The SOAS Japan Society kindly invited me along to one of their (many) events last Saturday, a Japanese calligraphy workshop with esteemed calligrapher, Taki Kodaira. In the Oriental and African Studies building, ten of us sat cluelessly curious, inspecting the large brushes and square inkpots before us. Within moments I had jet black ink splodges on my fingers.
Taki Kodaira started her lesson by explaining her own background. She first started calligraphy with her sister at the age of 9. Since then she has followed her passion and honed her art, which took her to China, where calligraphy originated.
She then gave us some essential background information. Calligraphy traces back to the 28th century BC when kanji was first developed in China. As ink and brush had not yet been invented, the characters were inscribed onto bone and tortoise shells. Japan adopted it in 600 AD and their calligraphy is called Shodō. The suffix, “dō”, means “way”. Judō, Kendō, Aikidō are but a few examples of other doctrines, philosophies, or ways, that when practiced diligently, enhance the body and spirit. Kanji characters have undergone huge developments since their initial incarnation, but similarities can be seen between a character’s original form and its current one, over 4,000 years later.
Taki Kodaira explained that there are four main tools in Shodō: the fude, the sumi, the washi, and the suzuri. These are known as “the four treasures of the study”.
- Fude: this is the brush. Its stick is made from bamboo and its hairs are from animals (horse, goat, or weasel).
- Sumi: This is an inkstick. It’s a solid block of ink that when combined with water and ground against an inkstone, produces ink.
- Washi: This literally means “Japanese paper”. It is produced local to Japan and used in other traditional art forms such as origami. It tends to be slightly thicker than average paper.
- Suzuri: This is the inkwell. You either rub the sumi against it with water to make ink or pour liquid ink into it. Traditionally, they are carved out of slate from ancient quarries, but we used plastic ones.
After our brief history lesson, we finally got down to some writing. We were asked to copy the kanji for “snow”, or “yuki” in Japanese, in whatever way we wanted. It was fair to say nobody’s first try was very good. When Taki saw mine, she said “Omoshiroi!”, and laughed. I wasn’t sure if my work being interesting to her was a compliment or a criticism. I later found out that it was criticism when she jokingly used it as an example for the class; I had done one of the sections far too small. Still, I was happy to have done something so radically wrong to afford that reaction.
She called us back around her table and showed us some key techniques, all the while switching between Japanese, English, and Italian (she is now based in Rome, Italy). Once we had grasped a few of the brush methods, she told us that breath and posture are equally as important to maintain. The back must stay straight and the hand that is not writing must remain on the table, not lazily on your lap or in your pocket.
She pointed out the continuity of each marking in “spring”, or “haru” in Japanese. Using the example of two juxtaposed curved lines that are said to be brothers, she explained that they are drawn in one breath and that you know “inside of yourself” the invisible line that connects the two, even though the lines appear to be separate on the paper. Once you notice the subtle flicks that extend from the end of the lines, it becomes possible to trace the movement of the brush and the “chi” while it was being drawn. I later utilised this breathing technique and inner visualisation and found a dramatic improvement, which drew me further into its long legacy as a mystical art, or dō.
Once we had started on haru, after learning these philosophies and techniques, I looked around the room. Everybody’s work had gone from childish scrawls to obvious attempts at calligraphy. Whilst enjoying this new art form, me and the other person on my table talked about our experiences in Japan and shared our opinions on this way of writing that was new to us both. Taki walked around and gave each person advice on their work, gasping with horror once again as she saw me combine stroke 6 with stroke 9, warmly reminding me that there is a stroke order clearly numbered on the handout. Oops.
For our final task, she asked us to pick our favourite word. Somebody’s kanji was a lengthy four-character piece, which I dreaded my word would be as well. Luckily “poetry”, or “shi” in Japanese, didn’t come out too tough and it included a nice swiping brushstroke, which I looked forward to trying out. After a few attempts, I picked my favourite shi and wrote my name in katakana down the side.
Taki Kodaira then placed a unique orange mark on the corner of everyone’s work with a stamp she had carved from wood in China that reads “en”. It is difficult to translate, but I will try to rewrite her definition, “Yesterday, I didn’t know you. Now, for this short time, we meet. I hope that we can meet again.”
Proud of her teaching ability and the fast acceleration of her student’s skills, Taki and the class posed for a group photo. I felt like a little kid on parent’s evening holding up my work for the camera with an awkwardly proud smile.
Once the two-hour session had ended (much quicker than I’d hoped), I had a few questions that I wanted to ask Taki, before I packed up my work and headed over to the Japanese tea ceremony, the second SOAS Japan Society event that evening.
What made you want to become a calligrapher?
I started when I was 9-years-old. Every Sunday me, my sister and some friends would go to a small private calligraphy school. We would practice writing and I found it very interesting.
Is calligraphy still a common practice in Japan?
Of course! It’s very common. Children, adults, everyone practices calligraphy.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out?
This is a very difficult question. If I was talking to a child, I would say that it’s more important to enjoy it. Don’t think too much about technique or too much about that sort of thing. Have fun.