History of Japanese
Calligraphy - Part 1

Hokke Gisho (法華義疏), Prince Shotoku's commentaries to Lotus Sutra, semi-cursive script, Asuka period, early 7th century C.E., Tokyo Imperial Household collection

The history of Japanese calligraphy begins with importing the Chinese writing system, namely kanji (漢字, which in Japanese means “characters of Han China”), in the early 5th century C.E., although Chinese characters were first appearing in Japan on various items brought from China starting with the beginning of the 1st century C.E.

At that point, the Chinese writing system was fully matured and developed. There were approximately 50 000 kanji in circulation, 5 major styles of calligraphy and numerous sub-styles.

Since Japanese linguistics and grammar are quite different from Chinese, the necessity of fitting a writing system to a completely new language raised a serious practical problem. Nonetheless, it has led to creating unique calligraphy styles that are exclusively used in Japan, such as Kana (かな).

During the Asuka (飛鳥時代, 538 - 710 C.E., although dates may vary based on different historical events being considered) and Nara (奈良時代, 710-794 C.E.) periods, copying Buddhist sutras was already a very popular practice, which greatly contributed to strengthening the appreciation and fascination with Chinese culture. At that time Japanese calligraphy was especially influenced by writing styles developed during Chinese Jin (晉朝, 265 - 420 C.E.) and Tang (唐朝, 618 – 907 C.E.) dynasties. This general trend was called karayou (唐様, lit. Tang style), which means “Chinese style”.
Kuukai’s “Letter carried by the wind” (風信帖), cursive script, Heian period, 9th century C.E., Toki Temple, Kyoto
One of the great admirers of Buddhist teachings was the Japanese prince Shotoku Taishi (聖徳太子,, 574–622), who promoted its philosophy, and also built several major temples. He was the one who strengthened the popularity of shakyou (写経, hand copying of sutras), that further led to the development of calligraphy in Japan.

At this point, Japanese sho (calligraphy) was still deeply influenced by Chinese masters like Wang Xizhi (王儀之, 303 – 361). A vast amount of works were based on his style, all the way until Heian period (平安時代, 794 - 1185 C.E.)

The 10th century was a time of significant change in Japanese calligraphy. It is when Ono No Michikaze (小野道風 894–966, who is also known as Ono no Toufuu) introduced a fresh approach and the first truly Japanese style, called wayoushodou (和様書道, lit. “Japanese style calligraphy”). This trend however, was originally brought into being earlier on by the famous Buddhist monk and outstanding calligrapher Kukai (空海, 774- 835), who gained the sacred Buddhist name “the great (Buddhist) teacher” (弘法大師, Koubou Daishi). At this point it became acceptable for Japanese literature and calligraphy to finally deviate from Chinese aesthetics.

Continue to Japanese Calligraphy History - Part 2

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