History of Japanese
Calligraphy - Part 3

“Do no evil, do good” (諸悪莫作衆善奉行), calligraphy by Ikkyuu Soujun, bokuseki, Muromachi period, 15th century C.E., Daitokuji Temple, Kyoto.

Today, the Japanese language has three writing systems: kanji, hiragana and katakana (片仮名). Both katakana and hiragana are syllabaries, not alphabets, as they carry no semantic meanings. Hiragana is based on simplified cursive forms of kanji (simplified sousho), and katakana on kanji compounds in their standard form. Hiragana has replaced troublesome manyougana with much simpler and fewer forms, although both writing systems are still used (together) in the highly artistic art of Japanese calligraphy, namely kana.

During the Kamakura period (鎌倉時代, 1185–1333), the art of writing is further strongly influenced by the philosophy of Buddhism, and especially Zen Buddhism. The first school of Zen Buddhism on Japanese soil was Rinsai (臨剤) founded in the 12th century, and it still exists till today throughout Japan in its numerous branches. Its influence over the military and culture was remarkable, and also extended to calligraphy.

Zen calligraphy is called bokuseki (墨蹟, lit. “traces of ink”) and it is rather liberal in form and follows extremely loose rules, if any at all. In fact it is not for the rules to decide the final shape of the characters and definition of space. Zen monks (usually) are not professional calligraphers, at least not all of them, thus their writing is unrestrained. Zen calligraphy is to be written with the entire body, while standing, by engaging “void mind” and pure emotion, through visualizing whatever the subject of the given calligraphy is.

 “Sea” (海), calligraphy by Natsume Nobuko (夏目暢子), avant-gard calligraphy, 20th century.

Zen sho is extremely abstract and because of its deviation from strict rules it is also rather difficult for the orthodox calligraphers to fully appreciate it. Nonetheless it is fascinating and very spiritual. Modern calligraphy of the 20th century, that draws heavily from western abstract schools of painting, is somewhat related in its appearance and general concept to bokuseki. One of the differences is that bokuseki is based on karayoushodou (Chinese calligraphy styles) while avant-garde sho draws heavily from wayoushodou aesthetics.

Until the Edo period (江戸時代, 1603-1868) both schools; wayoushodou and karayoushodou coexisted quite harmoniously, but in the early 17th century Japan enters a long period of cultural isolation. During those years a new style based on wayoushodou was created, known as oie ryuu (御家流, lit. “noble family style”). It was also called the “samurai family style”, and was pursued in famous Terakoya school (寺子屋), offering education to children born to middle class families. Reading and writing were the main, although not the only, subjects taught. Students learned by imitating teachers writing, presented to them on tehon (手本, a copy book). This is a method still followed in Japan today in regards to novices.


Continue to Japanese Calligraphy History - Part 4

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