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Japanese Calligraphy

by Graham Hawker


What is Calligraphy?
What distinguishes good calligraphy from bad?
A Brief History of Japanese Calligraphy (sho)
Notes on Japanese Poetry
Further Reading
Calligraphy Shop
What is Zen?
Calligraphy Set

Character writing is a highly evolved discipline that relies as much on artistic craftsmanship, as it does on literary composition. Our basic writing set comes with five brushes, a black ink stick, ink stone, red ink for the "chop" or signature stamp which is included for your own customization, water well and brush rest. The ink is made by gently rubbing the ink stick in a small pool of water in the ink stone. This ancient method allows for very little waste. The same bushes and inks may be used both for writing and painting, as the two art forms are so closely linked.

What is Calligraphy?

Calligraphy is an art form that has been studied for over three thousand years. A knowledge of calligraphy is an important step in the understanding of Japanese culture. Calligraphy is not merely an exercise in good handwriting, but rather the foremost art form of the Orient. It is the combination of the skill and imagination of the person who has studied intensely the combinations available using only lines. In the West, calligraphy was intended to suppress individuality and produce a uniform style. Japanese calligraphy (sho in Japanese) attempts to bring words to life, and endow them with character. Styles are highly individualistic, differing from person to person. Japanese calligraphy presents a problem for westerners trying to understand it; the work is completed in a matter of seconds so the uninitiated cannot really appreciate the degree of difficulty involved. However, bear in mind that the characters must be written only once. There is no altering, touching up, or adding to them afterwards.

Sumi-e Set

This basic calligraphy set is made in China and has all the basic materials needed for your ink drawing or calligraphy work. It includes 4 brushes (5.25" long)with assorted sheep and or wolf hair bristles, an ink stick (2.5 inches long), ink grinding stone, water dish and spoon, brush rest big enough for 2 brushes, a soap stone chop stamps and some red chop ink paste in a porcelain dish with dragon design cover. This small calligraphy set is in a pretty cloth covered fan shaped box (9" by 6") and all you need is water and paper!

What distinguishes good calligraphy from bad?

To the trained eye the difference is instantly discernible, but just as with western art or music the difference is difficult to describe. However, here are a few guidelines:

  • There is a natural balance in both the characters and the composition as a whole

  • Straight lines are strong and clear

  • Curved lines are delicate and mobile

  • There is variance in thickness and thinness

  • The amount of ink on the brush, or lack of it, is consistent throughout

  • The size of the characters are of a scale which gives life to the work

  • There is a rhythm in the whole work

You can think of calligraphy in terms of music. The poem is like the musical score and the calligrapher like the pianist; each tries to interpret the score to produce a memorable rendering.

Learn Japanese Calligraphy

The Takase Shodokai Learn Japanese Calligraphy Series provides the in-depth instruction needed to master Japanese Calligraphy. Starting with tool selection and proper usage, Takase Sensei guides the student through the fundamentals of Japanese Calligraphy using a combination of text, sample works, audio, video and frame-by-frame analysis. By using this multi-media approach, Takase Sensei is able to teach Japanese Calligraphy in a way that is not possible with books alone. Being able to see the rhythm of the brush along with proper hand position and posture is essential to learning good technique and each CD-ROM contains over thirty videos and hundreds of photos. Each lesson introduces one or more characters along with the usage, pronunciation and a word list. The calligraphic aspects of the character are shown in detail including a printable sample and an annotated version showing the stroke order and proper brush movement. A video showing Takase Sensei brushing the character is presented. This video demonstrates proper brush movement, hand position, and technique. Following the video, every aspect of brushing the character is discussed in a frame by frame analysis of the video. Sample student works are also presented along with a detailed critique and corrections by Takase Sensei. The problems and corrections presented are those most commonly made and will help the student identify and fix similar problems. This gives the student an opportunity to see what is considered wrong, why it is wrong, and how the fault can be corrected.

A Brief History of Japanese Calligraphy (sho)

Calligraphy began to filter into Japan during the seventh century A.D. Buddhism from India had travelled via China and Korea and was making many converts in Japan, including the Emperors. Buddhist scriptures were recorded in Chinese writing. This was produced by priests and was aesthetically very pleasing. The most famous Japanese calligrapher was probably the Buddhist monk Kukai. One story records how the Emperor Tokusokutei asked him to rewrite a section of a badly damaged five panelled screen. Kukai is said to have picked up a brush in each hand, gripped one between the toes of each foot, placed another between his teeth, and immediately written five columns of verse simultaneously!

There are five basic scripts in Chinese calligraphy: tensho (seal style), reisho (scribe's style), kaisho (block style), gyosho (semi-cursive style), sosho (cursive style, literally "grass writing"). These had all appeared before the end of the fourth century. In addition to these the Japanese developed the kana characters during the eighth century, characters that express sounds in contrast to characters used ideographically. Three types of kana have been developed, manyogana, hiragana, and katakana. The manyogana are certain chinese characters (kanji) used phonetically to represent the syllables of Japanese, and are named after the eighth century poetry collection Manyoshu. At the time this collection was compiled the Japanese had no writing system of their own. Some of the Japanese poems were rendered in Chinese characters used phonetically, and in others the Chinese characters were used sometimes phonetically and sometimes ideographically. Out of this, by way of drastic simplification, came hiragana and katakana. In the hands of Japanese noblewomen, hiragana developed into a beautiful script which is the unique calligraphic style of Japan.

Notes on Japanese Poetry

Japanese poetry has three main forms, tanka, choka, haiku. A tanka is made up of thirty-one syllables, five, seven, five, seven, seven. A choka is of unlimited length being alternately 5,7,5,7 but the last two phrases must end seven and seven. These two forms are collectively known as waka. A haiku is a seventeen syllable poem made up of five, seven, and five.

A famous example of a haiku is by Matsuo Basho, and translates as:
An old pond, a frog jumps in, a splash of water.

Often a couplet of seven and seven is added to the end of a haiku on the same theme. This is then known as a renga and the original haiku part of the renga is referred to as the hokku.

There is a lot of information about haiku on the web

Further Reading

This brief note on Japanese Calligraphy may have created a wish to learn more of this fascinating and beautiful subject. Further information can be found in the following books:

cover Learn to Write Chinese Characters
by Johan Bjorksten
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An introductory manual for writing Chinese characters specifically designed for English-speaking readers. The author guides the reader through the fundamentals of writing and introduces the various scripts used in China. This book teaches the principles of sound and beautiful writing - the names of the strokes, the order in which they are written, aesthetic principles, and the common radicals. Not only does it show exactly how to create each stroke, it also shows the various wrong ways to draw each stroke and even names the errors. Probably the best book you will find for learning the basic foundation skills.
cover Brush Writing: Calligraphy Techniques for Beginners
by Ryokushu Kuiseko
Buy at Buy at
An excellent book for beginners learning to write Kanji and Hiragana. The detailed instructions are excellent and show you how to write each symbol step by step. The book covers 75 kanji, giving the meaning and pronunciation as well.

Materials and techniques are explained and there is a short history of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy. The calligraphy appreciation section is not only a great aid, it is also a great encouragement to learn more about this wonderful subject.
Brush Meditation: A Japanese Way to Mind & Body Harmony Brush Meditation: A Japanese Way to Mind & Body Harmony
by H.E Davey
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Brush Meditation introduces beginners and non-artists alike to working with brush and ink as a form of "moving meditation." By showing you how the most elemental brush strokes reveal your physical and mental state, it teaches you to become "one with the brush," attuned to the underlying principles of life and nature. As the text explores the intricate relationships of mind, body, and brush, it delves into the mysteries of human life energy, or ki, and the power of the hara, a natural abdominal center. Simple exercises demonstrate how to use the brush in spiritual practice, while illustrations guide every step.
Sacred Calligraphy of the East Sacred Calligraphy of the East
by John Stevens, Ron Suresha (Editor)
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A new edition of the divinely designed explication of Eastern calligraphy, invoking the rich tradition of Japan, China, India, and Tibet to illustrate both the technique and significance of the characters. The volume provides historical background and reflects on the art of copying religious texts.
Chinese Calligraphy : From Pictograph to Ideogram : The History of 214 Essential Chinese/Japanese Characters Chinese Calligraphy : From Pictograph to Ideogram : The History of 214 Essential Chinese/Japanese Characters
by Edoardo Fazzioli
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The 214 radicals (basic characters) are explained with their history and with illustrations of the character's evolution from ancient pictographs to its current form. There is also a step-by-step demonstration on how the strokes are arranged and in what order they are written. Chinese friends tell me that the characters illustrated are not written with great style but a Western beginner to calligraphy could feel very happy producing work at this level.
SHO Japanese Calligraphy SHO Japanese Calligraphy
by Christopher J Earnshaw

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Looks at the historical and spiritual background to calligraphy and its releveance to Zen philosophy. Excellent for those wanting to explore this art form but a beginner wishing for practical help would be better with "Brush Writing" by Ryokushu Kuiseko.
Easy Kanji : A Basic Guide to Writing Japanese Characters Easy Kanji : A Basic Guide to Writing Japanese Characters
by Fujihiko Kaneda, Masaya Katayama (Illustrator), Rika Sagano (Illustrator), Fukihiko Kaneda, Takuya Dan
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This book sets out the rules of kanji (chinese characters) stroke order and groups the kanji by radical. It is an excellent introduction to 500 commonly used kanji.
Easy Hiragana : First Steps to Reading and Writing Basic Japanese Easy Hiragana : First Steps to Reading and Writing Basic Japanese
by Fujihiko Kaneda, Rika Samidori, Dan Takuya
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An excellent book for learning the 48 characters of Hiragana. A clear and easy to follow primer that will allow you to master these basic Japanese characters.
The Art of Zen : Paintings and Calligraphy by Japanese Monks 1600-1925 The Art of Zen : Paintings and Calligraphy by Japanese Monks 1600-1925
by Stephen Addiss
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Created spontaneously, Zen art ranges from intensely brushed calligraphic poems and emphatically gestural abstract shapes to roughly hewn, often humorous portraits of the Zen patriarch and his followers. This book brings together masterpieces of painting and calligraphy created by Japanese monks, who turned to visual imagery as an aid to meditation, as an expression of enlightenment, and as the purest form of transmitting Zen principles. The illustrations are accompanied by text which explains the fundamentals of Zen culture and includes many translations of Zen prose, poetry and sayings.
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This document is
last updated 23 November 2016
Copyright © 1996,2016 Graham G Hawker