I try my hand at Japanese calligraphy

Yume by Yoko TakenamiLast week I had a go at Japanese calligraphy, courtesy of the Japan Society who arranged a fascinating introductory workshop led by Yoko Takenami. It’s a difficult art, and I don’t just mean it’s hard to master the technique (though it’s that too). It’s all the other stuff that goes along with it that makes it complicated.

For one thing it’s strongly linked to Buddhism and was developed by Buddhist monks studying the sutras more than a thousand years ago, when Japanese writing was in its infancy and Chinese characters were all that were available.

The earliest truly Japanese calligrapher, was Kukai who lived in the Heian Period (AD 794–1179).

KukaiHis three letters to Saicho, another great calligrapher, are among the National Treasures of Japan.

Kukai's letters to SaichoSome people say that Kukai invented the Japanese kana writing system; others that he was the author of the iroha, a poem about the futility of earthly existence and the importance of concentrating on the life to come, that uses every syllable in Japanese once over, like the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog does in English. It’s still used today for paragraph numbering documents, so in a long document the poem is gradually spelled out.

I learnt it not just for document paragraphs but because it’s sometimes used in Japanese theatres to number the rows – if you didn’t know the iroha you couldn’t work out where you were sitting. Sadly, they’re moving over to using the western alphabet now. Here is the poem in a literal translation by Andrew Nelson:

Colours are fragrant, but they fade away. In this world of ours none lasts forever. Today cross the high mountain of life’s illusions and there will be no more shallow dreaming, no more drunkenness.

Iroha poem

The iroha written on a folding screen by Kiho Nakano in the Mobara City Museum in Chiba

In the seventeenth century the calligrapher Hon’ami Koetsu and the painter Tawaraya Sotatsu collaborated to produce calligraphy on decorated paper with gold or silver backgrounds in which the characters and the images behind them intertwine.

Calligraphy on gold background

Calligraphy on gold background by Hon’ami Koetsu and Tawaraya Sotatsu

Yoko told us about the five different writing styles (seal, script, block, semi-cursive and cursive) and how kana were evolved from the original chinese characters by a process of simplification. The top sheet in this picture shows the writing styles and the bottom one the evolution of the first five characters in the iroha (i-ro-ha-ni-ho-he-to reading from right to left).

Five writing styles in calligraphy We practised writing wa ( which means peace) in the block and cursive styles and wa the hiragana character which developed from it:

和 → わ

We practised on newspaper at first, gradually progressing to paper and finally to decorated card.

Calligraphy equipmentIt was hard to master varying the pressure on the brush to make the line thick or thin and twisting it to give life to the brushstrokes. Most of all it was hard to achieve the right state of mind, though everyone agreed that practising was curiously peaceful. Here is my attempt at wa:

Calligraphy of peace kanjiStill some way to go then.

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