Japanese calligraphy, which is known as shodou, is an artistic form of writing. It has been practiced for over three thousand years. It is not merely an exercise of good handwriting, but a foremost art form since the earliest time. It is also said that shodou is spiritual in nature rather than simply pleasing to the eye. Japanese calligraphy attempts to bring life to words and endows

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them with personality. The artist is asked to follow a rule that each character must be written only once, in order that the characters are completed in a matter of seconds. No alteration, touch up, or addition to letters are allowed.

The Origin of Shodou

The history of shodou can be traced back to the origins of the Chinese civilization and the creation of the Chinese writing system around 4,500 years ago. The art had already been considerably developed by the time it arrived in Japan around the 7th century. It was approximately at the same time that the Chinese system of writing (kanji) was also imported. At that time, Buddhists from India traveled to Japan through China and Korea, which resulted in many Japanese, including emperors, being converted to Buddhism. Buddhist scriptures were recorded by priests in aesthetically pleasing Chinese writing. Therefore, shodou prevailed among Japanese monks, who studied Buddhism as well as among politicians, who were students of the Chinese political system.

The Development of Shodou

During the 8th century, a style of calligraphy that was unique to Japan emerged. Writing had been popularized, and kana was devised to express original Japanese sounds that could not be written in Chinese characters. Japanese noble women developed kana into beautiful scripts, which became a unique form of Japanese calligraphy. After the Kamakura period (1192-1333), kakejiku, a Japanese scroll painting or calligraphy, gained popularity as interior decoration. It was influenced by the idea of Zen. Kakejiku often presents Zen phrases from distinguished Zen masters written in calligraphic form. When they were displayed in chashitsu, tea rooms for traditional tea ceremonies, the choice of kakejiku and ikebana (flower arrangement) helped set the spiritual mood for the ceremonies. During the Edo period (1603-1867), along with the growth of the merchant class, terakoya became common. These were private educational institutions that taught reading and writing to children. Terakoya offered a higher level of education than commonly available, and its curriculum began with calligraphy courses. The Edo period also experienced great innovation led by Honami Koetsu, an acclaimed Japanese artist. He introduced a unique flowing and cursive style to the classical Japanese calligraphy.

Contemporary Shodou

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War II, a new movement in writing, which is a combination of Chinese characters and kana, prevailed in contrast to the traditional styles that only used Chinese characters. In the 1960s, shodou continued to grow and develop into a style and form called gendai-sho (modern shodou), an avant-garde postwar calligraphic style that featured more free and unrestrained ways of expressing one’s feelings. In the course of its development, shodou deeply influenced the Western artists, particularly Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.The latter is said to have mentioned that he would possibly have become a calligrapher rather than a painter had he been born in China.

The Styles of Shodou

Shodou has five basic scripts.These include tensho (stamp style), reisho (scribe script), sosho (cursive style), gyosho (semi-cursive style), and kaisho (block style). These all appeared before the end of the 4th century. Tensho and reisho are old styles of writing where letters were carved on animals’ bones or on wooden panels by using sharp materials because brush had not been invented yet. Sosho, gyosho, and kaisho were designed for different purposes. Kaisho is for official documents, whereas gyosho and sosho are for personal letters.These three ways of writings have advantages and disadvantages in terms of accuracy and speed. One needs to consider which one is the best for one’s purpose.

The tools for Shodou

The four fundamental tools for shodou include the fude(brush), washi (Japanese paper), sumi (ink) and suzuri(ink stone). There are two basic types of fude. Larger brushes are for writing the main characters of texts, and smaller ones are for writing the artist’s name. These brushes are made of horse hair, goat hair, and peacock feath- ers. Washi is thin, hand-made paper, spe- cially designed for shodou. Sumi is a solid black block that is rubbed in water in a suzuri, which is a heavy, black stone container to produce black ink used for writing. Nowadays, instant liquid ink in a plastic bottle called bokujyu is readily available for one’s convenience. Rinsho is an important method of learning shodou. It is a practice of duplicating ancient great works by acclaimed masters. The same method is used for learning how to draw pictures or play instruments. In shodou, becoming mu-shin, the state of mindlessness, is important.To write calligraphic characters that convey deep meanings, one must become entirely free from distraction. It is only achieved through continual practice that one can come to understand the sense of the artist behind the works, and empty one’s mind, which is usually beyond the realm of possibility.

Text: Rena Suno Information from Kotaro Hachinohe (Hachibokukai: Hachibokukai, which is one of the shodou group in NYC. Beginner courses coming soon. For inquiries or further information, please contact by email: Assistant: Senna Abe