The Timeless Artistry: A Journey through the History of Japanese Calligraphy

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The Origin of Japanese Calligraphy: Introduction of Kanji from China

Hello everyone!

On this page, we will introduce how calligraphy is learned in Japanese schools, aimed at those who are learning Japanese as a foreign language.

While people learning Japanese as a foreign language are studying how to write Japanese characters, such as Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana, Japanese children are also learning how to write characters in their schools. So, what and how are Japanese children learning? Let’s take a closer look!

The Arrival of Kanji in Japan: The Gold Seal and the Iron Sword Inscription

“Later Han Sho” (Records of the Book of Han Dynasty) recorded that in 57 A.D., King Nukoku of Japan sent an envoy to Emperor Kwangmu of the Later Han Dynasty, who responded by giving him a gold seal. The gold seal was found on Shikanoshima Island in Fukuoka in Japan. This gold seal is engraved with “漢委奴国王 (Kannowanokoku-ou)”, which is believed to be the oldest existing Kanji in Japan.

Kanji was introduced to Japan through two routes: directly from China and through the intermediary route of Korean traders. When Chinese characters were introduced directly from China, developments in China were immediately introduced, but when they were introduced through Korean immigrants, they were introduced to Japan in a much more outdated form. Especially, Baekje, which was suffering from wars with Goguryeo and Silla, actively sought an alliance with Japan and introduced Buddhism, Chinese scriptures and calligraphy to Japan.

In the late 4th and early 5th centuries, people with various skills have arrived from the Korean peninsula, some of whom became proficient in Kanji. Their descendants became involved in writing from generation to generation. The inscription on the “Inariyama Tumulus Iron Sword Inscription” (A.D.471) found in the Inariyama Tumulus in Gyoda City, Saitama Prefecture, shows many similarities in the usage and letterforms of Kanji to those used on the Korean Peninsula. While the gold seal of the “King of the Han Dynasty” is the oldest surviving Chinese text in Japan, the “Iron Sword Inscription from the Inariyama Tumulus” is the oldest surviving Japanese text in the country. This iron sword has an inscription of 115 Kanji characters. The inscription “獲加多支鹵大王 (Wakatakeru Okimi)” refers to Emperor Yuryaku. 115 characters inscription is relatively long and of great historical value, and is designated as a national treasure as the most important gold and stone inscription in Japanese ancient history. The use of Kanji to write the Japanese language began in the late 4th and early 5th centuries, so the relationship between Kanji and the Japanese language has lasted for approximately 1,600 years.

The Nara Period: The Advancement of Kanji and Poetry

Kanji began to spread in earnest in the 8th century (Nara Period). At that time, all official documents, studies, and literature at court and government offices were written in Chinese. On the other hand, private documents were written in Japanese without translation into Chinese, borrowing the pronunciation of Kanji. During expressing the Japanese language by borrowing pronunciation from Kanji, the form of the characters gradually changed and the changed characters became Hiragana. Katakana originated as symbols to aid in the reading of Chinese texts and poems.

Kanji spread along with Buddhism during the Nara period (A.D.710-794). During this period, Manyoshu, Japan’s oldest anthology of poems, was compiled by Kamatari Fujiwara, and Kanji to express the Japanese language was advanced.

The Heian Period: Calligraphy as an Art Among Aristocrats and Priests

During the Heian period (A.D.794-1185), aristocrats and priests studied calligraphy, and calligraphy became a trend in aristocratic society. Calligraphy was valued as an art among them, and learning calligraphy as an art became common. In the early Heian period, Buddhist culture flourished with the frequent dispatch of envoys to the Tang Dynasty. In the field of calligraphy, Kukai, Hayanari Tachibana, and Emperor Saga emerged as great calligraphers and were known as the “三筆 (Sanpitsu)”, the three famous ancient calligraphers. When the Tang dynasty began to decline and the Japanese envoys to Tang Dynasty were abolished in A.D. 894, Japanese original national culture called Kokfu-culture, was established. In this era, Michikaze Ono, Sukemasa Fujiwara, and Yukinari Fujiwara, known as the “三蹟 (Sanseki)“, the three ancient calligraphers became famous. In the mid-Heian period, Shikibu Murasaki wrote the Tale of Genji and Komachi Ono wrote Japanese poems called Waka in Kana, Japanese syllabary. They flourished women’s literature.

The Kamakura Period: Zen Buddhism and the Deepening Relationship with Calligraphy

In Kamakura period (A.D.1185-1333), Zen Buddhism was introduced from China, and some new sects sprang up. The relationship between calligraphy and Zen deepened as Zen practitioners were required to concentrate their minds and express their inner beauty through calligraphy. The Rinzai sect, a branch of Zen Buddhism, made remarkable developments in calligraphy. In particular, Daitokuji Temple developed its own distinctive style, including the tea ceremony. Today, the entirety of a Zen priest’s calligraphy is called as”墨蹟(bokuseki)”. In the tea ceremony, only the calligraphy of the Daitokuji priests is called as bokuseki.

The Edo Period: Calligraphy among Samurai and Common People

In the Edo period (A.D.1603-1867), calligraphy became important among samurai and common people. Calligraphers of the samurai class were involved in the creation of documents and family crests as well as works of art. During this period, calligraphy was studied by the emergence of calligraphers and calligrapher’s houses specializing in calligraphy.

The Meiji Era: The Establishment of Joyo-Kanji and Kanji Education

In the Meiji Era (A.D.1868-1912), because of the influx of Western cultural languages, scripts, and education, the Meiji government established the “常用漢字(Joyo-Kanji)”, Kanji for common use, in 1923. The 1,962 Kanji with 154 abbreviated Kanji for common use in official documents, newspapers, and education were selected as Joyo-Kanji Table. Since then, kanji education was promoted based on this table, and the characters came to be widely used in general society. The establishment of the Joyo-Kanji not only ensured the uniformity of characters, but also contributed to improving the literacy rate of the people and the efficiency of information transmission. The Educational reform after World War Ⅱ, the Joyo-Kanji Table was adopted as the basic set of kanji, and is still widely used in Japan, today. However, the diverse character culture that existed prior to the establishment of the Joyo-Kanji was lost, and characters were unified.

Calligraphy in Modern Times: A Cultural and Spiritual Art Form

These days, the widespread use of PCs and smartphones has reduced the opportunities to write by hand, but calligraphy is still an important place in Japanese culture. In addition to its unique Japanese calligraphy style and cultural background, the aesthetic and spiritual elements of calligraphy attract many people all over the world.

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