvenir of one’s travels (though you may need to tuck in some English notes as an aide memoire).  But even if you don’t have or want an entire book of inscriptions, you can get a single go-shuin on a piece of paper.  Usually go-shuin consists of one or more large Chinese characters (a sort of prayer or sentiment), the name of the temple, and the date and then is finished with one or more stamped seals.  It’s quite a production and great fun to watch.

Finally I should note that one can attempt writing calligraphy in the style produced by a traditional brush without investing in the full calligraphy kit.  Most stationers in Japan sell “fude-pen”, magic markers with tips that are shaped like, and move like, calligraphy brushes.  So for a small expense, anyone can try their hand.  I hope that you can find your way better than I did!

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