Learn more about Japanese’s calligraphy rich history and global influence, its elements and styles, and ways to study and experience it.
by A. Richard Langley
If you hand a calligraphy brush or pen to most Westerners, they will probably hesitate. Some will mistake both tools for a stylus, while others may not be confident in their artistic ability, penmanship—or knowledge of calligraphy. In the Japanese culture, the time-honored art of calligraphy, or shodō (“the way of writing”), practiced by Samurai, nobles, and ordinary people since ancient times, is consider both “the supreme art form” and an expression of character and spirit. Shodō is demanding and complex—it uses all three Japanese alphabets (hiragana, katakana, and kanji) in tandem—yet is uniquely absorbing to study and learn. Read more about shodō’s rich history and global influence, its elements and styles, and ways to study and experience it.
To understand shodō’s evolution over the centuries—and the precise, diverse brushstrokes of its practitioners—you need to know the origins of calligraphy, how shodō formed from it, and shodō’s importance in the development of Japanese language and writing.
Emperor Qin Shi Huang (220-210 BC), the first emperor of Qin, tasked his prime minister, Li Si, with creating a uniform script to help newly unified China improve communications with Japan, which didn’t have a written form of language. This began a centuries-long process of adapting characters from Chinese writing into Japanese forms and symbols. By the end of the Han dynasty in 220 AD, shodō had all of its basic forms.
The earliest existing calligraphic text in Japan is on the halo of the Medicine Buddha statue in Hōryū-ji, a revered Buddhist temple in Ikaruga—and the oldest wooden building in the world (completed in 607 AD).
China also played a key role in developing shodō’s lasting influence and popularity across Japan. In the 6th century AD, they introduced Mahayana Buddhism, including several volumes of Buddhist text, to Japan. During the early years of the Heian Period (794-1185), three visionary calligraphers advanced the influence of shodō—and Buddhism—in Japan and set in motion the development of Japanese calligraphy without Chinese influence. They gained renown as sanpitsu (the “Three Great Brushes”). Kūkai (774-835), a Buddhist monk, developed the kana syllabary, or phonetic script, in combination with the Chinese characters kanji. It’s still the standard for writing the Japanese language. A staunch supporter of Kūkai, Emperor Saga (786-842) helped Kūkai establish the Shingon School of Buddhism by granting him Tō-ji, the first Buddhist temple in Japan (built between 588 and 596).
Tachibana no Hayanari (782-844) was a Japanese government official, calligrapher, and member of the Tachibana clan, a powerful kuge (court nobility) family in the Nara and early Heian periods.
Historians generally recognize the creations of Ono no Michikaze (894-966) as the first truly Japanese calligraphic forms.
Shodō’s rise in Japan prompted both the development of Japanese symbols (kana) and the adaption of Chinese symbols (kanji). You draw all symbols with a series of vertical, horizontal, and angled brushstrokes, and each symbol has a unique appearance.
Kana is the term for the two common Japanese syllabaries: hiragana and katakana. Each of the 71 symbols is phonetic, represents a syllable, and doesn’t have a specific meaning. Highly cursive, kana employs kanji and an obsolete form of writing known as hentaigana.
In kanji, the most used written communication form in Japan, each symbol (estimated at more than 50,000) represents a concept or idea. Modern Japanese uses about 15,000 of these symbols, some of which have multiple meanings. Kanji uses the five major Japanese writing styles.
The three most used styles of Japanese calligraphy are kaisho, gyosh, and sosho.
The Japanese styles of calligraphy are more slender, fluid, and elegant than Chinese calligraphic scripts.
You break into shodō by mastering the standard “block style.” Each stroke follows a strict order, and you must be very exact in the composition and proportion (length, height, and direction) of characters.
Artist and writers prefer the creative flexibility of the semi-cursive “running hand style.” Its brushstrokes have more motion and fluidity, and the symbols are less angular.
With the hard-to-learn “grass hand” style, the brush stays on the paper in a flowing, graceful cursive style (like wind blowing the grass). It attracts those who want to produce abstract, Zen-inspired art where the flow of creativity isn’t broken.
Two other older styles still in use—tensho (“seal script,” the oldest style) and reisho (“scribe’s script)—aren’t suited for rapid writing.
For all who study it, shodō requires deep appreciation and respect for the craft and steely self-discipline. Before you start studying, however, you must have the proper tools and know shodō’s basic traits and techniques.
In practicing shodō, you will use tools known as the “Four Treasures of the Study.”
Treat them with the same reverence as you do shodō. Prices can vary, depending on factors such as style, size, and color. Do diligent research or talk to an expert.
You must first become proficient with the basics of the brush—holding and using
it—before you can put personal flourishes on a calligraphic work.
There are two ways to hold the brush: the Tankoho method and the Sokoho method. In both, you hold the brush like a pencil (with thumb, index finger, and middle finger), but for the Sokoho method, add the ring finger.
More difficult to learn are the eight essential brushstrokes (eijihappo) in kanji.
You must master all the strokes before using them.
There are countless learning resources for both new and experienced shodō practitioners in Japan and abroad. These include online training, in-class sessions, books and guides, and instructional videos on social media.
Shodō is ubiquitous in Japanese culture (e.g., galleries and museums, consumer goods, eateries, signage, public space, and festivals). It’s particularly prevalent in the apparel, TV, and gaming industries. And many grade schools offer shodō courses to instill discipline, confidence, and passion for the craft in students.
Interest in shodō is booming abroad, too. In the U.S., the culture in cities with a high population of Asian-Americans (e.g., New York City and San Francisco) reflects the influence of shodō. And, as more people hear and learn about it, shodō is spreading out from major cities. Numerous universities with East Asian studies have courses in Japanese calligraphy, and you can even find a shodō exhibit in a Fargo, N.D. gallery and others across the heartland. Shodō is a truly unique form of art. To appreciate its beauty and relevance, you must be sincere about your interest in the craft and its history. Experience it today by setting aside technology to communicate and using the timeless, traditional art of shodō to express your true emotions, spirit, and self—and improve your penmanship.
A. Richard Langley is a freelance writer in Marietta, Ga. His byline has appeared in diverse consumer art and culture publications. Among them: Art & Antiques, Atlanta Citymag, Film Threat, and BlackBook. He also has experience in art sales. For three years, he co-managed and stocked a booth of European art, antiques, and furniture at Scott Antique Markets in Atlanta.