Glossary of Japanese Terms
are small phonetic characters written to the right of kanji and they give the
correct pronunciation of difficult or ambiguous readings. The example given on the right
shows the kanji for a Chinese poet whose name probably cannot be read by many Japanese. So
the furigana is added and the Japanese pronunciation is "ranjin."
Gairaigo is a Japanese word of foreign origin.
One example is the Japanese word for bread is "pan" which comes from
French. Another is "shefu" which means Chef and comes from
Gyousho (Semi-Cursive Script) is a simplified and
softer form of the kaisho script and today is used
almost exclusively in Japanese Calligraphy. Originally, gyousho was used as a faster way to write kanji and even today gyousho is
sometimes used by older Japanese in everyday writing as a form of shorthand.
Hentaigana is a group of phonetic syllabary
based on kanji that predates hiragana. Hiragana was not
standardized until the 1900 and what predates hiragana is a mixture of
kanji used to represent the various sounds.
Hiragana is one of the two phonetic Japanese
Hiragana was originally called "onna de" or "feminine-hand"
indicating its origin by female poets in the Heian period. Today hiragana is used with
kanji to write most of the Japanese language. Nouns and the base of verbs and adjectives use
and the suffixes indicating tense and gender (for example) are written in hiragana. Also
hiragana is commonly used when furigana is required and is used for grammatical particles.
In contrast, katakana is used exclusively for words borrowed from other languages.
While katakana is the standard way non-Japanese names are rendered
into Japanese, women will sometimes prefer to use hiragana as it is
considered by some to be more feminine.
(Block Script) is the angular form of writing Chinese characters. This is the most common
style for Chinese characters and is used in everyday writing in both China and Japan.
On the right is an example of the character for "dream" which has the
(Chinese reading) of "Mu" and the kun-yomi (Japanese reading) of
"Yume" (pronounced "You may"). For a comparison of the different style
for writing this character see the section on kanji.
Kanji are Japanese Symbols originally from China that have been
modified for use in the Japanese
language. Kanji, like Egyptian hieroglyphics, were originally pictographs or ideographs.
Introduced to Japan in the fourth century from China via Korea, kanji had to undergo
several radical changes in order to accommodate the differences between the very
dissimilar Japanese and Chinese languages.
The table on the right shows
the different styles of writing kanji. This example uses the character for the word
"dream" or "yume" (pronounced "you may"). The
block script or kaisho is the most commonly seen today and is what one
sees in newspapers and magazines.
Tensho (Seal Script) is used for the name seals that
Japanese use instead of a signature (these are the red stamps that appear on Japanese
Kaisho (Block Script) is the most typical form of the
kanji and is the form of the kanji used in everyday life.
Reisho (Clerical Script) is a simplified version of the
kanji that is dominated by horizontal and vertical lines. Originally this was a
style used by slaves and the lesser educated. This simplified style is now often used only
for newspaper names and in stone carving (e.g. grave markers).
Gyousho (Semi-Cursive Script) is a
softer form of the kaisho script and today is used
almost exclusively in Japanese Calligraphy. Originally, the gyousho font
was used as a faster way to write kanji and even today gyousho is
sometimes used by older Japanese in everyday writing as a form of shorthand. The gyousho style can be read, for the most part, by all Japanese.
Sousho (Cursive Script) is the most abstract
and is considered the most aesthetically pleasing style. The word sousho combines two Chinese
characters: "sou" meaning grass and "sho" meaning
"writing". Thus sousho is often translated literally as "grass writing" and looking at
Japanese calligraphy works in this style, one cannot but notice the dominance of near
vertical lines looking very much like grass. This style is very difficult to
read even for specialists.
All of the above styles for kanji also appear in Chinese calligraphy. What
distinguishes Japanese Calligraphy from Chinese Calligraphy is the use of hiragana and
katakana. Often times it is the use of hiragana that makes Japanese Calligraphy unique and
special and gives Japanese Calligraphy an artistic dimension not found in its Chinese
Also note that fonts exist in Japanese and Chinese just as in English.
However each of the above categories is not a single font but rather represents
a whole range of fonts. It is this range of expression in kanji that
makes it both artistically appealing and intellectually challenging.
Kasure is a type of stroke where it looks like
the brush is running out of ink. In this stroke there is much movement and one
can see the subtle colors that are in the ink.
Katakana is one of the two phonetic Japanese
syllabaries. Katakana is used exclusively for words borrowed from other
languages and is the standard syllabary for rendering non-Japanese names into
Kun-Yomi (Japanese Reading) When the Chinese
writing system was adopted in Japan many times Japanese already had a word and
so the Japanese was used when reading the kanji. As an example the kanji
is read ane which is
the Japanese word for older sister. In the compound word sisters
however the same kanji is
read shi which was the Chinese reading of the character at the time. It
is this mixture of readings, each kanji having several different
readings, that makes Japanese so difficult.
On-Yomi (Chinese Reading) When Chinese
characters were adopted to write Japanese sometimes the original Chinese
pronunciation was used. As this adoption happened over hundreds of years and
from different parts of China a single kanji can have several different on-yomi
depending on when and from where in China the word came from. In contrast
kun-yomi are words that retain the original Japanese word.
Reisho (Clerical Script) is a simplified version of the tensho script that is dominated by horizontal and vertical
lines. This is sometimes called the "Clerical Script" and in the Han Dynasty
(206BC - 220AD) served to simplify the tensho script and
therefore make it more appropriate for practical purposes. The overall shape is
rectangular with a height to width ration of two to three. Today this simplified version
of the tensho style is used only for newspaper names and in stone carving (e.g. grave
Rice Paper is not only not made from rice, it is not
even, strictly speaking, paper. Rice paper is made from the pith of the Fatsia papyrifera
tree. This material is used in Chinese paintings, however, it is never used in traditional
Japanese calligraphy. Traditionally, Japanese calligraphy uses Washi or Japanese paper.
Romaji literally means Roman Characters. These are methods
to write Japanese using the English alphabet. There are two accepted systems: 1)
kunrei shiki 2) Hepburn system. Briefly the kunrei shiki would
write Fuji as "huzi" while the Hepburn system is what we see today
writing Fuji as fuji. This website uses the Hepburn system.
Technically romaji does not have capital letters. Hiragana,
katakana, and kanji have no way to indicate a capital letter and
so capital letters do not exist in romaji.
Shihan means Master. The world of Japanese
Calligraphy has ranks much like the Martial Arts. The first rank is the tenth
kyu with the highest kyu rank being the first kyu. The next
highest rank is shodan which is the Martial Arts equivalent of a first
degree black belt. Unlike the Martial Arts the ranking system, the title of
shihan can only be award after reaching and passing the 10th dan
which is the highest dan ranking. In the world of Japanese calligraphy
the rank of shihan is a rare and prestigious rank.
Shikishi is Japanese paper mounted with a gold border.
Shikishi come in many different sizes. The standard size is 9 1/2" W x 10 3/4"
H. Also shikishi are about 1/8" thick. Another common size is the mini-shikishi which
is 4" W x 5 7/8" H.
Shodo or more properly shodou is Japanese
Calligraphy. Literally the kanji mean "the way of writing"
Sousho (Cursive-script) is the most abstract and
is considered the most aesthetically pleasing style. The word sousho combines two Chinese characters:
"sou" meaning grass and "sho" meaning "script". Thus
"sousho" is sometimes translated as "grass script" and looking at
calligraphy done in this style, one cannot but notice the dominance of near vertical lines
looking very much like grass.
Syllabary A set of written characters for a language,
each character representing a syllable. Hiragana and Katakana are
is Japanese paper mounted with a gold border. Tanzaku
come in two standard sizes: 2 3/8" W x 14 1/4" H and 3" x 14 1/4". An
example of "seishin toitsu" written on a tanzaku is shown on the right.
Tensho (Seal Script) is the earliest form of Chinese
characters that goes back to the Qin Dynasty (221BC - 206BC). The tensho script uses a
single stroke width, are roughly rectangular with a height to width ratio of three to two
and has a feeling of expressionless refinement. Today tensho script is used for seals that
the Chinese and the Japanese use instead of a signature (these are the red stamps that
appear on Chinese and Japanese art and in everything from legal forms to routine business
Washi (Japanese paper) is made from the young Japanese
kozo, mitsumata, and gampi trees. It is a common mistake to believe that Japanese calligraphy is
done on rice paper.
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