“Four treasures” –the ink stick, the brush, the paper and the ink stone on which the ink will be ground and mixed with water to create the black juice used for writing- and “eight eternity principles” –the “strange stone” (怪石), the “jade table” (玉案), the “iron pillar” (鐵柱), the “crab’s pincher” (蟹爪), the “tiger’s tooth” (虎牙), the “rhinoceros’ horn” (犀角), the “bird’s peck” (鳥啄) and the “golden blade” (金刀); the Chinese were certainly very imaginative when they set the basis for writing ideograms with ink, eighteen centuries ago. And as it often happened in Japanese history, all the above were carried almost intact to Japan, together with the ideograms themselves (the ones still called “kanji”/ 漢字 i.e. “Chinese characters”) to create what is called “shodo” (書道), “the way of the brush” or “Japanese calligraphy”.
Most present-day Japanese don’t know calligraphy: they are taught its basic principles in elementary school but by junior high their focus moves to the inhuman and irrational college entrance examination system and calligraphy gets demoted to a choice activity like music or certain sports (among which, and much to the despair of romantic foreigners, the martial arts). If it is to be rediscovered, for most of them this will happen many years later, when retirement time will be getting closer, they will realize they need something to fill their time with and they will turn, perhaps, to their classic culture –until then, it will remain a very special hobby of people invariably called “eccentrics”. And rightfully so, since getting involved with shodo means thousands of hours spent repeating the eight basic strokes for the ideogram “永” (“eternity”), countless sheets of paper and the learning of infinite trivia about brushes, paper, ink and the Chinese classics.
This doesn’t mean though that knowledge of calligraphy isn’t appreciated by the majority of people. Like in the West, the skill of good writing, what in English we would call “penmanship” and in Japanese, “shuji” (習字) is still considered in Japan a quality characterizing the “bunjin” (文人), the cultured and learned person. Even if the writer hasn’t crossed the line to shodo’s upper level, where writing transforms to painting, forms are broken and the calligrapher becomes an artist who doesn’t simply write the ideograms but conveys their meaning with strokes often incomprehensible even to the Japanese themselves, balance, flow and precision are visible to all and always elicit positive comments and admiration. Probably because the Japanese understand better than anyone how much effort he calligrapher has put into preserving the kata of writing –and how easy it is to ruin a thousand-ideogram text by a wrong last stroke.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.