Shodō – The Art of Japanese Calligraphy

Shodō (書 道, “way of writing”) also called Shūji (習字) is the art of Japanese calligraphy inspired by Chinese calligraphy and introduced in Japan from China in the 6th century AD during the medieval Tang dynasty. The art of Japanese calligraphy is produced by writing with Sumi (墨, “inkstick”) and a fude (筆, “brush”) on paper, using different characters such as Kana, Kanji, Daijisho, Zen Eisho or Tenkoku. Shodō is considered a metaphor for life itself, as strong brushstrokes alternate with more delicate ones, varying the effect depending on the speed, color of the ink, pressure on the paper, interval between strokes, and the actual material used.

Japanese calligraphy is one of the most famous and revered forms of artistic expression in Japanese culture. Although technology has quickly displaced this type of writing, this tradition continues to be taught in Japanese schools where children learn to handle all the basics of this complex art.

Let’s make a brief summary of the important points about the Shodō: the art of Japanese calligraphy:


History of Japanese Calligraphy

It’s Origin

histoire calligraphie japonaise

Originally, the Japanese language was only spoken and the earliest examples of Japanese calligraphy date from the 4th century. Before the invention of paper, the materials used for writing were stone, metal and bone.

Calligraphy in Japan became more popular with the introduction of Buddhism and Confucianism and was mostly related to the writing of Buddhist texts. One of the earliest handwritten texts was Hokke Gisho (“Annotations on the meaning of the Lotus Sutra”) written by Prince Shotoku (574-622).

From the 7th century onwards, Japan began sending monks to China to study Buddhism. On their return to Japan, the monks brought with them the latest cultural customs, especially in calligraphy. During this period, Japanese calligraphy was heavily influenced by the works of Chinese calligraphers, such as Chu Sui Liang (596-657) and its writing style called kaisho.

Kukai, a monk that lived from 774 to 835, is very famous in Japan and considered as the founder of the Shingon Buddhist sect. A member of the Sampitsu (Three Brushes) group with Emperor Saga and Tachibana no Hayanari, he was also one of the best calligraphers of his time.

Although still heavily influenced by Chinese calligraphy, Japanese calligraphers began to create their own style.

The beginnings of Japanese Calligraphy

The practice of sending monks to China was stopped in 894, which encouraged the development of a distinct Japanese culture. For about ten centuries, calligraphy in Japan followed its own path based on purely Japanese aesthetic. This was the time of Sanseki (Three Brush trails), Ono no Tofu (894-966), Fujiwara no Sukemasa (944-988) and Fujiwara no Yukinari (972-1028).

Not only did the style of Japanese calligraphy highly changed during this time, but this was also the period of the creation of the written Japanese language. The major development was the introduction of kana, two Japanese syllabic alphabets: hiragana and katakana that arose from the ancient forms of kana manyogana.

During the Heian period (794-1192), the women of the imperial court used only the kana alphabet as writing in Chinese characters was only reserved for men. This is why literary works created by noble ladies of the imperial court are written in kana on richly decorated paper.

The famous novels The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu and Notes de Chevet by Sei Shonagon are considered to be major works of Japanese and world literature, sometimes even the world’s first fictionalized forms.

Kana writing has subsequently been recognized by people for its beauty and elegance. For example, the first poetry anthology Kokin Waka Shu, which appeared in 910, contained many Kana poems written by men.

As the situation in Japan became more unstable during the Kamakura period (1192-1933), the beginning of the samurai era, new Buddhist sects settled in Japan.

“Zen Buddhist monks developed a new style in calligraphy, stronger and clearer, called bokuseki.”

This style was influenced by the later Chinese fashions of the Sung and Yuan dynasties.

In the 16th century, calligraphy initially practiced by the aristocratic classes became more popular among samurai and merchants. The tea ceremony master Sen no Rikyu introduced calligraphy works to decorate the ceremony hall.

In the 17th century, calligraphy adapted to the new form of haiku poetry established by Matsuo Basho. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the art of calligraphy was developed by the Obaku Buddhist sect, who created Zenga, the Zen painting.

Japanese Calligraphy Today

Today, Japanese calligraphy includes kana, kanji and chowa-tai – a harmonious style of writing modern poems with kanji and kana mixed together.


Japanese Calligraphy Essentials

Although, as with all human activities, the sky is the limit for the most expensive ones, Japanese calligraphy requires only four tools, called the four treasures of study in Japanese. It is important that your tools are of the highest quality.

Because this art form comes from Japan, the taxonomy has been preserved. Therefore, as in Zen, you will need to learn the names of these tools and materials as they are pronounced in Japanese, as some of them have no equivalent in English.

▪ Fude – The brush

Japanese calligraphy brushes, known as fudes, have wooden or plastic handles and brush heads of various shapes and sizes.

Sharpness is important: a brush head with a fine tip that comes to a point is absolutely necessary. All the longer brush hairs should be the same length, with none of them sticking out.

The body of the brush head should be solid and round. They are often made of animal hair, but there are also synthetic materials for brush heads. The brush head can be made more or less flexible and can be used to create various effects. The size of the brush can be adapted to the size of the calligraphy.

Pinceaux de calligraphie japonaise

▪ Sumi – The Ink

A mixture of soot (usually from pine wood) and animal glue, dried ink often takes the form of a stick. The ink becomes liquid when the stick is rubbed with a little water.

Japanese calligraphy ink sticks are the traditional source for making ink. Burnt wood or vegetable oils are mixed together in exact proportion with animal glue.

These handmade sticks are made and dried for several months by craftsmen. A good stick will not crack or fray, which demonstrates its fine craftsmanship. Sticks are traditionally long and round or even square. Sometimes they are decorated with patterns. Sumi is almost always black, but pine wood is commonly used for coloured inks.

For larger works, bottles of liquid ink can be used, but the ideal is to produce your own ink. You can play with the density of the ink, or its colour.

Lately, people have been using liquid ink to allow more time for writing instead of preparing it with ink sticks and water. But preparing the ink by yourself is an important movement for Shodo. The preparation helps to concentrate and calm the mind before creating.

▪ Suzuri – The Ink Stone

The ink stick is rubbed against a carved stone: the Suzuri. It also acts as a reservoir at the bottom of which the liquid ink will collect.

Although the ink stone is often made of stone such as slate, it can also be made of a variety of materials, including bronze and other metals.

Pierre à encre japonaise

▪ Hanshi – Paper sheets for Shodō

Japanese calligraphy paper, known as hanshi, is usually handmade with a rustic touch. It is often thin, although the thickness may vary depending on the use.

Common dimensions are usually about 33cm x 24cm. Also, be aware that some varieties of hanshi may become slightly colored over time.

Papier hanshi pour pratiquer le shodo

Other recommended tools

Beyond these four tools, there are two other tools worth mentioning.

The first is a special kind of long, thin paperweight called a Bunchin. Its weight helps to hold the Hanshi paper in place and prevent it from wrinkling. The bunchin can be made of various materials including bronze, glass, copper and stone.

Le Bunchin et le Shitajiki donne une bonne surface de travaill pour la calligraphie


The second is a mat called Shitajiki, which is placed under the paper to absorb excess moisture from the ink and create clearer, more defined lines. Traditionally it is dark blue or black in color, and lined with fine felt. The Shitajiki provides a base for the work, and comes in several sizes.

The shitajiki protects the paper from the pressure applied by the brush during strokes and helps prevent staining of the work surface. Ideally, this work surface should be larger than the base you will be working with.

Types of Japanese Calligraphy

Japanese was originally written with brush and ink, and as the first writing objects were poetry and Buddhist scriptures. The elegance of brushwork in different styles became a major concern. Men and women who were particularly good at writing came to be known as shoka, shodoka, or calligraphers, Japanese calligraphy developed into an art form in its own right.

Today, Japan recognize 6 types of Japanese Calligraphy:

1. Kanji: Chinese Characters

Originally, the first Chinese pictograms were engraved on animal bones. Then a whole set was created, and used for example to write poetry.

They arrived in Japan at the same time as Buddhism because they were used to write the sacred texts, the sutras. Even today, artists are still reproducing with talent texts that are thousands of years old, preserving the ancient Chinese writing styles.

Depending on the work and the desire of the calligrapher, the kanji can be drawn in different writing styles: cursive, semi-cursive, etc.

2. Kana: Japanese Syllabics

Hiragana and Katakana form what are called kanas. This is a syllabary that has been created by simplifying the form of certain kanji. Kanas are therefore not ideograms that convey an idea but are used solely for their sound.

Kanas were originally used by women, and are still particularly popular among women today for calligraphy. They are mostly used for writing poems or Haiku.

3. Kindai Shibunsho: Modern Japanese Poems

Traditionally, calligraphers reproduced texts written only in kanji. But the complexity of this writing system sometimes made it difficult for some people to read.

Kindai shibunsho is therefore a calligraphic style that originated in the 1950s and uses a mixture of commonly used kanji and kana. It is used to write modern poetry or words and phrases of wisdom. It is also popular for haiku poetry and poetry translated from foreign languages.

4. Daijisho: Large Characters

This involves writing one or two kanji alone. The aim is to create a picture with a strong pictorial element, rather than to focus on the meaning of the kanji themselves.

To achieve this, the calligrapher will play with the movements and rhythm, and the thickness of the calligraphy lines. This type of calligraphy is thus accessible to the greatest number of people who can appreciate the evocative power of the kanji without knowing how to decipher it.

5. Zen Eisho: Avant-Garde Calligraphy 

This style was developed at the same time as the new movements in Japanese art, around 1950. It goes beyond simple writing and is closer to art. The artist frees himself completely from conventional rules and fully expresses his freedom of expression. He focuses more on the forms than on the characters themselves.

This work with a brush or with less conventional tools has influenced abstract art in the West. Calligraphy no longer exists as a means of communication but only as a work of art in its own right.

6. Tenkoku: Seal Engraving

Seals were originally used in China to stamp documents with the name or position of an official, but between the 14th and 19th centuries, seal making became an art in its own right.

Ancient Chinese characters are engraved on the flat end of a stone block, which can be from one to seven square centimetres in size. In this case, it is the imprint left by the seal on the calligraphy that constitutes the work of art.

Depending on the method of engraving, the characters may be vermilion red on a white background, or white with a vermilion outline.


Styles of Japanese Calligraphy

In Japanese calligraphy there are five major writing styles: tensho, reisho, sosho, gyosho and kaisho. These calligraphy styles were invented in China and have evolved over time. Each style corresponds to the needs and especially the usual writing tools of its time. We are going to see the main calligraphy styles to know to learn calligraphy, in the order in which they appeared during history.

1. Tensho Style: Sigillary

Ecriture calligraphique dans le style Tensho

The tensho style is the oldest. It was standardised during the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC) from the archaic forms of ideograms. Two types of sigil characters can be distinguished: the large seal and the small seal.

The first is the oldest, irregular and less neat. It dates back to the 9th century B.C. and is directly derived from archaic characters: oracular writing on bone and writing on bronze.

Originally, the characters were mainly engraved on turtle shells used for divination and liturgical bronzes. The use of the stylus determined the graphic appearance of this type of writing: the lines were thin but of constant thickness, and the ends ended sharply.

2. Reisho Style: Used by Scribes and Clerics

Le style Reisho

The complex tensho script proved to be impractical for administrative tasks. According to legend, it was Cheng Miao, a prison warden under the Qin dynasty, who created a simpler style to facilitate the work of officials: the reisho style.

The strokes of reisho are flattened, with a characteristic undulation present in the horizontal lines. This undulation is called Bird’s Tail.

3. Sosho Style: Cursive

Le style cursif est un des plus difficile à maîtriser en calligraphie

Almost at the same time as reisho, another style of calligraphy appeared: sosho. This new writing style has become extremely popular in all aspects of life. The main characteristic of this style is the very abbreviated layout of the characters, sometimes even written in a single brush stroke.

The main rule of the sosho style literally says: simplify the left [part] and concentrate on the right [part] [of the character]. As in tensho style, a kanji in Sosho can be written in several ways.

The cursive style is generally considered the most difficult of the five major calligraphy styles.

4. Gyosho Style: Semi-Cursive

Le style semi-cursif est très utilisé dans la vie quotidienne

The Gyosho style was established by the calligrapher Liu De-Sheng during the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD). However, the perfection of this style is due to Wang Xizhi (321-379), one of the most famous Chinese calligraphers, and his son Wang Xianzhi (344-348).

There are generally two types of gyosho: one closer to sosho and the other closer to kaisho. The semi-cursive style is widely used in everyday life

Although the characters in gyosho are simplified compared to the regular form, this simplification is logical and natural, and allows for rapid writing.

5. Kaisho Style: Standard, or Regular

Le style kaisho est plus proche des caractères d'imprimerie

At the end of the Han dynasty, the need for a simple, most legible and very regular writing style was a response to the need to centralise power.

The regular kaisho style, which appeared during the 3rd century, is considered an improvement and rationalisation of the reisho scribe style. It was initiated by Wang Ts-Zhong and developed by the calligraphers of the Wei and Jin dynasties.

The strokes of kaisho are clear and well separated, the characters are held in an imaginary square unlike the rectangular characters of tensho style.

The kaisho style is the closest to printed characters.


Calligraphy in Japan and Japanese Society


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