Japanese Calligraphy (Shodo)


Like most cultural activities, Japanese Calligraphy or Shodo is an art form that has been developed over hundreds of years. Shodo directly translates to “the way of writing” and is the traditional way of writing characters using an ink dipped brush.



Japanese Calligraphy actually began in China before 600 AD. The Japanese alphabet, or kanji, is made of Chinese characters when travelers shared Chinese writing. Historians believe this was linked to the spread of Buddhism to Japan. After Japan developed their own characters, called hiragana, Shodo developed into its own art form as pieces of poetry, philosophy, and other abstract concepts became more fashionable to paint and display.


Shodo Concepts and Vocabulary:

Bunchin: Weights that look like bars to hold down the paper

Fude: Brush made of bamboo and horsehair

Hanshi: Special paper used to write in black ink

Hiragana: Japanese characters that act like alphabet letters

Kanji: Chinese characters that are a part of the Japanese alphabet

Sumi: Black ink

Suzuri: Inkstone used to create the ink

Something that Western audiences may not comprehend is that while it is easier to write using a pen or pencil, using an ink brush or fude to write words or phrases involves years and years of studying to perfect. It is said that each person would ‘paint’ in a different way, and a person would ‘paint’ the same word differently due to their mood at a particular time.


Shodo Painting That You Can Do At Home:

1. Gather black paint, a white piece of paper, newspaper pages, and a large paintbrush. Any large paintbrush is fine, but the traditional brush was made out of bamboo and horsehair.

2. Look at Japanese characters online that you wish to paint. I would check out online examples and a good website to start off with is http://web-japan.org/kidsweb/virtual/shodo/shodo03.html.

3. Place the newspaper underneath the paper. Some like to tape the newspaper and paper down. Traditionally, they were held down with bunchin or weights at the top of the paper.

4. If you decide to sit, you need to sit up straight. Your feet should be flat on the floor, and if you can your back shouldn’t touch the chair. It’s okay to paint standing, but traditional Shodo painting has the artist sitting. Your other hand should help hold the paper still.

5. Now it’s time to pick up the brush. The brush isn’t held like a normal pen or pencil. It’s held between your thumb, index finger, and middle finger in a straight position. It should be resting on your ring finger and your hand should not touch the paper at any time.

6. Practice your paint strokes in the air with your brush before you paint. With Japanese characters, the stroke order is important and you should know the stroke order before you begin. Your online examples should explain what order you should do your lines or strokes.

7. Now it’s time to paint! You might be nervous if this is your first time doing Shodo. Keep yourself relaxed and take smooth breaths. Don’t stop mid-stroke – it changes the way the paint falls off the brush. Instead, keep going until all your movements are done. It is rude to go back and ‘touch up’ your calligraphy or painting once your strokes are finished.

8. Repeat until you are happy with your calligraphy painting. It does take a few times until you are familiar with the feel of the brush movements and stroke order. Of course, you can begin these steps again with a more difficult Japanese character. There are many books and kits available to assist you when trying this new activity.


Fun Facts about Shodo:

1. Japanese students learn Shodo as a subject at school – as you might do during handwriting classes. However, this is practiced often in weekly classes starting as young as grade three or four. Some children even attend afternoon clubs or weekend classes so they can perfect their Shodo or Calligraphy skills.

2. In order to be considered a professional in Shodo, you will need to study harder Shodo lessons in middle school and senior school. Afterward, you will need to study Calligraphy and Shodo at university. Many professionals say that their true studying started after they had a master who retaught them the basics.

3. Calligraphy or Shodo competitions have become very popular in recent years. Instead of painting while sitting down, groups of students – usually girls – paint positive messages while music plays. Points are given throughout the competition based on how well they paint, but also how well they do it to the music, and how much dancing is involved. The creativity is amazing as paintbrushes for this competition range from your small typical art brush to mops which need two or more girls to paint with! Watch the movie Shodo Girls if you are interested!

4. Many samurai warriors would need to be taught in this calligraphy art, as well as the others, before being recognized as a true warrior. Other cultural activities included playing the flute, performing the traditional tea ceremony, and even flower arranging correctly before one was considered qualified in all areas of soldier training.

5. Even though Japanese characters have a different stroke order, they also have a different way of reading as well. In Western cultures, we read pages left to right. In Japan, the way to correctly read is right to left. This is the same way they write across a page as well!

6. If you remember from the vocabulary section, Japanese students have to learn two sets of characters (or alphabets) called hiragana and kanji. Another set Japanese students need to learn is katakana. These characters are only used to translate ‘Western’ words. Imagine learning three different sets of alphabets!

7. Shodo is an important feature in the novel Mieko and the Fifth Treasure. This story by Elenor Coerr follows a young girl who loves calligraphy, but due to an injury, she can’t paint anymore. This story tells about how she finds the inspiration to try writing and painting again.

8. A game based on Shodo traditions and Japanese folk stories was made for the Playstation 2, Playstation 3, and Wii. It’s called Okami and you play as the Japanese wolf god who shares that name. Okami is a Japanese creator god and you ‘paint’ calligraphy and other drawings into existence using your fude tail.

9. While not exactly Shodo, a similar style of calligraphy is gaining popularity from Japan. Sumie or wash drawing painters are those who use their knowledge of calligraphy to painting the body of a dragon in a single brush stroke. The head of the dragon is painted first, but the rest of the dragon is painted with one single stroke – which requires changes in direction, loops, rests, and flicks before it is complete. It is worth checking out the videos on Youtube.

10. A good online resource if you wish to continue on your own Shodo journey can be found at http://shodo-japan.com. This is a series of online tutorials and workshops to help you learn the techniques and skills needed to practice Shodo. There is also a section for buying more traditional calligraphy items. This website is based in Japan – but look online for a closer Shodo workshop as there are hundreds around the world!