Shodo - Japanese Calligraphy -
by Shuntaro Okimoto
I know that both Americans and Japanese like to spend their holidays being lively with their families and friends, but this year everyone had to spend their time quietly at home. How did you spend your time? I watched lots of classic Christmas animations and movies (Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “Home Alone,” etc.) with my daughters. They ate candy canes, opened advent calendars, decorated gingerbread men, and made cookies with my wife. I was able to read many books I wanted read.
In this way we enjoyed our holidays in America, but we also did some traditional Japanese activities. One of those was “Shodo” (Japanese calligraphy), which I’ll introduce in this article. The other was cooking Osechi (traditional New Year Japanese food). If you are interested, you can read my article on Osechi in the JITTI Journal (January 2020 edition).
The author's daughter writing the kanji for New Year (Shougatsu).
A long time ago, Japanese people had a habit of doing Shodo around January 2nd. Shodo done during the New Year holidays is called “Kakizome” (New Year’s writing). Besides some people that still do it as a symbol of the start of the year's activities, most children in elementary schools do it at school at the beginning of the New Year. If you are interested in Japan and Japanese culture, I recommend you to try Shodo at least once, because when you travel to Japan you will find an abundance of Shodo works of art in many places, such as temples, museums, and hotels. Once you have had an experience doing Shodo, you will likely be able to have a greater feel and taste from the works you encounter.
Shodo is, in a sense, a simple art of writing your favorite words using your favorite letters. In Japan, we usually write using Japanese characters (Kanji or Hiragana), but if you want to write using the English alphabet, I think that's fine.
However, I would highly recommend using a brush and India ink, not a pen or a pencil, although there is one type of Shodo writing that uses these more modern writing utensils. You gently slide the tip of the brush soaked in ink onto the paper. Tools, including special paper, can easily be bought online by searching for a “Shodo calligraphy set.” The brush is a bundle of about an inch of animal hair (maybe a little bigger than the brushes that are used for painting). You can write one character with different expressions depending on how strongly the brush is pressed and by the type of brush movement. Shodo is a full-fledged artform, but may be easier to attempt than painting in the sense that the letters that are drawn have shapes that are functionally fixed.
Pictured are the tools used for Shodo. The standing bottle holds the ink, and the smaller brush is used to
sign your work.
Earlier this year, I held a brush in my hand and faced a piece of white paper. I can't write letters well while thinking about other things, and had to concentrate solely on the calligraphy. It was very pleasant for me to concentrate on drawing the lines I imagined. I recommend Shodo to you as an activity during the stay-at-home period. You can quietly face your inner self in your own home. Otherwise, perhaps the exotic scent of ink may make you feel like you are traveling to Asia.