Japanese calligraphy is one of the most well known and popular of the traditional arts of Japan. It’s called shodō (書道) in Japanese, which literally means way of writing. Shodō has a very long history. However, it’s still practiced today and it’s a popular class in school, from elementary school throughout university.

Here’s our guide to the tradition, techniques and beauty of Shodō.

History and tradition

The main focus of Japanese calligraphy is simplicity, beauty and a connection between mind and body. The art of Japanese calligraphy dates back to around the 6th century, when it was introduced from China. In the beginning the style of calligraphy in Japan was highly influenced by the Chinese form. Calligraphers copied Chinese poetry and texts, in order to learn the art.

During the Heian period (794-1185) the Japanese writing system evolved. The borrowed Chinese characters (漢字, kanji) were still used, but a new type of characters: kana (hiragana ひらがな, and later katakana カタカナ), were created. With these additional characters the calligraphy transformed into a style unique for Japan.

Shodō is closely linked to Zen Buddhism and is influenced by its ideas and values. Japanese calligraphy goes far beyond simply writing characters or words. The key to true calligraphy is to bring the mind and soul into the work and to write with your heart, otherwise it’s meaningless. The calligrapher only has one chance, since the brush strokes can’t be corrected. To express a deep meaning, the work must show the emotions, personality and passion of the artist. It is also said that the way of writing is the path to enlightenment.

Calligraphy is commonly practiced by Zen buddhist monks. The Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro pointed out that the Zen calligraphy is not mastered by constant practice. To write Zen calligraphy the mind must be clear, and the characters flow out effortlessly. This state of mind is called mushin (無心), and means “consciousness without consciousness”. When practicing Japanese calligraphy, you should clear your mind and focus only on the meaning of the words you write.

3 styles of Japanese calligraphy

Styles and technique

There are three essential styles in Japanese calligraphy, which can be seen in the picture above.

The standard block font is called kaisho (楷書). This is considered the foundation of all shodō writing styles, and students of calligraphy always start with this. This style is similar to what you’ll find on a keyboard or in everyday handwriting. First you master kaisho, after that you can move on to learn more artistic styles of writing.

Gyōsho (行書) is a semi-italic, less formal, style. Literally translating to “moving writing” this is a more fluid style with less angular characters. Each stroke should flow, and continue into the next. The relation between the characters is also important.

The most difficult to read, also the most abstract, style is called sōsho (草書). It’s also the most difficult calligraphy style to master. The characters flow into each other, meaning that less brush strokes are used. Sōshos cursive style should mimic the way that the wind blows through grass. The focus is on the emotions and aesthetics, not on actually being able to read and understand the written text.

Calligraphy tools

Tools

There are a few different calligraphy tools, but 4 that are essential. These 4 are called “the four treasures of the study” (文房四宝, bunbōshihō).

The brush (筆, fude) is usually made of bamboo with bristles made from animal hair. There are thin and thick brushes and the width of the character you’ll write decides which type you’ll use.

Ink (墨, sumi) is best in a dry stick form. There are also ink types that are liquid. The black ink used in calligraphy is made of pine tree soot and animal glue.

Calligraphy paper (和紙, washi) is made of mullberry fibers, which is tougher than normal wood pulp paper.

An inkstone (硯, suzuri) is used, with water, to grind the ink stick. You use it in a way that is similar to when painting with water colours.

There are other useful tools too. Paper weights (文鎮, bunchin), to hold the paper in place while writing, a mat (下敷き, shitajiki) to put under the paper, preventing the ink from bleeding through. It’s also not uncommon for the calligrapher to use a personal seal (印, in).

Ink artwork

Shodō works of art are often displayed in Japanese tatami rooms, in the alcove (床の間, tokonoma). Hanging scrolls (掛け軸, kakejiku) depicting Japanese calligraphy is a vital part of the Japanese tea ceremony.

Ink and fude brushes are also used in ink-wash painting (墨絵, sumi-e). The goal in sumi-e is to capture the spirit or essence of an object. Similar to shodō, the intention isn’t to copy the actual appearance of the thing being depicted. Above all it’s about capturing the bigger picture, and not to fixate on the details. Ink-wash paintings are sometimes combined with written calligraphy.

Japanese calligraphy is a millennia-old art that still exists today, reflecting Japanese culture and aesthetics. Being one of the most popular and important traditional art forms, it’s a popular cultural activity that you’ll have the opportunity to experience in many of our language courses and our JLPT study trip.

Find out more about traditional Japan and other topics by following our Go! Go! Nihon blog.