Article and Calligraphy by H. E. Davey
More and more Americans are captivated by Japan’s traditional art forms. In the 21st century, it’s almost as common for children to participate in martial arts like judo as to play baseball. Your wife may study Japanese flower arrangement, while you read the latest book on Zen released by a major American publisher. Although classical Japanese arts have grown in popularity, they aren’t inevitably well understood, and not everyone realizes that martial arts (budo), flower arrangement (kado), tea ceremony (chado), and other activities are actually spiritual paths.
Of course, a few American art connoisseurs may have seen shodo in museums or books, and some young people in the USA sport tattoos of Japanese characters. Still, even Westerners that know of shodo seem to think that it’s too esoteric, or too difficult to read, to be accessible to most non-Japanese.
I’m living proof that this needn’t be the case.
I began practicing martial arts at age five, tutored by my father, who had studied these arts initially from Japanese-Americans. He later lived in Japan, where his martial arts study continued and intensified.
After searching for years, in 1986, I met Kobara Ranseki Sensei, one of the most skilled shodo artists living outside of Japan. Deeply impressed, I began practicing with Kobara Sensei, originator of the Ranseki Sho Juku of San Francisco. Kobara Sensei has evolved a distinctive type of shodo and a creative program of instruction. He has, moreover, received numerous awards for excellence from various shodo associations as well as the Japanese government. With his help, I was in time able to exhibit my artwork annually at the International Shodo Exhibition in Japan, where I’ve also received awards, including Jun Taisho—the “Associate Grand Prize.” In 1993, I received Shihan-dai teaching certification, the highest rank in Ranseki Sho Juku calligraphy.
The Roots of Shodo
Around 2700 BC, according to Chinese tradition, an enigmatic man with four eyes called Tsangh-hsieh created the first Chinese characters. Captivated by the footprints of beasts and birds, he gave birth to the earliest Chinese system of writing. The God of Heaven was believed to have been so moved by Tsangh-hsieh's bird-based characters that he made grain drop from the clouds as a symbol of his happiness with humankind.
Unfortunately for our four-eyed friend, archaeology paints a different picture. Drawings engraved on pieces of tortoise shell and oracle bone date from the Shang Period in China, which is from 1766-1122 BC. These pictures were the archetypes of Chinese characters.
An Ink Painting of the Spirit
The spoken languages and cultures of Japan and China differ greatly, but they share a common set of Asian characters, which although pronounced differently by Chinese and Japanese, often convey similar meanings. It’s important to note here that while these characters are utilized for written communication, Japanese calligraphy should not be thought of as just penmanship. In light of the fact that Chinese characters began as simplified drawings or pictograms, it’s evident that no clear-cut dividing line can be found between drawing, ink painting (sumi-e), and calligraphy. Ink painting and shodo originally used the same brush, ink, and paper. Even certain brush strokes are similar. Shodo can be thought of as a system of writing and abstract art originally based on abbreviated drawings. In characters like mountain (yama), for example, it’s still easy to see three mountain peaks.
Shodo and Mind and Body Harmony
With a bit of thought, it’s apparent that the mind controls the body. Based on this line of thought, it is equally clear that the actions of the body serve as a reflection of the mind. Witness the slumped posture of someone who’s depressed and the shaking hand of a nervous student about to take an exam.
Shodo for the West
Just as many Western people appreciate jazz, rock and roll, or blues without being able to read music, so can Americans appreciate shodo when they’re properly exposed to it. Since shodo is an abstract art, it’s not strictly necessary to be able to read Chinese characters or Japanese phonetic scripts to admire the dynamic beauty of shodo. Within Japanese calligraphy, we find the essential elements that constitute all art: creativity, poise, rhythm, gracefulness, and the beauty of line. While shodo is a fun way to learn about Japanese language, initial lack of Japanese reading ability needn’t be a stumbling block to shodo appreciation, and the universal aspects of shodo can be recognized and admired by every culture.
About the Author: H. E. Davey is the Director of the Sennin Foundation Center for Japanese Cultural Arts, which is based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He can be reached at www.senninfoundation.com and by telephone at 510-526-7518 (evenings). He is the author of the books Brush Meditation: A Japanese Way to Mind & Body Harmony, Japanese Yoga: The Way of Dynamic Meditation, The Japanese Way of the Flower: Ikebana as Moving Meditation, Living the Japanese Arts & Ways: 45 Paths to Meditation & Beauty, and Unlocking the Secrets of Aiki-jujutsu.