The Japanese writing system consists of kanji (漢字), logographic characters of Chinese origins, and hiragana and katakana, Japanese syllabaries. Kanji were imported from China in ancient times, while kana were invented in Japan as a simplification of kanji. The three systems coexist in modern Japanese, in which kanji serve a meaning purpose, hiragana is mostly used for grammatical purposes and katakana is mainly used for foreign words and as the equivalent of cursive writing. The art of shodō (書道), finds its origins in the peculiarity of this beautifully complex writing system.
History of Shodō
As mentioned before, the art of shodō originates in China and then spreads to Japan around 600 A.D. Since the beginning, shodō is linked to the Buddhist tradition: many examples of calligraphy are copies of sutra (Buddhist texts). During the VIII century, with the poem Soukou Shujitsu, a new calligraphy style emerges. Soukou Shujitsu is thought to be the first example of an original Japanese calligraphy style, the wayō-shodō (和様書道).
In this period shodō starts to be studied in the court. Both aristocratic men and women are dedicated to the subject.
The art of shodō has always had a great importance in Japan. Every period after its introduction has seen a lively interest towords calligraphy, and many important calligraphers emerged. With the introduction of Zen Buddhism, the art of calligraphy intertwines with other kinds of art, such as Tea Cerimony, of which shodō is a fundamental part. During Edo period (1603-1868), private calligraphy schools used to teach the poem Iroha (いろは), as it contains each sign of Hiragana exactly once, thus being an excellent writing exercise.
Shodō still maintains a great importance to this day. Calligraphy is taught in elementary school, and it is often one of the choices among art subjects in high school, along with music or painting.
Today there are two main calligraphy trends, one that focuses on kana, and one that focuses on kanji, and it’s the union of both that forms the complete art of shodō. The one that focuses on kanji is mainly based on the study of five different styles, each developed in a different period of time: seal, clerical and regular script, plus semi-cursive and cursive.
Modern shodō has less strict rules compared to the past. Some artists use different colors, some other mix kanji and kana to English words (E kanji styles). There are even artists that perform on a stage on on street corners, completing calligraphy works while dancing.
Famous modern calligraphers are Mitsutaka Kawashima, Kiyo Imaizumi, Rimi Takasu, and Masako Inkyo.
The most important tools for shodō, known as “the four treasures”, are the brush, ink, paper and ink stone. We’ll give a closer look at the equipment in the dedicated paragraph.
He is the founder of the Shingon school of Buddhism, and he is said to be the inventor of kana. He is also said to be the author of the already mentioned poem Iroha (いろは), but due to the lack of sources, this information can’t be confirmed.
A Zen Buddhist monk, he is important for his calligraphic works inspired by Zen aesthetics. His style is rough and powerful, it reflects the author’s strong personality and morals.
He is one of the most important calligraphers of Edo period. He published a volume about calligraphy, where he explains the importance of the correct poition of the hand and the brush and he stresses the importance of knowing how to draw the fundamental strokes before attempting to write complex characters.
Taito Shodō Museum
Since shodō is so integrated in Japanese culture, it’s possible to find exquisite examples of this form of art everywhere in Japan. It’s not uncommon, while visiting important temples, to find calligraphies for sale, or even to see monks drawing characters on the spot. Calligraphies can also be found in Tea Houses. If you’re looking for a specific exhibition, though, then the Taito Shodō Museum is the place for you: It possesses an important collection of Asian calligraphy examples, composed not only by scrolls, but also by oracle bone scripts, Buddha statues and bronze ware.
Shodō equipment and how to start
Are you wondering what you will need to start practicing shodō? Shodō equipment consists of two brushes (fude), an ink stick (sumi) that will be ground and mixed with water to become fluid ink, a desk pad (shitajiki) that needs to be placed under the sheet of paper to absorb the ink, an ink stone (suzuri) to grind the ink, a paper weight (bunchin) to hold the paper still while you write, and rice paper (washi) to write on.
Easy, no? Now that you have everything you can start practicing. A helpful website is www.shodoartclub.com, where several exercises and lessons are available for free. It is also possible to pay for lessons, and this will give you the chance to have your work reviewed by a real Shodō master!
Taito Shodō (Calligraphy) Museum
10-4, Negishi 2-chome, Taito-ku, Tokyo
Primary/Junior/Senior High School Students ¥250（¥150*）
9:30am－4:30pm (last admission at 4:00pm）
Closed on Mondays
Please refer to the official website for the latest information.