Japanese Calligraphy - History, Techniques, Tools, and Tattoo Designs

All around the world, calligraphy is known to be an artistic way of writing. A lot of children are exposed to this form of art at an early age, usually during elementary school, while some adults treat it as a hobby. Japanese calligraphy sets itself apart from those of other countries through its strict set of techniques, styles, and tools.

History of Japanese Calligraphy (Shodo)

Like many of Japan’s other forms of art, Japanese calligraphy (also known as shodo) has Chinese origins. From the 1st century when items from China started making their way to Japan all the way up to the Edo Period when Japan experienced strict social order, economic growth, and a growing appreciation for arts and culture, the Japanese writing system evolved accordingly:

Chinese Origins

The Chinese writing system developed and matured significantly earlier than Japan’s. In fact, Japanese calligraphy dates back to the 28th century BC when the people of China inscribed pictographs on bones for religious reasons.

Eventually, this form of writing became much more common in China and soon reached the local administration. The writing system, which initially lacked a sense of uniformity, was standardized by the prime minister of the Qin Dynasty, Li Si.

The form of script he endorsed consisted of uniformly sized squares, in which all Chinese characters could be written using eight strokes. A corresponding set of rules accompanied this system which required characters to be written from top to bottom then left to right. Furthermore, horizontal strokes had to be written first for the composition of each character.

Originally, Li Si’s sanctioned calligraphy made use of sharp instruments which led to angular script styles. However, when the country started using ink and brush, most of Li Si’s developments, excluding the block form and use of eight strokes, became obsolete.

Through the use of the ink-wet brush, writers could create more fluid motions which consisted of curved lines of varied thicknesses. This allowed more freedom in terms of aesthetics, which were significantly more balanced and pleasing to the eye. In addition, the style and way of writing a character added to the message being conveyed.

Asuka Period and Nara Period

By 日本語: 尾上八郎 English: Hachiro Onoue [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Upon the arrival of various artifacts that featured Chinese calligraphy, the development of Japan’s own writing system began. By this time, the Chinese writing system was already well-developed. It had about fifty thousand kanji (the Japanese term for Han China characters), five calligraphy styles, and various sub-styles.

Copying Buddhist texts and sutras was a common practice during these periods. This activity, known as shakyo, greatly showed the fascination and appreciation the Japanese community had for the culture of China. Accordingly, the Japanese calligraphy at the time was greatly influenced by Chinese writing styles from the Jin and Tang dynasties, which were collectively referred to as karayo (Chinese style).

Shotoku Taishi, a Japanese prince, was among the great admirers of Buddhism. He actively promoted the philosophies of the religion by building several temples and strengthening the popularity of shakyo, which subsequently led to the further development of Japanese calligraphy.

The style of Wang Xizhi, the esteemed calligrapher of China’s Emperor Taizong, was among the dominant Chinese influences that Japanese calligraphy was based on. A lot of texts and documents carried similar styles all throughout the Asuka and Nara Periods.

Some notable works include the Hokke Gisho, which consists of four volumes of bibliographic notes about the Lotus Sutra and the Kongo Jodaranikyo, a hand-copied sutra done by a Japanese priest named Horin which resembled the work of Ouyang Xun, one of the Early Tang Dynasty’s Four Great Calligraphers.

Heian Period

Not a lot of changes were done in the heavily Chinese-influenced calligraphy of Japan during the early years of the Heian Period – the period considered to be the golden age of Japan. A lot of aristocrats and royalty practiced calligraphy through the act of artistically copying Chinese poems and texts.

Written documents by the two famous Japanese Buddhist monks Kukai and Saicho show that Wang Xizhi’s calligraphy style continued to prevail. Yan Zhenqing and Ouyang Xun, two other Chinese calligraphers, also gained recognition for their writing technique and were greatly admired by Tachibana no Hayanari and Emperor Saga, respectively.

As previously mentioned, Japan had been making use of kanji characters, which were basically borrowed Chinese characters. For this reason, Japanese calligraphy failed to set itself apart from that of China. Significant changes only came about when the kana syllabary came into existence.

This syllabic alphabet was developed during the later years of the Heian Period when writing had become increasingly popular. Through kana, certain pronunciations that could not be achieved through kanji were made possible and a new calligraphy style emerged.

The oldest document considered to be the first to have featured the distinct Japanese calligraphy is a short poem known as Kara-ai no hana no utagire. This text fragment made use of manyogana, the very first kana system that was developed to phonetically represent the Japanese language.

Soon after, wayo-shodo, the first authentic style of Japanese calligraphy, was established by Ono no Michikaze, a renowned Japanese calligrapher who was one of the sanseki (Three Bruch Traces). This momentous development resonated throughout Japan and was used by Emperor Saga for his poem entitled koku Saicho shounin.

Ono no Michikaze’s style showed an innate sense of power that was easy to embrace and appreciate. His notable talent led him to be accepted at the imperial quarters by the age of 27. The two other calligraphers, Fujiwara no Yukinari and Fujiwara no Sukemasa, that made up the sanseki mainly contributed to the further development of Ono no Michikaze’s work.

Kamakura and Muromachi Period

Japanese calligraphy continued to evolve throughout the centuries and was greatly influenced by Buddhist philosophies during the Kamakura and Muromachi periods. Zen Buddhism, in particular, made remarkable advances in Japan.

Bokuseki, or Zen calligraphy, which literally translates to mean “ink traces” was one of the most notable styles developed at the time. This art form was considered to be quite liberal and followed a loose set of rules.

Given that most Zen monks were not considered to be professional calligraphers, their writing styles had no limits. Interestingly, bokuseki was practiced by monks as a form of meditation which required them to empty their minds and let their emotions flow. Using their bodies as brushes, they created whatever their hearts wanted to.

However, the roots of bokuseki actually go back to a Chinese calligraphy style known as karayo-shodo. Up until the Edo Period, wayo-shodo and karayo-shodo existed in harmony together. When Japan culturally isolated itself during the 17th century, a new style known as oie ryu was developed using wayo-shodo as a basis.

This style was referred to as the samurai family style and was taught at Terakoya schools. These institutions were focused on educating children from middle-class families primarily about reading and writing.

Edo Period

By 日本語: 本阿弥光悦 English: Honami Kōetsu (日本語: 投稿者撮影 English: my photo) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Come the Edo Period, a peculiar setoff calligraphy styles known as edo moji came to life. The majority of these were developed with aesthetics in mind and were mainly used for writing store banners, sumo wrestlers names and the like. At present, many calligraphers consider these styles to be expressions of art, given their lack of similarities with the traditional method of writing kanji and kana.

When the Edo Period ended and Japan opened itself to foreign influences once more, karayo styles were once again highly appreciated by many calligraphers. Using basic and ancient Chinese writing techniques known as caoshu, xingshu, kaishu, lishu, and zhuanshu, the modern Japanese calligraphy was formed.

Japanese Calligraphy Techniques

From the previously stated principles and techniques of Chinese calligraphy, the following Japanese calligraphy styles were developed:

Kaisho (based on kaishu)

Kaisho refers to regular script or block style writing. This style is often the first one taught to beginners and is considered to be a formal calligraphy technique when writing kanji.

Gyosho (based on xingshu)

Gyosho, which literally means “moving style” is the second technique taught after kaisho. Kanji characters that are written using this style should carry a sense of fluidity, continuity, and motion. Compared to kaisho, gyosho allows the writer more freedom to alter strokes, shapes, and compositions according to his own style. As such, it is considered to be the most popular form of Japanese calligraphy.

Sosho (based on caoshu)

The term “so” translates to mean grass in English. In line with this, texts that are written using sosho, or cursive style, are best described to showcase a sense of grass being blown by the wind.

The two main features of this style are its cursive and simple nature. Complex kanji characters with up to ten strokes can be simplified to just have 1 or 2 strokes. As such, sosho is often used in painting or creating abstract art, given its illegible form of writing.

Although the concept may sound simple, sosho is actually the hardest style to master out of all Japanese calligraphy techniques. Without the right training and skill, attempting to write in sosho may result in a piece of work with no emotions or depth.

Tensho (based on zhuanshu)

Tensho is known as seal script and was developed by using the ancient Chinese calligraphy style, zhuanshu, which literally translates to mean “decorative engraving script”. This style can further be broken down into two categories called daiten and shoten which refer to large seal scripts and small seal scripts, respectively. As implied by its name, this technique is mostly used for writing seals.

Reisho (based on lishu)

Reisho, or clerical script, was developed after it became evident that tensho was an impractical writing technique in terms of legibility and efficiency. Characters that are written in this style feature a rectilinear composition. It shares similarities with kaisho but is generally wider and more square.

The Basic Japanese Calligraphy Set – Brush, Pen, Ink, Etc.

By Bin im Garten (Own work (own picture)) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Besides evolving in terms of style and technique, shodo has also come a long way with regards to the tools used for writing. Compared to ancient engraving tools that were relatively hard to use, modern Japanese calligraphy can now be done using four basic tools that offer more fluid motions:

  • Fude – which refers to the brush or pen

  • Sumi – which refers to the ink stick

  • Washi – which refers to the mulberry paper

  • Suzuri – which refers to the inkstone

Other calligraphy sets also include additional tools such as bunchin (a paper weight), shitajiki (a cloth placed under the washi to prevent bleeding), and in (an engraved seal often made by the writer himself).

The tools are prepared by pouring water into the suzuri and grinding the sumi against it. This process liquefies the dried ink but is often time-consuming. As such, bottles of liquid ink known as bokuju are sold in markets and often used by beginners. The washi paper is often placed on the table but may also be set on the floor or ground for larger compositions or performances.  

Fude brushes are available in different sizes and shapes, depending on the style and purpose of the calligrapher. The bristles of these brushes are often made from horse, fox, sheep, dog, or other animal hair, while the handle can be made using plastic, bamboo, or wood.

Things to Note When Using Japanese Calligraphy in Tattoo Art

Given the aesthetically pleasing characteristics of Japanese calligraphy, it is not surprising to find it in various tattoo designs. There are some things that should be noted before choosing to get a shodo tattoo, especially for those not familiar with the Japanese language:

Kanji characters have multiple meanings

A single kanji character can have up to twenty different meanings. The interpretation of these characters often relies on context. As such, getting a kanji tattoo, regardless of the style it is written in, may lead to an embarrassing mistake.

Putting together kanji characters may result in confusing phrases

The beauty of technology is that almost anything is available online. Researching the equivalent kanji characters of various concepts or things can easily be done with just a few clicks. However, putting together two characters to create a seemingly correct phrase may be a grave mistake.

For example, the characters 西 and 原, which respectively mean “wild” and “west”, serve as the Japanese equivalent of the surname “Wilson” or “Smith” when put together.

Amateur looking calligraphy

Japanese calligraphy and tattoo art both require a certain set of talent and skill. As such, tattoo artists without proper training in the field of shodo may not be able to produce characters in their correct writing form or style.

Using kanji characters that look like kana characters

Choosing to go for an artistic variation of Japanese characters as a solution may also be more problematic, as their exact meanings may change as well. For example, the kanji character for tree — 木 might end up looking like the kana character ホ, which carries no meaning on its own.

Getting a tattoo that makes use of a foreign language can be a bit of a hassle. Although it may be tempting to create a particular design based on suggestions from the internet, it is always best to ask for advice from native speakers.

Japanese Calligraphy Online Generators (Fonts, Alphabets, and Styles)

For those that want to create a basic Japanese phrase in various shodo styles for whatever purpose, there are plenty of online font generators available that offer free services. Some site worth checking out include:

  • Fudewaza (http://www.fudewaza.net/)

  • Tattoo Design – Japanese Tattoo Creator (http://www.tattoodesign.com/japanese_tattoo_creator/)

  • Takase.com (https://www.takase.com/)

  • Japanese Translator (http://japanesetranslator.co.uk/)

  • My Fonts (https://www.myfonts.com/)