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Traditional Japanese Calligraphy
by Master Japanese Calligrapher Eri Takase

Japanese Calligraphy is called Shodo (shodou) and encompasses a wide variety of forms - many can be seen elsewhere on this site. Here we discuss traditional Japanese calligraphy as practiced in formal National Japanese competitions. This calligraphy is based on Chinese verse which uses couplets or quatrains of four, five, or seven syllables. Two examples are shown in detail below. Keep in mind that these works measure almost 90" high by 21" wide. That is 7.5 feet high!

For traditional work, and especially for national competitions, the calligrapher will normally design a work based on part of a classic Chinese poem. While Japanese calligraphy started with Chinese, today the Japanese calligrapher is versed in Chinese Calligraphy as well as calligraphy that is unique to Japan based on the kana invented in Japan around the 6th century.

The image on the right shows the original Chinese poem with a partial Japanese translation. The red markings are notations made by the artist. These notations can represent a number of things. Often times the Chinese characters used in these poems are not used in modern Japanese. Also, Chinese has no phonetic alphabet for grammar but rather relies on more than 60,000 Chinese characters. Japanese has two phonetic syllabaries, called kana for grammatical elements and to handle words borrowed from other languages. Additionally, Japanese has 3,000 characters called kanji which are Chinese characters adopted to write modern Japanese.

The characters for the poem are given in a Block (kaisho) script and must be converted to the target script. Master Takase prefers the cursive script and so for this peiece will covert the characters to Cursive (sousho) script. 

Traditional Japanese calligraphy has rules requiring that there is at least one blotted area (nijimi) and one patchy area (kasure) in the piece. Other rules exist, for example, two blotted characters may not be next to each other. It is the balance of these elements, perfection alongside seeming imperfections, that make a true work of art.

The placement of each of these elements along with the beauty of the script defines the artistic value of the work


A Poem by Ranjin 

A western observer might see the blotting as a defect thinking that perhaps the calligrapher applied too much ink to the brush causing the ink to bleed into the paper. However, in traditional Japanese calligraphy the work would be unacceptable without the nijimi (or blotted area). As it would be unacceptable without the kasure (or patchy area) where it appears that the brush was running out of ink. This corresponds to the concept developed for the tea ceremony where the imperfection is as much a part of the artistic value as is the technical excellence.

The piece on the right measures 20 3/4"W x 89 3/4"H. It is a combination of two poems by Ranjin of seven syllable couplets. The original text for the poem in Chinese with the Japanese translation is exactly what the calligrapher receives prior to starting the design.

A Poem by Sonpun 

This next piece is a poem by Sonpun and is also of the seven syllable couplet style. It consists of 112 characters and like the above work measures 20 3/4"W x 89 3/4"H.

These poems are Chinese classics. This poem, for example, is a narrative of a man visiting the city of Kishu. He talks of the river swelling after the snow of the harsh winter has thawed and of what he sees in the village. The details of the artwork to the right is shown below (in Japanese and Chinese):

This is a partial translation of Sonpun's poem: “The gates of Kishu castle stretch half–way to the sky with the white clouds of twilight surrounding the castle base. On the rugged mountain path a lady carrying a jar goes to collect water. The snow from Mt. Hasan is disappearing, filling the rivers whose roar at night fills the castle. Passenger boats are lined in the shade of the trees by the corner rocks, fishermen's drying nets are touched by the clouds. In the fields at the base of the mountain farmers are harvesting, and large dried trees are being burned to make charcoal. The people of the land feed the dogs, capture wild deer, the children create an enclosure of brushwood and chase in pheasants...” (translation by T. Jackowski)

This particular piece was chosen for an open exhibition at the Apollo Museum of Arts in Osaka, Japan.

Traditional Japanese calligraphy is both formalized and exact. While artistic expression and genius are necessary, they are also confined within the technical excellence required by this very standardized art form.

Judging involves a group of judges from the society. Typically there will be hundreds of entries and the judges will be presented with five separate works shown together on a very large board that is rolled in before the judges. The judges do not know who did each of the works so for the most part it is a completely blind judging. It is not perfectly so as artists that are better known will have a recognizable style. The panel of judges will choose one of the five works and that work will advance to the next round. This process continues until the final pieces are selected.

The two works shown here by Takase Sensei have won best of category awards in national competitions using this type of judging.

Calligraphic Societies In Japan 

There are many calligraphic societies in Japan as Japanese Calligraphy is an extremely popular hobby today. Master Takase belonged to societies whose members were limited to calligraphy teachers and professional and who represented the very best in Japan.

The work on the right is an excerpt from the register of Bokuteki-kai and shows an early work of Takase Sensei. This is a best in class awards for a national competition with Takase Sensei's work is on the very right.

With rank, the Japanese calligrapher is given a Chinese nom de plume and as shown here, Takase Sensei's nom de plume is Takase Sairei.

Very few calligraphers ever receive the honor of best in class and Takase Sensei has received this honor more that four times in two different and prestigious societies: the Bokuteki-kai and Bunka-shodo.

Bokuteki-kai is a calligraphic society devoted to training professional calligraphers. As there are many calligraphy societies in Japan, ones ranking in a particular society has no bearing on the ranking in another society. And the requirements of a rank are different from society to society.

Takase Sensei is ranked as a master in both Bokuteki-kai and Bunka Shodo.

While the work on the right is remarkably different from the others shown above, note the absence of color and of anything other than the Chinese characters on Japanese paper. Japanese calligraphy is a traditional art and the artist must work strictly within the rules. As an example, to add any color or sumi-e drawing to the work would mean instant disqualification.

Custom Japanese Calligraphy

Lotus Heart Sutra Mantra

Master Takase today also offers completely custom art. If you have an idea for a piece of art we would be delighted to discuss it with you. To learn more about working with Master Takase on a custom piece please visit Custom Japanese Calligraphy

As example of a custom piece, in June 2008, Master Takase created this work for a private collector. The work is on a single sheet of uncut handmade Japanese paper. The natural color, off-white paper seems to float on the white mat board.

This is the mantra from Heart Sutra meaning "Gone. Gone. Gone Beyond. Gone Completely Beyond. Praise to Awakening" which the current Dalai Lama explains as "go, go, go beyond, go thoroughly beyond, and establish yourself in enlightenment."

In Japanese this is read "gyatei, gyatei, hara gyatei, hara sou gyatei, boji sowaka" and the title Heart Sutra was appended on the left which is "hannya shingyo."


Master Japanese Calligrapher Eri Takase About the Artist In 1989, after a life of dedicating herself to the art of Japanese Calligraphy, Eri Takase was awarded the rank of Shihan, or Master, by two of Japan's most prestigious Calligraphic Societies. Under the pen name of Takase Sairei her works have won multiple best in class awards in national competitions in Japan and her work has been displayed at the Osaka Museum of Art.

Shihan Eri Takase has been living and working in the United States since 1995. Her work has sold all over the world as custom art for individuals, on commercial products, in books, magazines, and in film. Her brand of traditional Japanese calligraphy has been described as refined and cultured. Master Takase has most recently devoted herself to adapting the art of Japanese Calligraphy to new mediums and methods and the results are breathtaking.  


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