Japanese Calligraphy: The Writing Is on the Wall

Japanese Calligraphy: The Writing Is on the Wall

Posted by Bonsai Outlet on 18th Mar 2014

The centuries-old art of Japanese calligraphy is in some sense a divine experience, with every stroke and carefully chosen character reflecting the writer's spirit and personality. It is an art that requires years of experience. In fact, Japanese calligraphy is often referred to as an art of the elderly because it takes decades to develop a unique writing pattern.

Perhaps that's why the Japanese begin practicing calligraphy so young. All Japanese schoolchildren learn to write some calligraphy, but not everyone masters the brush. It takes years of practice and strict supervision and training from a master.

Styles of Japanese calligraphy

Traditional Japanese calligraphy, or shodo (the way of writing), is written on Japanese paper called washi using a bamboo and animal hairbrush called a fude . Traditional calligraphy comes in three basic styles:

    • Kaisho or "correct writing" is block-style calligraphy in which each of the strokes is deliberate and clear, creating a form of characters similar to what one might find printed in a newspaper. Kaisho is the style usually studied first.
    • Gyousho or "traveling writing" is a semi-cursive style of calligraphy. Like English cursive handwriting, it is the style most Japanese use when taking notes. Gyoushu is easily read, yet is very flowing and artistic.
    • Soushu or "grass writing" is a free-flowing cursive style of calligraphy. It is composed of swift strokes and is a popular style among masters. With soushu, form supersedes readability as the artist relies on graceful swooping shapes. It is more a stylized work of art than a means of communication.

Calligraphy on display

As works of art, Japanese calligraphy is frequently displayed on kakemono , or hanging scrolls. The idea of mounting calligraphy in this manner is said to have originated at the time of the Chinese T'ang dynasty in the seventh to ninth centuries. Hanging scrolls first came to Japan in the Heian period.

Originally, the close association of kakemonos to Buddhist scriptures meant they were often displayed in temples. However, over the years kakemonos came to be appreciated more for their aesthetic qualities, and as works of art in their own right.

The kakemono is made up of five distinct elements or parts:

    • The upper crosspiece (hyoumoku) is where the kakemono is attached to the wall via a cord connected to each end.
    • The backing (hyousou) is a cloth that underlies the central artwork and other decorative elements, which are attached.
    • The border (ichimoji) is made up of narrow strips of fine-quality brocade running across the top and bottom of the artwork.
    • The mounting (heri) is cloth that frames all four sides of the artwork, and is of slightly lower quality than the borders.
    • The lower crosspiece (jiku) provides the weight that allows the kakemono to hang down straight, and is where it can be rolled up for storage.

Recognizing good calligraphy

Here are some tips for recognizing quality calligraphy provided by Wada Suein, a master calligrapher with 40 years of experience.

    • Look for the calligraphy lines, or kanji , to be lively and variant, thick and thin as well as plain and brushed.
    • Brushes shouldn't finish straight because the hand continues the movement. Look for quality strokes to reflect that.
    • All black kanjis are not necessarily quality calligraphy. There should be shades from grey to black within the ink.
    • Every kanji should reflect balance. Each stroke should have a place in the calligraphy.