Culture Day at the Toronto Japanese Language School Shodo (書道) on February 16, 2013. Today all the students participated in a special Cultural Day program. Every year the school presents an activity that introduces a different aspect of Japanese life, and this year it was calligraphy, the traditional way of writing Japanese using a brush and ink.
We go to the school auditorium where work tables have been laid out with a place for each of us, a brush and dish of ink to one side, a stack of beautiful cream-coloured paper to the left, and directly before us a special practice paper marked out in large squares.
Our sensei is Fumiko Uenaka, an experienced calligraphy teacher who lives in Toronto. She explains the origin of kanji, the Chinese characters used in Japanese, and shows us examples of several different forms of the characters that were developed nearly two thousand years ago and still used today. We are going to learn to write the character for “eternal” in the kaisho script, the style most commonly used today.
Kaisho is sometimes described as the printed or square style because each stroke is separate, rather than flowing together as in more cursive scripts, and the character occupies a space that is roughly square. The squared practice paper before us is meant to help us place the lines in the correct relationship to one another so that the character looks balanced. Calligraphy teachers often choose “eternal” for beginners to learn because this character contains all the basic brush movements needed to write kanji with a brush.
Uenaka sensei shows us how to hold the brush and use our whole arm rather than just our fingers to control the line. We dip our brushes and begin with the first stroke, the central spine of the character, drawn from top to bottom. It is not as easy as it seems! Concentration and focus are important to get a strong, accurate line. There is no chance to correct mistakes, as the ink is instantly absorbed by the soft paper. Fortunately, we have enough paper to try again…and again.
As a writing instrument, the brush is very different from a pen or pencil. A slight change in pressure or a twist of the brush changes the thickness or blackness of the line, giving the character a completely different feeling. This is why many people believe that calligraphy reveals the personality and spirit of the calligrapher. In both China and Japan, where it has been practiced for hundreds of years by artists, poets, and scholars, calligraphy has always been regarded as one of the highest forms of art, combining literature and visual art in one form.
Today we have taken one small step toward appreciating the beauty of the scrolls we see hanging in traditional Japanese buildings in movies and books: we now know how to write “eternal”.