Photoscape / Characters with character

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Participants try calligraphy at an event at the National Art Center, Tokyo, on Aug. 30.

By Tom Baker / Japan News Staff WriterWriting with a brush is quite different from writing with a pen. About 20 foreigners who participated in a Japanese calligraphy workshop at the National Art Center, Tokyo, in Roppongi, Tokyo, late last month experienced this distinction firsthand.

“There are two traditional ways to hold the brush,” instructor Matthew James, from Britain, told them. A writer holds it in a vertical position above the paper, with either one or two fingers wrapped around the front of the brush’s handle. “The two-finger style will keep your brush more upright, allowing you to write with the tip of the brush, not the belly of the brush,” he explained.

The writers had to be as upright as their brushes were. “You want to be relaxed, but keep your back straight. You don’t want to be slumping all over the place,” James cheerfully admonished. “Keep your elbow slightly raised.”

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    A participant learns how to hold a brush.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    A participant shows her writing of the kanji for do (way) or michi (road).

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    A calligraphy expert demonstrates as participants look on.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Japan News Staff Writer Tom Baker writes the kanji for matsuri (festival).

The event, hosted by the Yomiuri Shohokai calligraphy association, also included demonstrations by experts in different calligraphy styles. Their graceful and confident movements made the artform look easy, but things became a little more daunting when it was time for the participants to take up brushes and ink themselves.

American Nancy Velasquez said the ink ran well on the practice sheets of smooth paper, “but once you moved on to [writing on formal cardboard squares], it’s a little coarser and it’s a little more difficult to measure just how much the ink will get soaked up … I found it would dry up as soon as I had three strokes on paper.”

The participants could choose from various kana and kanji models to copy.

“We don’t want you to make exact copies,” James said. “Use them as a guide but show some of your character in your work.”

American Jonathon Allred said, “I wanted to write tsukimi [moon viewing] because I was born in September and it’s what you usually do in September.” But he was more satisfied with his results when he tried the kana for sakura (cherry) and the kanji for ai (love).

The kanji for do (way) or michi (road) was a popular choice. First-time calligrapher Dennis Frehse of Germany said: “I’m a musician. It’s the same way we practice our instruments or practice calligraphy … [This character represents] the same kind of ‘life,’ ‘travel,’ ‘road.’”

Lim Wei Siong of Singapore, who practices judo, also chose the kanji for do. He said his view of calligraphy had changed: “Before you touch this, it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s very far away from us. It’s a piece of art. It’s difficult’ ... But after you get used to it, it’s like a way to show what your character is.”

(Photos by Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Photographer Ryuzo Suzuki)Speech


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