About Japanese Calligraphy

On this page you can learn more about the history and forms of Japanese calligraphy.

Who practices Japanese calligraphy?
In Japanese, calligraphy is called shodou, or “the way of writing”. Unlike its Western counterpart, it is widely practiced by people of all ages and all walks of life in Japan. Indeed, all Japanese children have to learn the basics of calligraphy as part of their elementary school education.
History of Japanese calligraphy
The history of Japanese calligraphy can be traced back to the origins of Chinese civilization and the creation of the Chinese writing system itself about 4,500 years ago. Calligraphy had already been developed a considerable amount by the time it arrived in Japan sometime around the sixth century, at approximately the same time that the Chinese system of writing (kanji) was also being imported.
By the Heian period, the Japanese had already begun to show considerable attainment in the new art form with the “Three Great Brushes” (or sanpitsu) of the Buddhist monk, Kuukai (774-835), the Emperor Saga (786-842) and the courtier Tachibana no Hayanari (778-842) achieving an apotheosis of the then-popular calligraphic style of the T'ang Chinese master, Yan Zhenqing (709-785).
These three were succeeded in the 10th and 11th centuries by the “Three Traces” (or sanseki), Ono no Tofu, Fujiwara no Sukemasa (also known as Fujiwara no Sai) and Fujiwara no Yukinari (also known as Fujiwara no Kozei), who developed the first uniquely Japanese expression of calligraphy called wayou. Fujiwara no Yukinari’s form led to the creation of the Sesonji School, whereas Ono no Tofu’s style started the Shouren School that later produced the Oie style of writing that was dominant during the Edo period.
From its roots in ancient Chinese civilization, Japanese calligraphy has continued to grow and develop in style and form with zen-ei sho (an avant garde postwar calligraphy style) representing just the latest stage in this evolution. In the course of this development, Japanese calligraphy has also had considerable influence on Western art, particularly on Matisse and Picasso, that latter of whom is said to have remarked that, had he been born Chinese, he would most likely have ended up a calligrapher rather than a painter. Its free-flowing influence can also be seen breaking the monopoly of formal typesetting in industrial art, a good example of this being the brush stroke logo of the technology company Lucent.
Japanese calligraphy’s three basic writing styles
  • Kaisho

    Kaisho literally means “correct writing”. In other words, this is the style in which each of the strokes is made in a deliberate and clear way, creating a form that is very similar to the printed version of the character that one might see in a newspaper.
    This is the form that students of calligraphy study first, since it is close to the everyday written characters they are already familiar with, but at the same time it gives them the opportunity to get used to using the brush (fude) correctly.

    Below you can see the character for “dream” written in kaisho style on the left, and on the right as written using a word processor. Notice how similar they are in form.

    Japanese calligraphy - Kaisho style Japanese kanji print style
  • Gyousho

    Gyousho literally means “traveling writing” and refers to the semi-cursive style of Japanese calligraphy. Like cursive handwriting in English, this is the style that most people will usually use to write with when taking notes. Furthermore, as with English cursive style, what are written as separate strokes in kaisho style flow together to form a more rounded whole in gyousho. Text written in this style is can usually be read by the majority of educated Japanese.

    The same character is written in gyousho below with the printed version for comparison once more. Notice how it is more flowing and artistic.

    Japanese caligraphy Gyousho style Japanese kanji print style
  • Sousho

    Sousho means “grass writing” and refers to the flowing cursive style of calligraphy. Here, form supersedes readability as the calligraphy artist rarely allows her brush to leave the paper, resulting in a graceful, swooping shapes. Only those trained in shodou are usually able to read this type of script.

    Notice how the shape of the character is now almost completely unrecognizable as the same kanji in print on the right. It is now more a stylized work of art than a vehicle for conveying information.

    Japanese calligraphy Sousho style Japanese calligraphy print style
Related Information
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More information about katakana characters and Japanese