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When I spent a year going to school in Japan, I was lucky to join a private high school in the semi-countryside and meet a lot of amazing people. Curriculum beyond the obvious varies from school to school, but calligraphy classes are usually available to students to join.
One of the reasons I started studying Japanese is the physical beauty of the language, so I took advantage of the opportunity to learn how to paint words.
A quick note about written Japanese:
You have 3 alphabets available. 1. Katakana is arguably the simplest one and consists of 48 characters. It is reserved for foreign words and onomatopoeia. 2. Hiragana has the same number of characters as Katakana and is purely phonetic. The symbols have no meaning of their own. This alphabet is most widely used and is usually the first to be studied by foreign students. 3. Kanji. This last alphabet consists of roughly 50,000 symbols and was adapted from China a long time ago. A lot of these symbols still resemble the original Chinese characters, but both the pronunciation and attached meaning have changed, the latter less so than the former. Not only are there numerous ways to pronounce any one character, each one also has a variety of meaning.
In calligraphy class, there are rules as to how to lay down the strokes for each of these alphabets, but what I was really interested in was trying my hand at Kanji. Each character can consist of anything between 1 stroke and over 20 strokes and each form is governed by rules of balance, as well as the way you hold your brush.
Balance and beauty
Particularly in the West, we are always interested in the dichotomy of Japanese culture, how it can aspire perfection and celebrate imperfections all at once. This same attitude can be perceived in calligraphy. While it resembles regular writing in that you draw a character top to bottom and left to right, taking care to make certain parts larger than others, another part of Japanese calligraphy is to even out the gaps between strokes, angle each part of a character in relation to another and write powerfully or softly, sometimes carefully or messily, according to the word you are depicting or maybe to suit the special paper you are using. The goal is to combine method, personal judgement and inspiration to create something beautiful. Writing becomes art in a way that is different from Western calligraphy.
Nowadays, brush calligraphy is something special even in Japan. There have always been all levels of practitioners of this discipline, but before pens, word processors and printers existed, everything was written using a brush and ink: Epic novels, names on wooden boards hung on houses, letters, price tags, notes and anything else you can think of.
Lastly, I would like to briefly introduce the tools that are necessary to practice Japanese calligraphy:
- A mat made of felt to place atop your table to protect the surface and absorb surplus ink.
- A long rectangular weight to place at the top edge of your paper to hold it in place.
- Japanese paper. Also called washi paper (和紙) ‘wa’ is often used to indicate that something is traditionally Japanese, whereas ‘shi’ means paper, though you would call the latter ‘kami’ in conversation.
- A calligraphy brush. They have a particular pointed shape.
- Traditionally ink would come in a compressed dry block that would need to be rubbed in water in a circular motion to produce liquid ink. The contemporary version comes pre-prepared in a plastic container.
- An ink stone. It can hold a small amount of ink and is used to control how much ink the brush absorbs.
- A case (suzuribako) for all of these tools, minus the paper, which is kept separately.