The Art of Shodo: The Way They Write

The Art of Shodo

Two countries, which are Japan and China, see calligraphy or Shodo

as “The Supreme Art Form”. Calligraphy uses traditional brushes and ink. Brush movements are also the main feature, consisting of a variety of strokes. It is like the art of sword fighting, where there exists an art in Japanese writing.

Calligraphy is unlike any other form of art. Calligraphy can be a fusion of literature, poetry, and even painting. Through this form of art, one can see the calligrapher’s personality. They do this by showing emotion and beauty in their work.

History and Culture in Japan

Shodo is the Japanese version of the classical calligraphy. “Sho” means “writing”, while “Do” means “way”. Thus, “The Way of Writing” is the correct translation for Shodo. The art requires the user to master brushstrokes, movement, and rhythm. Another thing about Shodo is the fact that there can be no corrections.

Shodo requires a lot of practice, and some would even have to go under training. Samurai practiced the humble art of Shodo for many centuries. Just like using practice swords to wield a Katana perfectly, they practice Shodo to have good writing, too.

Literature and art is a common theme in the Heian Period. The translation of the word “Heian” is peace. The art of Shodo earned a special place in the hearts of the Japanese people.

One of the most critical expectations for nobles is for them to master the way of writing.  Regular civilians also practice this art. During the Edo period, children learned how to write Shodo as part of their lessons in school. This education system is Terakoya. This is for them to see a reflection of themselves at a young age.

Shodo is like martial arts and meditation. Teachers teach their students to correct breathing while performing the practice. Also like in Sumo, a calligrapher has only one chance not to mess things up.

It takes many years to master the art, though. There are around 20 million Japanese that practice Shodo, according to records. With a population of roughly 120 million, that is only 16%.

Shodo: Characters and The Writing System

Characters and The Writing System
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

There are around 48,000 characters in Japanese calligraphy. Japan used the character system Kanji to write this. Passed along from China, Kanji became a primary writing system in Japan. This happened around the early 5th century AD. Until then, no other written character or language was in Japan.

Everything back then used Chinese as their means of written communication. But during the 8th century AD, Japan began to change the Chinese character. This is to adjust the symbols for their Japanese pronunciations.

The Kana system is the collection of phonetic symbols in Japanese calligraphy. The system has two sets; these are Hiragana and Katakana.

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While during the Heian Period, Hiragana came into the light. This feature sounds written with Chinese characters. Chinese and Japanese are different in structure language. This resulted in Japan having difficulty in adapting to the Chinese writing system. So, one had to develop an alphabet system to support the Kanji.

During the said period, Japanese women used this developed system in writing. The men, meanwhile, used Chinese. Later, the Imperial Court used Hiragana to define Japanese calligraphy. This resulted in a slimmer and elegant style than Chinese calligraphy.

Another developed phonetic set alongside Hiragana is Katakana. Monks used Katakana in Buddhist temples to keep records of pronunciation. Meanwhile, in modern Japan, recording foreign records were the only time where Katakana is used. The Katakana system has a set of 46 syllables.

Shodo: Materials and Technique

The main tools and materials in writing Shodo involve some brushes, ink, and of course paper. Just like Japanese Military swords that are needed in battle, one must have the right materials to begin Shodo.

Hosho is a type of paper that emerged in Japan around the 14th century. The primary materials used were Kozo fibers. This resulted in becoming a beautiful and high-quality paper.

The Hosho paper is not easy to shrink or expand. Even to tear the paper apart requires effort, so woodblock and linoleum printing use this paper. Hosho is also great for watercolors, though it is not that advisable for a beginner.

Kozo papers are like Hosho papers, but the display of the fibers are different. Kozo features a tighter arrangement of its fibers, resulting in smaller pores. With this size of the pores, the paper becomes less absorbent. Kozo is more flexible comparing to Hosho, and also slimmer.

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Gasen-shi or Gasen is the oldest type of Oriental paper used for Shodo or art in general. In being more traditional, both the Chinese and Japanese prefer using this type. They used the paper for both calligraphy and Chinese-styled painting. The Japanese added the word “shi” to the name Gasen to have a touch of Japan. Paper is the English term of Shi.

There are many more materials and tools used in writing Shodo. As for technique, there are two ways to clutch the brush. The first method is the Tankoho method. It features the user holding the brush like a pen, using the thumb, index and middle finger.  

The second method is the Sokoho method. With this technique, the user still holds the brush like a pen. The only difference is, the ring finger becomes extra.

Shodo: Script Types

Shodo has three main styles or script types. The first one, which is also the primary one, is Kaisho. “Block Style” is another term for it. It means “correct writing”. Every stroke is in a creative and clear way. This results in the characters looking like they’re printed, like those in newspapers.

The second one is Gyosho, also names as the “Running hand style”. It means “floating in an artistic way”. This style features a lovely semi-cursive way of writing, like how most people use to take down notes.

And last is the Sosho, or “Grass Hand”. This style features graceful full-on cursive writing. Training is everything in any training philosophy. To perfect a technique, one must train.

A majority of Shodo calligraphers underwent training in both Japanese and Chinese ways.  Both the context and aesthetic influenced the calligrapher’s work.

The Three Brushes

The Three Brushes is a title given to the top Japanese calligraphers. They are the most appraised Shodo calligrapher of the period. Sometimes, certain generations choose the Three Brushes. This happens when there are three distinct calligraphers with unique signatures.

When Buddhism came to Japan, the government decided to copy all the Sutra available. A Sutra is religious literature present in many Asian traditions, including Buddhism. Once copied, they distributed the collection of literature through paper books.

Writing then became popular. The public appreciated those with exceptional talent in calligraphy writing. Some of these people were Kukai, Emperor Saga and Hayanari Tachinaba. These three did not only worked on copying Sutra. They expanded their skills into doing original writings.

Among the three, Kukai’s calligraphy made the most significant impact among the people. He became a national artist for it. Emperor Daigo gave even Kukai his title name, “Kobo Daishi”. These three men became the first Three Brushes recorded in history.

The practice of this art welcomes people of different ranks in society. Whether one is a noble, a Samurai, or even a regular civilian, they can perform the technique. With every stroke one made, a reflection of their mind and spirit becomes visible.