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Peace Via the Strokes of the Shodo Brush

Inkyo Sensei demonstrating the free form of contemporary
calligraphy with a brush made from sheep’s hair, one of the softest types.

Students exchanged choruses of “Konnichiwa!” and “Ogenki desuka?” as they filed into the shodo or Japanese calligraphy class at Japan Society.  This class is led by calligrapher Masako Inkyo, who began her training at three years old.

Inkyo Sensei describes the four “treasures” of shodo as the brush, ink, paper and inkstone.  Shodo came from Buddhism and started as a kind of basic writing, but now it is viewed as one of the several Japanese art forms that end with “do” or “path.”  Others include sado (tea ceremony), budo (martial arts) and kado (flower arrangement), and like them shodo is often viewed as a type of meditation.  Inkyo Sensei believes that it serves this purpose for her students, as her hour and a half class is a place where their hearts can find peace.

Inkyo Sensei often takes a hand-on approach with her class.
Here she helps a student get a hold of the strokes.

One might wonder whether you have to know how to read and write Japanese in order to study shodo, but this is not the case.  The sensei will write samples for the students that they imitate over and over until they finally achieve success.  In Japan this “learn by watching” style of shodo is common, but Inkyo Sensei finds that her non-Japanese students often want more explanation as to why a stroke is a certain way or what it actually means.  She says, “For shodo the two things students must understand is that unlike oil painting you don’t retrace strokes, and that stroke order matters.  But more than anything else what it is important is becoming one with the brush.”

There are several shodo styles ranging from the standard script kaisho, the most common modern writing style, to the syllabic Japanese script of kana.  In between are gyosho, a semi-cursive script style, and sosho, a “grass script” style that is written at a faster pace and can be hard to read.  Depending on what kind of strokes you are incorporating, the type and thickness of the brush you use differs.  Brushes can be made from the hair of animals such as horses, goats and sheep, and they vary in length, thickness, and softness.  For example, in order to produce fine kana strokes a thinner brush would be used.

However, even when using the same brush you can produce variations in the result.  It depends on factors such as where and how much ink you put on the brush, and whether you dilute it with water.  These may seem like small changes, but they have a large effect.  More ink can create nijimi or running and less can create kasure or fading.  By employing water, the black ink can be made grey or have other gradations.   These techniques enable people working from the same sample to produce totally different finished products.

The syllabic Japanese script of kana is a shodo style
that is carried out with the thinnest type of brush,
as demonstrated here by Inkyo Sensei.

All Japanese schoolchildren grow up learning shodo in elementary school in order to be able to write characters nicely (much as learning script might be for American students).  This is traditional shodo, but for her class Inkyo Sensei often highlights the contemporary version.  As opposed to traditional, it is appreciated as art and has developed as such from its basic beginnings.  She encourages students to use contemporary shodo as a form of expression for intangible things.  For her own works Inkyo Sensei describes her primary inspiration as nature, “not necessarily objects and images, but feeling and moods.”

Around the room students were producing works as varied as Japanese poetry and Buddhist sutras, and their straight postures revealed intense concentration.  They were indeed “one with the brush,” and likely reaching a place of peace with each stroke.

—— Reported by Stacy Smith

Japan Society Toyota Language Center
The Toyota Language Center offers 12 comprehensive levels of Japanese, as well as a variety of specialized courses and workshops including shodo. To introduce various techniques of shodo, two shodo workshops are currently offered, weekday and weekend classes.

333 E. 47th St. (bet. 1st & 2nd Aves.)
New York, NY 10017
TEL: 212-715-1256