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Japanese Calligraphy (Shodo)

Japanese calligraphy, shodo in Japanese, the way of writing, is the fine art of expressing the beauty of Japanese syllabaries (kana). Different styles of traditional Japanese calligraphy can be found that have been practiced by calligraphy masters, especially in Japan.

An artist follows different techniques and uses tools to make perfect calligraphy. A master intends to bring his best work of art to life by using a bamboo brush, white paper, ink, inkstone, and paperweight. The real beauty of calligraphy depends on three things: the shape and position of the characters, the force of the brushstrokes, and the stages of the ink.

Japanese Calligraphy (Shodo) is Being Performed by a Student. Photo Credit: Eco Dalla Luna at Flickr.

It is a custom that Japanese children have to learn the basics of calligraphy. I was taught this lesson when I was an elementary school student. My experience with calligraphy classes can’t be forgotten until my last breath. The way our master gave us every lesson was pretty interesting and harmonious.

The lessons used to begin with a demonstration by the master. We were all curious and could hardly take our eyes off of the strokes of his brush. If you are interested in Japanese calligraphy, you can learn it here in Japan. There are well-known institutions that teach calligraphy across Japan. I would try to inform you of some of the institution names you could learn from.

History of Japanese Calligraphy

Kaisyo Japanese Calligraphy. Photo Credit: Kanko at Flickr.

Calligraphy is an ancient art of East Asia. It spread its popularity from Ancient Chinese civilization to modern Japan era. In general, Japanese calligraphy was greatly influenced by Chinese calligraphy.

In the sixth century it was first introduced to Japan from its neighboring country China. History indicates that the art of Japanese calligraphy begins approximately 2000 years after the first linguistically stable Chinese calligraphy scripts, the bronze inscriptions and the oracle bone script had evolved.

During the Heian period (794-1185), the new traditional Japanese style of calligraphic writing emerged under the reign of one Emperor Saga.

Even though Japanese calligraphy developed gradually from Chinese Calligraphy, as time progressed, Japanese artists began to refine the Chinese style into their own. They started writing Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana syllabaries in their Calligraphy art.

At first, Calligraphy in Japan was not that much popular but it flourished between 794 and 1185. This is the period which is seen to be the Golden Age of Japanese calligraphy.

Kanji Symbols in Japanese Calligraphy. Photo Credit: miheco at Flickr.

The Kamakura period (1185-1333) is remarkable for two things – one is for the leading role of the military establishment pervading the culture and other one is for emerging Zen Buddhism in the land of the rising sun.

Many Zen Monks went to China to study Buddhism and they bought some objects from there. One of the objects they bought was the copybooks that are considered highly influential for the karayō (唐様) tradition, expressing a clear view of kaisho style. Zen monks used to create Zen calligraphy by clearing their minds following a rule that the brush strokes cannot be corrected.

During The Muromachi period (1336-1537), the art of Japanese calligraphy continued to flourish even though during that time civil war and political unrest spread throughout the country. This was the time when calligraphy first was introduced to the tea ceremony and since then it has been an integral part of it.

During the Edo period (1603-1868) this distinct Japanese art was exported and introduced to Western cultures. This actually happened during the middle of this time.

As Edo period is known for a policy developed in which the country isolated itself from outside influence. This indicates that this policy helped Japanese artists to concentrate on their own style of calligraphy techniques.

In this 21st century, people of Japan know how to respect this form of Japanese art which truly represents the whole nation.

Elementary school students have to learn the basics, some universities offer calligraphy courses, many calligraphy learning institutes were formed across Japan, exhibitions of calligraphy were held over time here in Japan as well as outside Japan.

Characteristics of Japanese Calligraphy

A Japanese Calligrapher in Nara, Japan. Photo Credit: Tim Notari at Flickr.

There are some distinct characteristics of Japanese Calligraphy. In fact, it represents more than just writing. Please take a look at the main characteristics given below:

1) Horizontal Strokes are written first.

2) Seven tools must be needed to create calligraphy, they are: Shitajiki (Black soft mat), Bunchin (peparweight), Hanshi (white thin paper), Fude (bursh), Mizusashi (water dropper), Suzuri (ink-stone), and Sumi (ink).

3) There are three basic styles of Japanese calligraphy: Kaisho, Gyousho, Sousho, Tensho, and Reisho.

4) The script must be white in color and its size and shape should be square.

5) All characters must be able to be written from only eight strokes.

6) The artist carefully chooses and balances the size of characters.

7) The piece’s straight lines should appear clear and bold.

8) The artwork appears to exhibit rhythm.

9) The script is mainly written from left to right and top to bottom.

10) Use of more or a consistent amount of ink depends on the artist’s preference.

Japanese Calligraphy Tools

There is a list of Japanese calligraphy tools that can be seen. In fact, all these tools are handy to create works of art.

1) Fude: Fude (brush) is the most important calligraphy tool. Two types of brushes are used, the hosofude (slender brush) and the futofude (thick brush). Brushes are crafted from bamboo and usually used fur of wolf, badger, horse and squirrel.

Fude: the Brush. Photo Credit: geraldford at Flickr.

2) Sumi: Sumi (ink) is one of the four treasures of Japanese calligraphy. This is an essential tool which you must use to draw syllabaries. This ink is made from charcoal.

3) Suzuri: Suzuri or the inkstone is the object where an artist rubs his/her sumi ink block to create ink. Please don’t rub it too hard!

Suzuri and Sumi. Photo Credit: geraldford at Flickr.

4) Hanashi: Hanashi is a white paper that an artist uses to write characters. Fude, Sumi, Suzuri and Hanashi are recognized as the four treasures of Japanese calligraphy tools.

6) Bunchin: You can’t create calligraphy when it moves. To make your Hanashi (paper) stable, Bunchin is used. It is a paperweight which keeps the paper stable.

The Bunchin is Placed on the Paper. Photo Credit: seikinsou at Flickr.

5) Shitajiki: It is a mat which is placed under the hanashi. Usually Shitajiki becomes black color but these days you can see pink and red Shitajiki.

7) Mizusashi: It is a water dropper which an artist needs for mixing up the ink with a few drops of water.

8) Inkan: Inkan is a seal which is used to attribute an art work of calligraphy. In Japan, calligraphers usually sign their calligraphy with an Inkan.

How to do Japanese Calligraphy?

Calligraphy Lesson with Master Kano-san, Onishi, Japan. Photo Credit: Magda Wojtyra at Flickr.

It is a common question to those who are really interested in this Japanese art and want to learn it step by step. Initially, to make Japanese calligraphy two things should be in your mind: 1) Script style, 2) Use of Kanji or Japanese phrases you want to write in your calligraphy.

You have to choose a place and set up your mat. Now place your white paper on the mat. Then, you place the paperweight on it so that it does not move and stay stable. Then please follow the following steps to get the job done:

Step 1: Firstly, you as a calligrapher, pour some water in the inkstone.

Step 2: Secondly, you grab the sumi (ink) and rub it gently on the inkstone.

Step 3: Thirdly, take one of the brushes you want to start with and dip in the inkstone.

Step 4: Fourthly, clear your mind and then paint a character onto the white paper.

My advice is to you – please clear your mind, take a deep breath, concentrate sharply, stay calm and then paint it seriously.

Calligraphy in Japanese Culture

Japanese Calligraphy Exhibition in Tokyo. Photo Credit: John Gillespie at Flickr.

Japanese calligraphy is like images without form, music without sound. What do you think of this sentence? I think that is a perfect way of defining Japanese calligraphy. Japanese culture is widely known for its fine arts and calligraphy is one of them.

It does represent our country with pride that has a long history and facts. Many calligraphy exhibitions are held throughout the year in Japan that surely attract calligraphy lovers from all over the world. They gather in one place with a lot of joy and imagine the beauty of Japanese calligraphy.

The skills that you need to do calligraphy cannot be achieved in a short period of time. It takes time to be a master and expert in it. As it is closely related to ink painting, many of you think it is an easy job to do but the real thing is that you have to practice a lot. One has to be patient and experienced enough.

Thinking of this ideology, children of Japan start learning it at elementary school. One can even take higher education on this subject at university level.

Japanese Calligraphy Scrolls at Nomura Samurai House. Photo Credit: Joel Abroad at Flickr.

Calligraphy lessons were studied by aristocrats, poets and samurai. If you ever visit any samurai residences in Japan you can experience calligraphy displays there.

Traditionally, calligraphy has been highly valued in the Japanese court. In modern Japan, we can find many known and unknown famous calligraphy masters in Japan for example, Mr. Koji Kakinuma who is a popular calligrapher of modern Japan.

Buddhist monks in Japan practice Zen style calligraphy over time. You can see their calligraphy art works at various Zen Buddhist temples in Kyoto. A lot of Japanese souvenir shops sell calligraphy written with various kanji characters.

People in Japan décor their houses with calligraphy that are painted with meaningful Kanji symbols such as they feature the Kanji symbols of Love, Longevity, Happiness, Peace, Prosperity, Dragon and etc.

We show our greatest love to the fine art Calligraphy. Every now and then, it has fascinated not only Japanese culture but also influenced other parts of the world.

Where to Learn Calligraphy in Japan?

A Student Practicing Calligraphy in Shizuoka. Photo Credit: Zach at Flickr.

Here I have listed some institutions that offer calligraphy courses for beginners. Though, if you want to be smart enough you could read a very useful book written on Japanese calligraphy.

Please check out this book here. It is resourceful, and more importantly, you are going to need it even when you start your calligraphy class in Japan. The book would guide you how to do Japanese calligraphy though you need to have a complete set of Calligraphy tools, please check it out here.

1. Calligraphy Art class in Roppongi

2. Udoyoshi Calligraphy Lesson

3. Baikei

4. Shikoku University

5. Seisho School 

6. WAK Japan

7. Izumi Shiratani 

8. Kyoto University 

9. Aoyama Gakuin University

10. Daito Bunka University

You can contact them via email or make a phone call to one of these Japanese calligraphy learning institutes. I strongly suggest you visit their own contact pages. Except for that, there are some tour operators that offer a day calligraphy learning lesson with the help of real calligraphy artists in Japan.

Learn Calligraphy Lesson Online for Free

Three Beautiful Japanese Calligraphies. Photo Credit: R Pahre at Flickr.

Hands-on training and online training methods are not the same thing. They follow different approaches to teaching methods. Anyone can learn the Japanese language online, there is no problem with it.

But when it comes to learning an art like calligraphy, you have to think twice before deciding “Would I be able to learn it fully online?” The true thing is that – you are not going to learn it fully online.

To learn calligraphy, you must learn it from a master who guides the ultimate techniques. However, learning the basics of Japanese calligraphy online is possible. That’s why I recommend these websites to learn basic calligraphy.





The art of shodo reminds me of something that I left a long time ago. I am not a master of Japanese calligraphy but I learned its basic techniques and I believe I have achieved a knowledge that can’t be taken away from me. It remains with me forever.

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