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Getting Serious with Shodo: Learning Japanese Calligraphy

Combine your love of kanji and art by becoming a calligraphy master. 

By 5 min read

In your first interactions with Japanese culture and kanji, you may well come across the ancient art of shodo, Japanese calligraphy.

Watching calligraphy masters can be almost hypnotic, with their brushes gliding along with the paper in such a way that it looks easy. So you give it a go and…splat. The ink splotches on the paper, and your first kanji looks more like a deformed stick man.

That’s where most people give up. They’ve tried it. It was fun, but not for them. But not you. You revel in the challenge, pick up the brush again, and try to make art. Now it’s time to get serious with shodo.

Casual versus committed

Practice in the comfort of your own home.

If you want to use shodo as a way to practice your kanji, or you simply want to experiment with art styles and a brush, there’s no need to get serious with time commitments or fancy equipment. Instead, you can practice kanji easily with suisho youshi (water writing paper) or pick up some fude pens (brush pens) to let out your creativity. Or, you can pick up all the proper equipment (see below) from hundred-yen shops.

But suppose you really want to master the art of calligraphy itself and create beautiful characters and flowing brush strokes. In that case, your best option is to start working towards a calligraphy certification. This can suit casual hobbyists too, as there’s no time limit and you don’t need to attend a daily course, but you can still work towards recognized “calligrapher” status.

Shodo grading

You’ll often work with a template written by the teacher in orange.

If you’ve ever done karate, the shodo grading system will be very familiar to you. You start with 10 kyu (rank), and make your way up to 1 kyu, then start on 1 dan (rank) and move up to 6 dan. Your teacher can send in your calligraphy to get it officially graded at each level. There is no need to sit a test until you are at the master or teacher level, but there are set pieces you need to hand in to pass.

At my particular school, in class, I simply write the same pieces repeatedly, getting tips and pointers from my teacher until they are perfect, then we hand them in for grading. However, feedback varies between schools. As a result, you’re often given a template to work from at the lower levels, written by your teacher.

You are officially a calligrapher when you reach 1-dan and can get a certificate saying so. But you are not a master or teacher until you reach 6-dan and then take a test or are given permission to teach by your teacher. At that point, you can get qualified as an instructor or assistant instructor.

The essentials

Is the brush mightier than the sword?

There are, in fact, several different shodo organizations throughout Japan, and each test slightly differently, meaning what may be required of you at one school may be different at another. But to get graded, it’s easiest to register through a school, whether that’s online or in person.

Different schools will have different techniques and recommendations, but this is the essential equipment you’ll need to get started:

  • Fude (brush)
  • Bokuju (liquid ink) or sumi (ink stick)
  • Suzuri (Inkstone or inkwell)
  • Bunchin (paperweight)
  • Shitajiki (undercloth)

You’ll also need to get used to the basic techniques. For example, how to hold the brush and how to draw circles. It sounds easy, but it’s entirely different from drawing or writing with a pencil. You need to hold your brush upright, not at an angle, and get the speed, pressure, and flow working in unison to gain control of the brush.

Common concerns and misconceptions

Also a great way to make new friends.

There are a few common concerns and misconceptions about taking up shodo as a hobby, but it’s much easier to get into than you might expect.

Is shodo expensive?

It depends on your school and taste. Classes usually start from ¥2,000 upwards. And as with any art form, the more you hone your skills, the more you begin to realize the limitations of cheaper equipment, but the equipment you use is essentially up to you. I’ve been doing shodo for almost ten years now and still use 100-yen paper for practicing, saving the nicer stuff for submissions or wall hangings.

Can foreigners get certified?

Yes. There are plenty of non-Japanese students getting the kyu and dan certifications and have just as much opportunity to become a teacher as a Japanese native.

Is shodo difficult?

Shodo is no more difficult than any other art form. Practice regularly, and you’ll progress. The classes and grades make it easier to see your progression than drawing in your spare time.

Do I need to know Japanese characters to do shodo?

No. I started doing shodo before I could even say konnichiwa (hello, good afternoon), let alone read or write kanji. I found drawing the shapes relaxing.

Where to learn shodo

  • Local calligraphy schools: If you live in Japan, local schools are your best option for interactive learning and getting certified. Search for “書道教室” (shodo kyoshitsu) to find ones nearby teaching in Japanese.
  • Seisho school (Osaka and online): Seisho school teaches students around the globe in English and helps them get certified in calligraphy. Learn online in Osaka, or join their one-year course that allows you to get a culture visa.
  • Ikusui Calligraphy School (Tokyo only): If you are in Tokyo, this calligraphy school will teach you from the basics upwards and has a few locations.
  • Nihon Shodo Association (Japanese only): You can sign up to take lessons in Japan or their correspondence classes from anywhere in the world. However, you have to pay to send and receive the learning materials.
  • Aeon culture club: This is an excellent place to start one-off classes to learn the foundations.
  • YouTube channel – Japanese Calligrapher Takumi: If it’s hard to find time to go to a class, self-study is an option at first, but you will need to register to get certified later on.

Have you tried Japanese calligraphy without knowing any Japanese? Share your experience in the comments below! 

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