Calligraphy is one of the great Japanese arts. This is exemplified in the Japanese word for calligraphy, shodō 書道. The second kanji of the word, 道, means road. All the great Japanese arts have this kanji in their name. Examples are:
- sadō 茶道 the way of tea
- jūdō 柔道 the famous martial art, literally the gentle way
- kadō 華道 the way of flowers, also known as ikebana
The inclusion of ‘road’ in their name implies that the study of these arts takes you on a life-long journey. As you study these arts, you not only learn about the art itself but also about life in general. It takes many years to master these arts, and even the master is never finished with his studies. These arts exemplify Japanese culture at its purest and are often closely linked with Zen Buddhism.
Shodō, the japanese word for calligraphy
There is however another word to indicate Japanese calligraphy: shūji 習字. It refers more to good penmanship and writing neatly than to sophisticated art and walking ‘the great road’. It is for example used to indicate the calligraphy lessons that are a mandatory subject in elementary school. In high school, Japanese calligraphy is no longer a mandatory subject but one of the choices among art subjects like painting and music. It is also a popular high school club activity. People who are really serious about calligraphy continue (or start again) to study as adults. Over the years, they earn different degrees until ultimately, after ten years or more, are qualified to teach themselves.
Being the eager Japan geek that I am, I tried my hand at calligraphy when I was living in Japan. I was lucky enough to be introduced to a wonderful teacher, Isogai-sensei. Here she is teaching her grandson:
My Japanese calligraphy teacher, teaching her grandson
Usually Japanese calligraphy is practiced sitting in seiza, the Japanese way of sitting kneeling on one’s heels. But because my teacher had a knee injury, she preferred to teach at a table. This picture also illustrates the necessary tools for a Japanese calligraphy lesson:
- thin calligraphy paper
- calligraphy brushes
- black ink (here in a bottle, but also available in a solid block to be diluted with water, see below)
- an ink stone to hold the ink
- orange ink to correct mistakes
- soft mats to cover the table
Here is a closer look at the utensils for japanese calligraphy. You see the items mentioned above. Additionally, the small teapot-like container holds water to dilute the ink. You can see the block of ink resting on the ink stone. To use it, put a bit of water on the ink stone and move the block of ink back and forth over the stone. It can take up to ten minutes to make enough ink. This repetitive action is meant to calm the mind before starting your calligraphy practice. But these days, many people buy ink in bottles that is ready to use.
The very first exercise that a calligraphy student practices includes drawing a horizontal line (the kanji for ‘one’) and a cross (the kanji for ‘ten’). Many of the basic techniques are already included in this simple exercise. At the start of each class, my teacher usually tried the first few exercises together with me, noting points of interest and correcting mistakes. She then gave me an example in orange ink and left me copy this a dozen times.
A japanese calligraphy student practices the basics
We would then line up my work on the table or on the floor and my teacher would correct the work with orange ink. She also choose the one she liked best at the end of every lesson and indicated it with an orange spiral over the calligraphy.
My work from the first lesson lined up. Top left shows the first basic exercise. The other ones spell niji in hiragana (Japanese phonetic, syllabic writing system), which means rainbow.
My teacher corrects my work with orange ink
These are the two she liked best
My classes lasted for about 45 minutes to one hour. Afterwards I always felt both calm and tired. If you are doing it right, you are very focused on every exercise you do, so it takes quite a bit of energy. But it is so much fun! And to get one even remotely right is so rewarding. I was always amazed at the ease with which my teacher writes her calligraphy. Once you have tried it yourself, you realize the years of practice it must have taken to write so beautifully and fluently.
I only studied calligraphy for a few months but even during that time, I got a glimpse of the broader lessons it can teach you. During class, I was doing my very best to write as correctly as possible, paying attention to every detail. But due to my emphasis on form, my writing was lacking in energy. It turns out that I had to learn to let go a little and add some more vigour and joy to the strokes. A good lesson for life!
It helped me a lot to study together with my teacher’s grandson, whose personality embodied just the things my calligraphy was lacking: spontaneity and energy, which of course showed in his writing as well.