Kids Web Japan

What is Shodo?

Writing Characters with a Fude (brush) and Sumi (black ink)

In modern-day Japan, most people use ballpoints, pencils, or felt-tip pens to write everyday letters and other documents. Shodo (Japanese calligraphy), where an ink-dipped brush is used artistically to write kanji and kana characters, however, remains a traditional part of Japan's culture. Works of shodo are admired for the composition of their characters—especially those that are as accurate as a lithograph (a type of oil-and-water printing)—as well as the way the brush is handled in their creation, the shading of the ink, and the balanced placement of the characters on the paper.

Kakizome, a New Year’s tradition of writing the first calligraphy of the year

Learning Shodo from Childhood

Students of elementary and middle schools learn the basics of shodo in shosha (penmanship) sessions in Japanese language class. At high school, they move on to shodo in art class. At the beginning of each calendar year, the children gather to take part in a tradition known as kakizome, where they create calligraphic works symbolizing their wishes for the new year. Students practice their penmanship to improve their calligraphy, sometimes copying out works by famous Japanese calligraphers from the past to hone their skills. Throughout Japan, some elementary and middle school students even go to special schools to learn the art, attending classes in the evenings and on the weekends to get better at writing beautiful characters.

Position the paper directly in front of your body, so you can see the whole sheet while sitting down. (Mitsumura Tosho Publishing Co., Ltd)

Brought over from China

The art of shodo originated in China. It came to Japan in the Asuka period (around the sixth or seventh century), along with methods for making brushes, ink, and paper. In those days, shodo was an essential part of the education of members of the ruling noble families or feudal lords, but as time went by, the art spread to all Japanese people. Nowadays shodo is not just an art form to be admired; people use it to write nengajo (New Year's cards), and it has become a part of their daily lives.

Styles of Writing and Paper

Different types of shodo include kaisho (square style) where the strokes in each character are precisely drawn in a printed manner; gyosho (semi-cursive) which is written faster and more loosely; and sosho (cursive) a method where the characters' form is not rigidly followed and the strokes can bend and curve.

Kaisho (square style)

Kaisho (square style)

Gyosho (semi-cursive)

Gyosho (semi-cursive)

Sosho (cursive)

Sosho (cursive)

(Mitsumura Tosho Publishing Co., Ltd)

A wide variety of paper is used for shodo. The most commonly used paper for shodo in school classes is called hanshi, which measures 24.3 by 33.3 centimeters (approximately 9.6 by 13 inches). An extra-large size of paper is called gasenshi, which is made to bring out the beauty of the deep-black sumi and emphasize how it spreads across the paper. It measures 96 by 180 centimeters (about 38 by 71 inches). There's a wide variety of other types, including tanzaku paper (6 by 36.3 centimeters [approximately 2.4 by 14 inches]) for writing traditional Japanese poems such as tanka (which have 5 lines of characters with syllables in the pattern 5-7-5-7-7) and haiku (which have a seasonal theme and 17 characters over 3 lines with syllables in the pattern 5-7-5), and shikishi paper (24.2 by 27.3 centimeters [9.5 by 11 inches]).

Features of Writing

Works of shodo have different characteristics, depending on the type of paper used and the work being created. In one kind of shodo called chirashi-gaki, for example, a traditional 31-syllable Japanese poem (called waka) is written on shikishi paper. The writer begins the lines of the poem at different levels on the paper to portray the rhythm of the verse, or write in darker and lighter shades of ink to give a sense of depth to the words, making the work look almost like a landscape painting. When writing a tanka poem on tanzaku paper, the whole paper is divided into three equal parts — the title of the poem is written on the top section, with the rest of the poem written in two vertical lines underneath. The first line should start at the first divide, with the second line starting slightly lower than the first line. This style of writing is called mitsu-ori hanji-gakari.