What is 習字 (shuji)?
Shuji (Japanese calligraphy) is the skillful writing of kanji characters in a way that gives them balance and expression. It is not just writing a character on a piece of paper though. It is much more than that. Each stroke has a a proper way to begin and end and there is a correct order and path to follow. It takes lots of time and practice to master, and it’s essential to focus. The slightest lapse in concentration will show in one’s work.
Calligraphy was introduced in Japan around 600 AD, but dates back to the BC era in China. It is now a required subject in elementary and junior high school in Japan, as part of the Japanese language curriculum. In high school it is offered as an art course. It can be difficult for the untrained eye to appreciate the delicate curves of each stroke or the intricacies and subtle beauty of the perfect stop, both of which contribute to the proper balance of each character.
The following are the few items needed to practice shuji:
- calligraphy brush (筆, fude)
- calligraphy ink, available already in liquid form or as a stick (墨, sumi)
- inkstone, to grind the ink stick on (硯, suzuri)
- Japanese washi paper, not rice paper (和紙, washi)
- felt mat (下敷, shitajiki)
- paperweight (文鎮, bunchin)
There are three styles to Japanese calligraphy writing: block printed style (楷書, kaisho), semi-cursive style (行書, gyosho), and cursive style (草書, sosho). All learners of shuji begin with the block printed style and work their way up toward the more difficult styles.
What I’ve Been Doing
I wanted to learn one of Japan’s traditional art forms while I was here, and shuji seemed like the perfect fit. I’ve always had an interest in the arts (it runs in the family), but I’ve never had the patience or time to fully develop this interest. Shuji combines my interests in Japan along with fine art excellently.
Since November of 2008 I have been studying shuji from one of my neighbors, a level 8 shuji master (the highest rank), and I have been slowly progressing toward my goal of reaching the sho-dan level (level 1 master). Every Wednesday night, I take a stroll down the street to his house for instruction and practice. At the beginning of each lesson, I’ll warm up by doing some basic strokes, then practice 3-5 pages of characters for this month’s test. My sensei will then mark the strokes where I need to practice more in orange ink. He always tells me with a chuckle and a smile, “Doushite mo migi agari ga tarinai na,” (no matter what, your rightward strokes never rise up enough!). At the end of the month I do a test paper, which my sensei mails to the Japan Calligraphy Education Foundation (日本習字, JCEF) headquarters in Kyoto for grading. The tests are marked, graded, and returned within a few weeks. The JCEF will stamp your test paper if you have passed to the next level when they return it. I am currently at the jun sho-dan level (pre-level 1 master), with one more level to go in order to reach my goal of sho-dan (level 1 master).
Reaching for Goals
Japanese calligraphy uses the same kyu/dan (beginner/master) ranking system that’s used in other traditional Japanese art forms, such as martial arts. The kyu ranks count inversely up to the dan ranks, meaning that one starts at 10-kyu and moves up all the way to 1-kyu, then jun sho-dan (pre-level 1 master), sho-dan (level 1 master), 2-dan, and so on all the way up to 8-dan, the highest ranking one can receive. Getting a sho-dan ranking is the equivalent of getting your black belt in karate- there is still a way up to go from there, but it is a first-level master. With the sho-dan ranking comes a certificate stating that you are able to teach beginners shuji. For now, I’m waiting for the results from my last test paper. I’m heading back to the States in August, and time is running out on reaching sho-dan…