An Introduction to Japanese Calligraphy

Hi everyone,

My wife grew up learning Japanese calligraphy, often called either shodō (書道) or sometimes shūji (習字), and is certified to teach younger children. Since coming to the US and raising children, she hasn’t had much time to do it anymore, but recently we found her old set and started writing with it. I wanted to share a little bit about how Japanese calligraphy works.

Here’s my wife’s tools all laid out:

Japanese Calligraphy

This is traditional Japanese paper or washi (和紙)1 held down with a paper weight (文鎮 bunchin) and a cloth to prevent the ink from bleeding through (shitajiki 下敷き).

The first tool is the brush, or fudé (筆). They come in various sizes and styles.

Japanese Calligraphy Brush

This is the “inkstone”, or suzuri (硯):

Japanese Calligraphy Inkstone

And this is the ink itself, or sumi (墨):

Japanese Calligraphy Ink

On the far right is a seal, or hanko (判子). Please ignore that. ;p

Nowadays, you can buy liquid ink, but traditionally blocks of ink were used. The key to doing calligraphy is to mix the block of ink with water, by grinding it against the inkstone as shown below:

Making the ink

This can take as long as 10 minutes to setup, but once you’re ready, you can start drawing. But Japanese calligraphy is a lot harder than it looks. You have to hold the brush a certain way: straight up and down, perpendicular to the paper. Plus, you have to learn how to move your hand the right way, so you can get the right balance of the strokes. My wife told me that when she was growing up, she had to practice drawing straight lines (horizontal and vertical) over and over again. Drawing something as simple as ichi (一) or “one” can take a lot of practice.

You can see the difference here. Here, I drew my name in Japanese “dagu” using Kanji I picked 陀愚 a long time ago.2 This is called ateji (using Chinese characters phonetically). Anyhow, here’s my drawing.

Fun with Calligraphy

Mine looks very amateur, the weight and balance of the characters is all wrong, the “hook” is missing, etc. It looks like a child drew it. My wife’s version is more balanced and flowing (she asked me not to post it though, sorry).

I’ve been teasing her for months that she should start her own calligraphy school here in Seattle. I bet people would love to learn, and she has taught grade-school children before. If you agree, leave some feedback. 😉

1 Whenever I think of the word “washi”, I think of old Japanese men. That’s because men of that generation would refer to themselves as “washi” instead of “watashi” (私) which is the standard pronoun used for “I”.

2 The 陀 “da” comes from Amida Buddha (阿弥陀), while the “gu” 愚 came from Shinran’s own description of himself: 愚禿親鸞 (foolish, stubble-headed Shinran). It was my way of expressing my sense of foolishness, and appreciation for the Buddha. 😉

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

6 thoughts on “An Introduction to Japanese Calligraphy”

  1. There might be a lot of variables in the process, but I think you are lucky if you were ready to write after ten minutes of ink grinding. I had only one calligraphy lesson. After 20 minutes of grinding ink, I asked the teacher if it was okay. He said it was still too thin. Eventually, it took more than 30 minutes until he was satisfied. Maybe I put too much water into it, but the teacher kept adding water, too, if I remember correctly. Now I realize that much of the mental preparation happens during the ink grinding–it is tiring, but there is a meditative quality about it as well.

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    1. Ha ha ha, hi John. Yeah, maybe it wasn’t 10 minutes, but I remember it wasn’t 30 minutes either. Maybe it’s the type of ink used and such. I’m not sure. I’d have to ask my Better Half. 🙂

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  2. You’re welcome. By the way, I like the changes you’ve made to your blog. I’m glad you decided not to get rid of the old posts. There’s some good stuff in there.

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