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Like with any other endeavor you get back what you put into it. A diligent student can see tremendous results in just a few months. Becoming a master calligrapher can take anywhere from several years to an entire lifetime. There is no limit for improvement, and that I think, is much of the joy in continuing along the path. The time spent in acquiring any skill should be fun and beneficial to the individual. Both can definitively be said for calligraphy. With some practice, results are soon to follow.



Shodo, like most other Japanese art, is usually an inward and somewhat profound process. The practitioner not only hopes to achieve something aesthetically beautiful, but also sees their art as a path to self betterment. Therefore special attention is paid to the process of creating any given piece. In the case of calligraphy, whether sitting in a chair or on a floor cushion, correct posture is of great importance. Allow me to explain.

Firstly, even if you are left-handed, it is best to learn right-handed if at all possible. The brush can be held in a variety of ways. Please experiment and find what feels best for you. Typically we are taught in school that the brush is to be held in the middle, similar to how you would hold a pencil. It can be held upright or at a 45 degree angle, with your elbow out and your hand kept in the air while your other hand holds down the paper. It should be noted that when using a very small brush it is permissible to rest your hand on the paper. The spine should be straight and the eyes at a comfortable distance to the paper.

When we write we naturally begin to enter a mild meditative state. That is to say, the outside world easily falls away and we find ourselves alone with our brush, ink, paper, and breath. Words in our minds tend to dissipate while lines are put to the page. There is nothing more to say about this personal experience other than when you sit down to write, it is best to only sit down and write. Try to leave the past and future where they belong and enjoy the moments you have with your art.

When writing the block form we usually use only the bottom of the brush. Each stroke is written with a ‘stop-start-stop’ technique using more of a pushing than pulling motion. When we write thick lines we tend to use power, and thin lines are done with more finesse. Speed, pressure, angle, and movement of the hairs are important in this style as well as the semi-cursive style.

When writing in any cursive style it is important to use all sides of the brush. Wrist movement facilitates this, though some cursive styles do keep the brush vertical and use minimal wrist movement, especially when writing many characters with speed.

The semi-cursive style called gyosho is very popular because of its gorgeous flowing style. You will see some examples in a few minutes. There are also many subgenres, of which we will not have time to discuss today.  Most Japanese have no problem reading this script, unlike the full-cursive script sosho which proves much more difficult to decipher. When writing sosho the brush rarely leaves the paper, and the curvy flowing lines are made much simpler and more artistic. Variations abound as each artist tends to tweak their characters to their own liking. It is said that, “five colors exist in black ink”, meaning that the power of self-expression is boundless.



Though I have been classically trained and much of my work follows traditional guidelines, there are modern styles of writing which have developed and are still developing here in Japan that I also enjoy, commonly known as art shodo. Some may consider it a form of modern art, though most styles are still sure to include actual Chinese characters instead of just focusing on abstract line work. I adhere to the less avant garde philosophy and these days focus my modern works on a style of writing which utilizes all hairs of the brush and various stroke techniques in only one or a few characters.



The Japanese writing system of course has its roots in China. It is thought to have originated more than 3,500 years ago as a system of symbols carved into shell and bone which were used as a tool for divination.


One misconception is that many or all characters derive from pictograms. There are actually five methods used of which pictograms are a small minority, and the most common being the rebus principle.

One of the many evolutions of inscribed characters is their use in seal carving (sometimes decorative and other times used as a signature). It wasn’t long before language was being written with ink and brush, on materials such as bamboo, wood, and silk. By then many styles had already developed and many more were soon to come. The three most common styles used today in Japan are a block form, a semi-cursive form, and a full cursive form.

By the time calligraphy reached Japan around 600 A.D. some basic methods of writing had developed. Probably the most important being stroke order, which typically builds the character left to right and/or top to bottom.

The Japanese already had a well established vernacular by the time the Chinese language arrived via the Korean peninsula, but we had no written language. Thus, kanji was born, but it took a while to evolve into what it is today. One important manifestation is the two syllabic scripts called kana that developed possibly within just 100 years of Chinese character’s arrival.

Both kana scripts derived from kanji more than 1,000 years ago. There are 45 basic characters in both hiragana and katanana. The alphabet we use for foreign words is called katakana and it is written in the block form with a harder brush. All other words (or word parts) which are not foreign or written with Chinese characters, we call hiragana and write in semi or full cursive form with a softer brush.

Today we use 3 writing systems that we mix all together. That makes learning the language a bit confusing as you may imagine. I should also mention that the unlike our kana system, many kanji have multiple reading based on both Chinese and Japanese pronunciation.



Japanese calligraphy or shodo, which means, “the way of writing”, as you would guess requires only a few tools: brush (fude), ink (sumi), and paper (hanshi) or similar variations. There are also other important implements such as the ink stone (suzuri) which is used to mix and hold the ink, a paper weight (bunchin), a piece of fabric which is placed under the paper, and even a brush rest (fudeoki).



Calligraphy brushes are typically made from a wooden or bamboo handle and animal hair such sheep, wolf, weasel, horse, etc. There are also more novel materials used such and horn, ivory or gold, and various rare types of feather and hair such as peacock, elephant ear hair, giraffe eyelash and so on. We have an interesting tradition in Japan of sometimes making a brush from our children’s hair after their very first haircut.

The best brushes in Japan usually come from a place called Kumano, near Hiroshima.  Sizes range from very small to very large and of varying lengths. Most people tend to practice with small or medium size brushes because of the space and costs involved with using very large brushes. There is also very little practical use, such as letter writing, but I still use mine every chance I get.

Like with any artisan and their tool we can say; a good calligrapher with a bad brush will make nice work. And likewise a bad calligrapher with a good brush will make not very nice work. But having a well made brush of the finest hair is essential for a professional calligrapher. And the same can be said for ink.

If we are to say that brushes are words, then we can call ink the voice, or at least the tone in which our words are expressed. Ink adds a very subtle yet very profound dimension to a calligraphers work and allows them to preserve their voice in endless ways.



India ink was in fact first made in China more than 2,000 years ago. It is made by burning different types of materials such as wood (usually pine) and/or oils such as rapeseed and soybean. The soot is then harvested, mixed with a binder like animal fat, thoroughly kneaded, and placed into a form where it is slowly dried and hardened. What is left is a block or “ink stick” which is rubbed against an ink stone with a small amount of water to create liquid ink in a variety of shades and densities.

There are many colors at the calligrapher’s disposal, but black is the hands down favorite due to its contrast and powerfully profound presence on the paper. Cooler variants are usually blackish with tints or blue, purple, etc. but teachers will use cinnabar ink to correct a student’s work.



Paper is indeed the third necessity for the artist. One of the four great inventions of China, paper has been around since at least the time of ink and became an invaluable alternative for silk. It can be made from mulberry, rice, bamboo, hemp, and even wheat. Unique to Japan is washi, a special type of paper used for writing and many other things. Though a myriad of colors are available, white or off white are usually preferred.

Paper comes in assorted textures and thicknesses which are useful in not only creating normal works, but also scrolls, lanterns, and even doors. Give a calligrapher the chance and they will write on just about anything!



Seal carving is an art form in its own right and many serious calligraphers are proficient in it. Stones are usually of the soft variety, while tusk, horn, wood, etc. are of a hard makeup. The material is first sanded, then written on with the artist’s name (usually in the tensho style) and carved with a metal engraving tool. The seal is not only a symbol of an artist’s identity but also an aesthetic addition carefully chosen and placed on the work so as to best enhance it.



At the moment calligraphy in Japan is still taking on new forms and shows promise this it will continue to do so for centuries to come. Being that it is an inherently inward and expressive art form, it allows the artist to push the art in whichever direction deemed fit. Like any