Traditional Japanese Calligraphy
by Master Japanese Calligrapher Eri Takase
Japanese Calligraphy is called
Shodo (shodou) and
encompasses a wide variety of forms - many can be seen elsewhere on this site.
Here we discuss traditional Japanese calligraphy as practiced in formal National
Japanese competitions. This calligraphy is based on Chinese verse which
uses couplets or quatrains of four, five, or seven syllables. Two examples are shown
in detail below. Keep in mind that these works measure
almost 90" high by 21" wide. That is 7.5 feet high!
For traditional work, and especially for national competitions, the calligrapher will normally design a work based on
part of a Chinese poem.
While Japanese calligraphy started with Chinese, today the Japanese calligrapher
is versed in Chinese Calligraphy as well as calligraphy that is unique to Japan
based on the kana invented in Japan around the 6th century.
|The item on the right shows the
original Chinese poem with a partial Japanese translation just to its left. In red are the notations made by the artist. These
notations can represent a number of things. Often times the Chinese characters used in
these poems are not used in modern Japanese. Also, Chinese has no phonetic alphabet
for grammar but rather relies on more than 60,000 Chinese characters. Japanese has two phonetic syllabaries, called kana
for grammatical elements and to handle words borrowed from other languages.
Additionally, Japanese has 3,000 characters called kanji which are
Chinese characters adopted to write modern Japanese.
The characters for the
poem are given
in a Block (kaisho)
must be converted to the target script. Takase Sensei prefers the cursive
script and so for her art will covert the characters to
The positioning of the following elements are critical to the artistic
balance of the piece:
The placement of each of these elements along with the beauty
of the script defines the artistic value of the work
Traditional Japanese calligraphy is well defined with rules
requiring that there is at least one blotted area (nijimi) and one patchy area
(kasure) in the piece. Other rules exist, for example, two blotted
characters may not be next to each other.
It is the balance of
these elements, perfection alongside seeming imperfections, that make a true
work of art.
A Poem by Ranjin
A western observer might see the blotting as a defect thinking that perhaps the calligrapher applied
too much ink to the brush causing the ink to bleed into the paper. However, in traditional Japanese
calligraphy the work would be unacceptable without the nijimi (or blotted area). As it
would be unacceptable without the kasure (or patchy area) where it
appears that the brush was running out of ink. This corresponds to the concept
developed for the tea ceremony where the imperfection is as much a part of the artistic
value as is the technical excellence.
The piece on the right measures 20 3/4"W x 89 3/4"H. It is a combination of
two poems by Ranjin of seven syllable couplets. The original text for the
poem in Chinese with the Japanese translation is exactly what the
calligrapher receives prior to starting the design.
|A Poem by Sonpun
next piece is a poem by Sonpun and is also of the seven syllable couplet style. It
consists of 112 characters and like the above work measures 20 3/4"W x 89 3/4"H.
These poems are Chinese classics. This poem, for example, is a narrative of a man visiting the city of Kishu. He
talks of the river swelling after the snow of the harsh winter has thawed and of what he
sees in the village. The details of the artwork to the right is shown below
(in Japanese and Chinese):
This is a partial translation of Sonpun's poem: “The gates of Kishu
castle stretch half–way to the sky with the white clouds of twilight
surrounding the castle base. On the rugged mountain path a lady carrying a
jar goes to collect water. The snow from Mt. Hasan is disappearing, filling
the rivers whose roar at night fills the castle. Passenger boats are lined
in the shade of the trees by the corner rocks, fishermen's drying nets are
touched by the clouds. In the fields at the base of the mountain farmers are
harvesting, and large dried trees are being burned to make charcoal. The
people of the land feed the dogs, capture wild deer, the children create an
enclosure of brushwood and chase in pheasants...” (translation by T.
This particular piece was chosen for an open exhibition at the Apollo Museum of Arts in
Traditional Japanese calligraphy is both formalized and exact. While artistic
expression and genius are necessary, they are also confined within the technical
excellence required by this very standardized art form.
Judging involves a group of judges from the society. Typically there will
be hundreds of entries and the judges will be presented with five separate
works shown together on a very large board that is rolled in before the
judges. The judges do not know who did each of the works so for the most
part it is a completely blind judging. It is not perfectly so as artists
that are better known will have a recognizable style. The panel of judges will choose one of the five works and that work will advance to the next
round. This process continues until the final pieces are selected.
works shown here by Takase Sensei have won best of category awards in
national competitions using this type of judging.
|Calligraphic Societies In Japan
There are many calligraphic societies in Japan as Japanese
Calligraphy is an extremely popular hobby today. Master Takase belonged to
societies whose members were limited to calligraphy teachers and
professional and who represented the very best in Japan.
The work on the
right is an excerpt from the register of Bokuteki-kai and shows an early work of
Takase Sensei. This is a best in class awards for a national competition
with Takase Sensei's work is on the very right.
With rank, the Japanese
calligrapher is given a Chinese nom de plume and as shown here,
Takase Sensei's nom de plume is Takase Sairei.
Very few calligraphers ever receive the honor of best in class and Takase
has received this honor more that four times in two different and
prestigious societies: the Bokuteki-kai and Bunka-shodo.
Bokuteki-kai is a calligraphic society devoted to training professional
calligraphers. As there are many calligraphy societies in Japan, ones ranking in a
particular society has no bearing on the ranking in another society. And the requirements
of a rank are different from society to society.
Takase Sensei is ranked as a master in both Bokuteki-kai and Bunka Shodo.
While the work on the right is remarkably different from the others shown above, note
the absence of color and of anything other than the Chinese characters on
Japanese paper. Japanese calligraphy is a traditional art and the artist must
work strictly within the rules. As an example, to add any
color or sumi-e drawing to the work would mean instant disqualification.
Custom Japanese Calligraphy
Master Takase today also offers completely custom art. If you
have an idea for a piece of art we would be delighted to discuss
it with you. To learn more about working with Master
Takase on a custom piece please visit
Custom Japanese Calligraphy
As example of a custom piece, in June 2008, Master Takase created this work for a private
collector. The work is on a single sheet of uncut handmade Japanese
paper. The natural color, off-white paper seems to float on the
white mat board.
This is the mantra from
meaning "Gone. Gone. Gone Beyond. Gone Completely Beyond. Praise to
Awakening" which the current Dalai Lama explains as "go, go, go
beyond, go thoroughly beyond, and establish yourself in
In Japanese this is read "gyatei, gyatei,
hara gyatei, hara sou gyatei, boji sowaka" and the title
Heart Sutra was appended on the left which is "hannya shingyo."
About the Artist In
1989, after a life of dedicating herself to the art of Japanese Calligraphy, Eri
Takase was awarded the rank of Shihan, or Master, by two of Japan's most
prestigious Calligraphic Societies. Under the pen name of Takase
Sairei her works have won multiple best in class awards in national
competitions in Japan and her work has been displayed at the Osaka Museum of
Eri Takase has been living and working in the United States since 1995. Her
work has sold all over the world as custom art for individuals, on
commercial products, in books, magazines, and in film. Her brand of
traditional Japanese calligraphy has been described as refined and cultured.
has most recently devoted herself to adapting the art of Japanese Calligraphy to new
mediums and methods and the results are breathtaking.