Calligraphy Image

Japanese Calligraphy

Japanese calligraphy, which is called shodō in Japanese, is the artistic writing of Japanese characters. It has similar techniques and principles to Chinese calligraphy. The usual method of practicing Japanese calligraphy is by writing the characters in ink (sumi) on mulberry paper (washi) and incorporates the same basic styles of writing that are included in the Chinese counterpart. These writing styles include seal script (tensho), clerical script (reisho), regular script (kaisho), semi-cursive (gyōsho), and cursive (cāoshū).

Japanese calligraphy dates back more than 4,000 years.  During the Twenty-eighth Century BC in China people inscribed religious pictographs onto bones. These writings eventually evolved into instruments of the state.  The Qin Dynasty's prime minister, Li Si, decided there was a need to have a uniform script. The script he sanctioned involved characters that could all be written by using a maximum of eight strokes for each and could fit into boxes of a designated size. Li Si also decided all of the horizontal strokes would be the first to be written, and the characters to be drawn from the bottom to the top and from left to the right. These symbols were very angular, due to the sharp instruments that were used to make them. The invention of the ink-wet brush made it possible for people to write the characters more smoothly and to vary the weight and thickness of the lines. Thanks to this technological advancement, style could now be conveyed by how a character was written.

This style became popular in Japan around 600 AD. It came to be known as karayō and is still practiced today in Japan. The oldest example still in existence is the inscription written on the halo of the Bhaisajyaguru statue. This Shakeitai text can still be found in the Hōryū-ji Temple today. Another treasure of this temple are the bibliographic notes of the Lotus Sutra (Hokke Gisho), written around the seventh century. This is considered to be Japan's oldest text and is written in cursive script. From this work it is evident the calligraphy of the Asuka period was already highly-refined.

Japanese calligraphy has evolved and is now taught as a required subject in Japan's elementary schools.  In Japanese High Schools, calligraphy is an elective art class, similar to painting or music. Many Japanese universities, including Tokyo Gakugei University, Fukuoka University of Education, and the University of Tsukuba, have whole departments that are dedicated to the study of calligraphy and train students to teach the art form.  Buddhist monks perform a practice known as Zen calligraphy.  This is different from normal calligraphy.  The foundation of this form of calligraphy is based on Zen Buddhism's principles of focusing on the spirit and looking past the physical.  To write Zen calligraphy, one must clear their mind and let the letters flow out.  The state of mind that must be achieved to perform this practice is called mushin, which means "no mind state.". This term was coined by the famous Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro.

Japanese calligraphy is an example of how a utilitarian task, such as writing, can be transformed into an art.  Though it has evolved a great deal throughout the country's history, it is still a very popular art form in Japan