Shodō (Japanese calligraphy) is not merely an form of art, but a way of life, complete with its own set of philosophies. In Japan, shodō is practiced by people of all ages and occupations, from primary school students to the elderly. Indeed, shodō is a required subject of study at primary schools and an elective at middle and high schools, and even some universities have a shodō department. Furthermore, many Japanese at homes have their own set of calligraphy tools. As a long lived Japanese tradition deeply integrated in the everyday lives of the people, Shodo offers a unique window in Japan's profound culture and long lasting philosophies.
History of Shodo
As you may imagine, shodō has its origin in China, and it was first introduced to Japan in the early 5th century. Before the introduction of shodō, Japan was often thought to be devoid of literary culture in Japan, as there was no need for them.
Later, after Buddhism was introduced to Japan, shodō began to grow in popularity. During this period in Japan, Chinese characters were widely used to copy Buddhist sutras, and as a result, the earliest works of shodō are all related to Buddhism.
Shodō grew popular, as Buddhism was introduced to Japan and people used letters to copies Buddhist sutras; thus the earliest works of shodō are all related to Buddhism. Prince Shōtoku Taishi (574 - 622) promoted Buddhism and the practice of copying sutras by hand as part of meditation, known in Japanese as shakyō, which spread the practice of calligraphy even further. Throughout this time, the aesthetic style of shodō imitated the styles of Chinese calligraphy very closely.
It was not until the Heian Period (794 - 1185) that shodō finally began to deviate from Chinese calligraphy, a separation inspired by masters such as Ono-no-Michikaze (894 - 966) and Buddhist monk Kukai (774 - 835). At this time, Japanese-style calligraphy started becoming more cursive and rounded, giving rise to Japanese characters (kana), which eventually became the hiragana used today.
The spread of Zen Buddhism during the Kamakura Period (1185 to 1333) gave birth to a new form of calligraphy known as bokuseki, which featured a liberal form, loose rules, and an unrestrained style. It looks very abstract and more emotional compared to older calligraphy styles. When Japan reopened to the West in the mid-19th century after a long period of isolation, calligraphy again underwent significant changes. Throughout the 1800s and 1900s, calligraphers began to view their craft as an art through which to express themselves, in a similar manner as Western painting.
Styles of Shodo
As you can see from the overview above, shodō has a history of over 1,000 years just in Japan and has evolved though different environments and eras as reflected in its changing styles. There are three basic writing styles in shodō, which are;
Kaisho, the “square style” or “standard style” of shodō, looks closest to the original Chinese characters, and is also the easiest to read. Kaisho is the first style most shodō practitioners usually learn and master.
Gyōsho, which means “travel writing,” is a semi-cursive style that deviates from kaisho in that it does not have clearly defined strokes, and looks quite different from the standard characters in printed literature. Strokes flow together for a more artistic appearance.
Sōsho, which literally means “grass writing,” is the cursive style that is most abstract and hardest to read for those unfamiliar with shodō. Strokes are quick and graceful, emphasizing the aesthetic and artistic quality rather than legibility.
Since the Edo Period (1603 - 1868), shodō has been a fundamental part of basic education for children at terakoya (temple elementary schools during the Edo Period) throughout Japan. Furthermore, it is said that the literacy rate of 18th century Japan was above 70 percent, the highest in the world at that time, forming a trend which has continued up to this day. Even in the 21st century, shodo continues to play a fundamental role in the daily lives of the Japanese as not only an expression of the culture's unique aesthetics, but also its traditional philosophies.