Japanese Calligraphy

The art of writing, or calligraphy, as it is commonly known, is an ancient art form that originated in East Asia. Today, many of us are familiar with the calligraphy of Japan; therefore, this article intends on outlining the provenance of that particular artistic sect in addition to describing its idiosyncrasies.

Japanese calligraphy owes much of its existence to the Chinese. In the twenty-eight century BC, Chinese officials began to use pictographs as a means of record-keeping. Prior to this, the said characters were for religious purposes. As the need for a standardized method of archiving became apparent, Li Si, the prime minister during the Qin Dynasty, created a set of rules for calligraphic writing. The rules are as follows:

  • The script must be based on squares of uniform size and shape.
  • All characters must be able to be written from eight strokes.
  • Horizontal strokes are written first.
  • The script is to be written from left to right and top to bottom.

This system worked out fairly well, as the method for writing was largely based upon the ideal of scraping a sharp object against another, softer object in order to leave a mark. However, many of Li Si’s guidelines were ignored when paper, brush, and ink came into widespread use. While the block form and eight strokes method were retained, the writer was now able to express himself through the use of curves and graceful form. It was around this time that the Chinese brought paper, and the art of calligraphy, with them to Japan.

As time progressed, Japan refined the Chinese style into something that was uniquely their own. Few works from the early times of the art are still in existence; many were destroyed during the Tang Dynasty’s rule during the seventh century. However, some copies have survived; these include works by Wang Xizhi, a Chinese man who is referred to as the ‘Sage of Calligraphy’ because his bold style has had such a great influence on modern calligraphic technique.

Like many other arts, Japanese Calligraphy had its own so-called Golden Age; this is when a particular art form flourishes, and many advances are made in its methodology. From 794 to 1185, Japanese calligraphers vigorously worked to shed off the Chinese techniques, but Wang Xizhi’s remained the authoritative figure during the time. That is not to say that no progress was made, however, because the now traditional Japanese style of calligraphic writing emerged under the reign of one Emperor Saga. An ‘assistant’ of his said the following: “China is a large country and Japan is relatively small, so I suggest writing in a different way.” Before this time, Japanese calligraphers wrote in Chinese for the most part, which was not very convenient. Soon, this new style of writing was used for official record-keeping and became the primary writing style taught at calligraphy schools.

As the Golden Age came to a close, the Japanese government was largely taken over by a military regime. Despite this, the arts continued to flourish. New, much less rigid styles of writing developed, and calligraphy became appreciated as an art form by the masses. Two-hundred and fifty years of peace followed; this time is known as the Edo period. A policy developed in which the country isolated itself from outside influences; this allowed the previously conceived forms of calligraphy to mature into their own. During the middle of this time, the Japanese government relaxed the rules regarding isolation, and various forms of Japanese calligraphy were exported around the world, thus introducing the art to Western cultures.

Today, calligraphy is still a thriving art form. The basics of the art are taught in elementary schools, and students may continue with it if they choose upon reaching high school. Also, some universities offer programs in calligraphy so that the handicraft can continue on to future generations. All in all, calligraphy is a unique East Asian art with a relatively simple history. The art has and will continue to fascinate people from around the globe, and offers a rich view into the culture of traditional Japan.