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Goin’ Japanesque!

The Philosophy of Ink: Shodō, Japan’s Unique Calligraphy

Everyone who has traveled to, lived in, or dreamt of Japan will have a host of theories, impressions, and opinions about the country. Just as the unnamed narrator in “Slow Boat to China” (the very first short story ever penned by famed Japanese writer Haruki Murakami) has within him a “China” that is far more than the country on the map, the world within us demarked by the word “Japan” has a life of its own. Do you imagine the crowded, neon-lit streets of Shinjuku nightlife, hip clothing shops and bars lined with countless bottles of exquisitely-expensive alcohol? Or perhaps you close your eyes to see the serene cobbled avenues of old Kyoto and Kamakura, tea houses and traditional shops frequented by graceful and otherworldly kimono-clad figures?

Both are extremes, yes, and one can say that both belie the true and syncretic nature of Japan if taken one-sidedly, yet in each we find vestiges of a deeper cultural undercurrent. See: the stylized characters woven into that t-shirt’s design, and the elegant label on that collector’s bottle of whiskey; the austere scroll hanging in the tea room’s alcove, and the tasteful whorls on a menu that’s hardly changed in a hundred years. All of these show the importance of shodō, the Japanese practice and philosophy of calligraphy.

Shodō is one of a number of different “dō”s found in Japanese culture. The suffix kanji 道, which is identical to that used for the Chinese religion and philosophy of Taoism, carries a variety of different meanings, the most fundamental of which means “path.” In English, this is generally translated to mean “way,” such as in the phrase “The Way of the Samurai”, i.e. bushidō. It appears in the name of a number of different martial arts traditions, for example judō (the soft way), an Olympic sport since 1964; kendō (the way of the sword), traditional Japanese fencing; and kyudō (the way of the bow), which is archery using the asymmetrical “yumi” or Japanese bow. Additionally, the proper name of the practice of tea ceremony is sadō, the way of tea.


The When of Shodō

Though now a part of Japan’s distinct cultural heritage, the roots of shodō are found across Sea of Japan in ancient China. Writing trickled across the waters into the country in drips and drops at first, but it was Buddhism that helped instigate a boom in the practice of fine penmanship. Owing to the legislation and efforts of leaders such as the half-mythical Prince Shōtoku and the Emperor Shōmu, the religion spread and with it came the practice of copying the sutras that formed the Mahayana Buddhist canon. With additional cultural exchange between Japan and China in the latter half of the first millennium CE, shodō truly began to take form.

It was this period that also saw the first great calligraphists, or shodōka, of Japan. One particularly noted group of three from this era are referred to as the sanpitsu (literally, the “three brushes”). One of them was an emperor and another a well-traveled nobleman, but it is the third that deserves special attention. He was the founder of Shingon Buddhism, a monk named Kūkai (also known as Kōbō-Daishi) who was so famed for his skill with the brush that two proverbs referring to his abilities survive even now. The first translates to mean “Even the brush of Kōbō slips,” and it refers to how masters can make mistakes, too (a similar phrase in English is “Even Homer nods.”) The second, “Kōbō does not choose his brush,” reminds the listener that the very best can make do with imperfect materials.

Monks at Kōya-san, a holy mountain where Kūkai built his monastery

There is a great fondness for “the best three of” classifications in Japan. Not only are great calligrapher triads in other eras also referred to as “sanpitsu,” there was another triplet of penman who are famed not only for their skills with the brush but also for how their styles helped create a legacy of truly Japanese calligraphy, different from the forms and rules brought over from China. They are called the sanseki (“three traces”), and the most famous of them is Ono no Michikaze, the father of Japanese-style calligraphy. With time and the influence of the great, shodō grew into an art form of its own. No longer limited to the monastic elite, by the Muromachi period (1336–1573) works of calligraphy were used as tasteful decorations.


The Who of Shodō

Having lasted over a millennium, shodō is still actively practiced across Japan by people of all ages. Children learn it in class, and the halls of elementary schools across Japan are decorated with their bold, shaky flourishes. Professionals compete to have their works selected for national exhibitions and earn themselves steady incomes through commissioned pieces for traditional restaurants, private washitsu (Japanese-style rooms), and other lovers of the art. Adults practice it as a hobby in groups or at home, gaining in it a peace comparable to the watercolorist at his easel or the landscape gardener as she trims her topiaries. However, it would be mistaken to think of shodō as simply another medium of art.

As mentioned earlier, Kūkai was one of the great calligraphers, and the connection between shodō and Buddhism runs deeper than serendipitous timing. The artful writing of characters holds special importance for Zen Buddhism, a sect heavily influenced by the teachings of the early Taoist sages. The word “zen” refers to meditation, and though many nowadays think of meditation as something done while sitting, meditativeness is a state of mind than can be accomplished in any activity, and practitioners of Zen find shodō particularly well-suited to the surrender of the ego-self. The emphasis on the use of “white space” (that is, the strokes one doesn’t make) to create balance is particularly reminiscent of conceptions of ying, yang, and the coordination that exists between the two.


The What of Shodō

Stepping away from the abstract and historical realm of shodō, we still find a remarkable and moving simplicity to the art. Shodō does not demand a massive monetary investment from the beginner. Though as with all human activities the sky is the limit for the most expensive of them, strictly speaking shodō only requires four tools, referred to as the “four treasures of the study” in both Chinese and Japanese.

Blocks of traditional ink (sumi) and a selection of brushes (fude)

Fude (brush): The very best brushes are made from animal hair, and sizes vary from ones hardly thicker than a few hairs to ones the size of mops.
Sumi (ink): Traditionally coming in small sticks made of soot and held together with animal gelatin, ink nowadays is increasingly popular in its pre-mixed liquid form, though this is shunned by purists. Good ink sticks only get better with the breakdown of gelatin that comes with age.

Traditional Japanese paper (washi) and ink stones (suzuri)

Suzuri (ink stone): Made of slate, the calligrapher puts a few drops of water onto the ink stone’s surface and grinds the stick of ink against this. Ink collects in the trough below.
Kami (paper): For works of art, this will almost always be washi (Japanese paper), which is made from plants like the paper mulberry. The most common size for this paper is about 25 cm by 35 cm.

Beyond these four, there are two other tools that merit mention. The first is a special sort of long, thin paperweight called a “bunchin,” and the second is a mat called a ”shitajiki,” which is laid below the paper to absorb excess moisture from the ink and create clearer, better-defined strokes.


The How of Shodō

In the most traditional form of shodō, the calligrapher sits in seiza (that is, on their feet) before a low writing desk. Their posture is relaxed and their spine is straight. They do not brace their weight, but lean in slightly toward the paper. When they begin, they are guided by three essential aspects of shodō: hippō, the formal aspect and rules of shodō; hitsui, the spiritual pose and emotional framework of the calligrapher; and hissei, the vigor and power put into the brush strokes. They hold the brush perpendicular, usually by the power of their arm alone though sometimes braced on the edge of the table or on a “pillow” made from their non-dominant hand. They may grip the brush in a standard tripod fashion, or they may hold it like the bottom of a pair of chopsticks is held, for added vigor of expression.


Perhaps more than any other traditional practice, shodō remains alive and well in modern Japan. Though nowadays people write less and type more (which traditionalists argue erodes the practice of good penmanship), most Japanese still relish in the subtle curlicues produced by master shodōka, who are living members of a legacy as long as the written history of Japan itself.


Bonus for the Linguaphile

Writing has come a long way since its invention in the cradle of Chinese civilization, and five distinct families of script (“shotai”) have evolved over the centuries, each with its own unique rules and flavor of expression.

The kanji 徳 (virtue) and 君 (prince) in the five forms as introduced below

  • 篆書体 (tenshotai, “seal script”): found carved in metals and on bone, it tend to be long on the vertical axis and is very difficult for modern people to read
  • 隷書体 (reishotai, “clerical script”): this can be seen on modern Japanese banknotes
  • 草書体 (sōshotai, “grass script”): evolved alongside gyōsho script, it is found in many traditional arts and, being very idiosyncratic, is near impossible to read without practice
  • 行書体 (gyōshotai, “running script”): it was used as a quick form of writing more legible than sōshotai and now holds a position similar to cursive in Western countries
  • 楷書体 (kaishotai, “regular script”): the last to arrive and modernly the most dominant, it is the typographical standard in Japan
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About the author

World wanderer and travelling translator, with a great love for language learning, blue-collar cuisine, and rural realms.

View all articles by Barry