Japanese Calligraphy: Art, Symbols & History

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Did you know that writing can also be an art form? In Japan, it is. In this lesson, learn about the art and history of Japanese calligraphy and get an introduction to its distinctive symbols.

What is Japanese Calligraphy?

Japanese calligraphy, also known as shodo, is the art of writing by hand to create letters or symbols using a brush dipped in ink. It's a beautiful art form as well as a means of communication. The ability to do calligraphy is a skill passed from one generation to the next, and it requires a lot of training.

In shodo, the emphasis is on the beauty and balance of the writing. Flowing brush strokes are important, just as they are in painting. True Japanese calligraphy is done with a bamboo brush and sumi ink. Sumi ink is made from the soot of pine trees or other vegetable sources. Materials are mixed together to produce a substance with a velvet texture and deep color. Traditionally, the substance is then dried and made into thin sticks. When an artist wants to use the ink, they rub it against a stone that has a smooth, flat surface. The process creates a fine powder to which they add water and mix well. The resulting ink is a deep jet black.

Symbols in Japanese Calligraphy

The symbols or characters created in calligraphy are known as kana and kanji. They are drawn with a series of vertical, horizontal, and angled brushstrokes, and each symbol or character is unique. Kana are symbols that represent syllables, and they don't have specific meanings. Kanji are more complex. There are more than 10,000 of them, each with a specific meaning. There are symbols for words or ideas, like luck, peace, and happiness, and for things, like dog, horse, fire, and volcano. Here's an image of the kanji for 'book' or 'writing.'

Japanese kanji that means book or writing
kanji for book or writing

To create this character, you have to make sure that the length, height, and specific direction of each stroke is correct. Think about how challenging it must be to learn each different symbol, and then remember how many different ones there are. With so many, you can understand why it's a complicated art to master.

A Brief History of Japanese Calligraphy

Japanese calligraphy developed out of Chinese writing and symbols around 2000 years ago. At that time, Japan did not yet have a written form of language, so people began adapting characters from Chinese writing into Japanese forms and symbols. This process was gradual, and it continued from the 5th to the 8th century. What were the results of such a long development? Well, many changes were made to the Chinese symbols over time, and it took a long time to develop a unique Japanese written language. One of the main differences between the two languages is the combination of kana and kanji, which is not found in Chinese calligraphy.

From the 8th through the 14th centuries, people continued to adapt Chinese symbols into Japanese kanji, but other artists began developing uniquely Japanese forms. Important artists and calligraphers like Ono no Michikaze (894-966) began creating what are regarded as the first truly Japanese calligraphic forms. Here's an example of his work.

Example of calligraphy by Ono no Michikaze
calligraphy by Ono no Michikaze

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