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Shodo means "The Way of Calligraphy (Sho)."Shodo is Japanese calligraphy written with sumi (ink) and a brush, usually but not always, on paper using Chinese and/or Japanese characters. A piece of shodo can consist of just a single character, a few, or even hundreds, there is no set number. The writing can be either the whole or part of a poem, a saying or idiom, or a comment on something done, seen or felt.

There are really no restrictions on what can be written, however purpose of the piece is usually to inspire, encourage, uplift or commemorate an event. Although longing, nostalgia and even a certain amount of sadness can be expressed, the overall feeling should not be negative. Traditionally shodo was found in temples, shrines and in the tokonoma (alcove used to display art and treasured possessions) of houses. Today shodo can be found everywhere. In western-style houses it is displayed in the same way as images, posters and photographs are.

Shodo is also common in the reception areas of companies, in restaurants, hotels, etc. The piece may be chosen for a particular reason, i.e. to bring luck, prosperity, longevity, success, or simply because it looks good and is the right size. Frequently there is a seasonal element in a piece of shodo, and in Japan the shodo on display is changed according to the season or event.

The art of shodo originated in China and came to Japan in the sixth or seventh century, along with methods for making brushes, ink, and paper. In those days, calligraphy was an essential part of the education of members of the ruling noble families. But as time went by, the art spread among the common people as well. Today Shodo is one of many Japanese cultural arts (as are kado, or flower arrangement; chado, or tea ceremony; and budo, the martial arts).

Calligraphy began to filter into Japan during the seventh century A.D. Buddhism from India had travelled via China and was making many converts in Japan, including the Emperors. Buddhist scriptures were recorded in Chinese writing. This was produced by priests and was aesthetically very pleasing. The most famous Japanese calligrapher was probably the Buddhist monk Kukai. One story records how the Emperor Tokusokutei asked him to rewrite a section of a badly damaged five panelled screen.

Kukai is said to have picked up a brush in each hand, gripped one between the toes of each foot, placed another between his teeth, and immediately written five columns of verse simultaneously! In those days, calligraphy was an essential part of the education of members of the ruling noble families. But as time went by, the art spread among the common people as well. Nowadays calligraphy is not just an art form to be admired: people use it to write New Year's cards, and in other situations in their daily lives.


There are five basic scripts in Japanese calligraphy: tensho (seal style), reisho (scribe's style), kaisho (block style), gyosho (semi-cursive style), sosho (cursive style, literally "grass writing"). The five basic Chinese scripts are: Zhuan-shu (seal style), oi-shu (scribe's style), Kai-shu (block style), xing-shu (semi-cursive style), cao-shi (cursive style).

These had all appeared before the end of the fourth century. In addition to these the Japanese developed the kana characters during the eighth century, characters that express sounds in contrast to characters used ideographically. Three types of kana have been developed, manyogana, hiragana, and katakana. The manyogana are certain Chinese characters (kanji) used phonetically to represent the syllables of Japanese, and are named after the eighth century poetry collection Manyoshu.

At the time this collection was compiled the Japanese had no writing system of their own. Some of the Japanese poems were rendered in Chinese characters used phonetically, and in others the Chinese characters were used sometimes phonetically and sometimes ideographically. Out of this, by way of drastic simplification, came hiragana and katakana. In the hands of Japanese noblewomen, hiragana developed into a beautiful script which is the unique calligraphic style of Japan.


The following diagram shows the basic materials needed in shodo:

All Japanese cultural arts have a strong interrelationship, and require/utilize very similar characteristics, i.e. hara, ki, fudoshin, . As stated by Eri Takase, " ...with the calligraphy brush, as with the sword, one cannot escape from the effects of indecisiveness and hesitation. One cannot start over. One cannot change what has already been done. With calligraphy as with the tea ceremony as with the Martial Arts, all movements are visible and an integral part of the art. The speed with which the line is drawn. The pause. The fluidity of one movement into the next. A powerful line. A gentle line. All visible. All an integral part of the art".

So what makes good calligraphy? Quite simply good calligraphy is a piece that has been kept by the artist and appreciated by someone else. Most calligraphy is destroyed, and an artist can spend weeks trying to get something that he thinks is good enough not to be used for lighting the fire. Some of my best pieces have been done when I've been tired, cold and hungry and so angry with my clumsiness that I have vowed never to pick up a brush again.

Other times I can do four or five good pieces in a day. So, if it has survived the first test and not been thrown away, then bought by someone else because they like it, I think it is fair to say that it is a good piece. A great piece is one that though you may see it many times and admire it, there are still times when you just stop and have another long look at the black and the spaces in between the strokes, because the spaces are as important as the strokes.

Calligraphy is an art of the moment that lasts a millennium. Each piece is unique and can never be recreated. After the summer tea ceremony mentioned above I did many more Kage, but no two were the same, and the colour of the ink was always different too. The amount of ink on the brush, the colour of the ink, the condition of the brush and the pressure and speed of the brush strokes; the paper; and most of all the spaces between the strokes. Over time the piece changes, the paper changes colour, many people do not like new paper, but prefer yellowed or weathered paper.

A frame or scroll can enhance the beauty of the piece. The position in a room, and the lighting can be used to further emphasise the meaning of the piece. But westerners should not be put off if they like something, but don't understand or can't read it. Never buy a piece simply for the meaning, only buy a piece because you liked the look of it first, then you will not be making a mistake, you will truly like it.

Fragility. Shodo is done with a brush full of ink on very thin, often handmade paper. Often the paper will be uneven and there will be fibres of various sorts that cause the ink to bleed. All this adds to the beauty of the piece, but unfortunately this also makes the piece even more fragile. So when you first get your unframed piece of flimsy shodo you should protect it in some way as soon as possible. The easiest way is to have it framed, but do remember to handle the piece carefully. Only once it is truly protected can you really get down to admiring what you have.


These days, most Japanese use pencils, ballpoints, or felt-tip pens to write letters and other documents. But the art of shodo (calligraphy), where an ink-dipped brush is used artistically to create Chinese kanji and Japanese kana characters, remains a traditional part of Japan's culture. Works of calligraphy are admired for the accurate composition of their characters, of course, but also for the way the brush is handled in their creation, the shading of the ink, and the balanced placement of the characters on the paper.

Beginning in elementary school, students learn the basics of calligraphy in penmanship classes. At the beginning of each calendar year the children gather to take part in an activity known as kakizome, where they create calligraphic works symbolizing their wishes for the new year. Students practice their penmanship to improve their calligraphy, sometimes copying out works by famous calligraphers from the past. Some elementary and middle school students even go to special schools to learn the art, attending classes in the evenings and on the weekends to become able to write beautiful characters.

Different types of calligraphy include kaisho, or "square style," where the strokes in the characters are precisely drawn in a printed manner; gyosho, or "semicursive," which is written faster and more loosely; and sosho, or "cursive," a much freer, more fluid method where the characters' strokes can bend and curve. A wide variety of paper can also be used for shodo. In one kind of calligraphy called chirashi-gaki, for example, a traditional 31-syllable Japanese poem (called a waka) is written on a square piece of paper. The writer can begin the lines of the poem at different levels on the paper to portray the rhythm of the verse, or write in darker and lighter shades of ink to give a sense of depth to the words, making the work look almost like a landscape painting.