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Japanese Shuji Calligraphy – Past and Present

Ever since the Chinese character-based script, called as “kanji” was first introduced in Japan around the fifth century AD, it has given rise to a distinctive form of Japanese calligraphy.
Today, Japanese calligraphy in considered as an artistic form of written expression, and is well-respected all over Japan by everybody.
Cover photo credit: ot0rip 604

What is Shuji?



Japanese Calligraphy can roughly expressed by two Japanese words : “Shuji” or “Shodo”. While they may seem quite similar, and to many the words are almost interchangeable, for the experts, there is a difference between the two. The word “Shodo” is derived from “Sho” (to write) and “Do” (a way or path). So, Shodo can literally mean as “the way of writing”.

The word “Shuji”, on the other hand, is made of the words “Shu” (to learn) and “Ji” (characters). Together, the word Shuji means “learning to write characters” or what is generally considered in the Western world as penmanship. Shuji places great emphasis on writing characters or words, with a great sense of balance and harmony.

Benefits of Shuji Calligraphy





Shuji Calligraphy is introduced to Japanese children at an early age, as is taught at Japanese elementary schools. This helps children realise that calligraphy and beautiful writing is not just a good skill to have, but is a reflection of their personality, and even their character. Learning Shuji calligraphy helps students of all ages to pay attention to details and yet have a broad view about things around them.

Furthermore, mastering Shuji Calligraphy is the first step of calligraphy, where stress is given to neatness and uniformity, where as shodo is a more advanced level of calligraphy, where originality and individuality is expected from the calligrapher.






To some, Japanese calligraphy is inspired by Zen Buddhism, as each calligrapher has only one chance to create something unique, with every piece of paper he writes on. There should be no corrections once a stroke is made, as each stroke of the brush reveals the state of the mind of the calligrapher.

One of the best ways to learn Shuji Calligraphy is to take instructions from a trained Shuji master. The student first observes the master make the strokes, and then the student traces over the character drawn by the master several times, in order to learn how to draw the strokes himself. The master repeatedly corrects the student to ensure that the student learns the right strokes of the brush. This form of learning, where a student practices a character repeatedly under the guidance of a trained master, is one of the best ways of learning Shuji calligraphy.







The basic tools for calligraphy come in several varieties, and can range from fairly inexpensive to highly priced, depending on their quality, material used and finish. Most of the tools are easily available in most speciality shops and as you gain more mastery over the subject, you can keep adding more elaborate calligraphy tools to your personal collection. The most basic tools for Calligraphy, traditionally called the Four Treasures of Writing are :

  • Writing brush (Fude) : Traditionally, the brushes were made of animal hair tied up together. Today other material is often used. The thickness of the brush also varies, and the calligrapher used the brush based on what type of calligraphy is to be done.
  • Ink (Sumi) : Soot left behind after burning pine wood is mixed with animal glue to harden it and to prepare the ink. Most common ink colour is black, but gold, silver, red or blue inks are also available. The ink is generally in the form of a thick, rectangular block of ink, called the ink stick.
  • Inkstone (Suzuri) : The ink stone is one of the most prized possessions of the calligrapher. A few drops of water are poured on the inkstone and the ink stick is rubbed on the stone, with water to prepare the ink of the desired consistency. It acts like the palette in painting.
  • Paper (Kami) : Most calligraphers used hand-made paper, which often have a painted design on them. Most calligraphers choose the paper after consideration about the word or character to be written, and who is the intended recipient of the artwork.

Other Calligraphy tools include :

  • Shitajiki or Mat : It is a soft, dark coloured mat that provides a soft comfortable surface.
  • Bunchin or Paperweight is used to hold down the paper and is available in several different shapes and sizes.

2.Decide the word you write





Japanese characters often convey the meaning of the word through a visual means. As a result, most often, a word, or a idea or even a thought,  can be conveyed in a single character.

To choose a Japanese character to write, you must first choose which of the three different alphabets you want to write in. Choose from the cursive-style Hiragana, the block letter style of Katakana or the most difficult style of all the Kanji symbols.

I recommend starting off with something simple. Choose a character which expresses an emotion like joy or hope or an adjective to describe somebody or something. Look through Japanese dictionaries to understand how the English word you want to write translates into the Japanese character.

3.How to hold the brush



As with everything else, the Japanese pay a lot of attention to form and doing things right in calligraphy. Once you have set yourself up to practice calligraphy, you must be seated comfortably. Your body must be relaxed and there should be no tension in your shoulders or your back. Kep your elbows and hands light and flexible.

Hold the brush with three fingers,  the thumb, the index and the middle fingers. Hold it slightly above the mid-way point, away from the bristles. Take care to keep the brush as straight as possible, almost in a vertical position. Furthermore, it should not be slanted as we normally hold it when writing. Also, the brush is held in such a way that the wrist and the elbow stay in one line. And always, remember to keep your shoulders loose.

4.Write the word





Pour a few drops of water on the inkstone. Rub the ink stick in a uniform manner across the inkstone. Continue till it creates a smooth ink of the right consistency. Add more water to the inkstone to achieve the desired consistency.

While writing, there must be no pressure from the hand or the shoulder on the brush. The brush must lightly touch the paper, and the shape of the character must flow from the brush itself. The wrist and the hand are only helping the brush maintain constant contact with the paper. Also, don’t control the brush forcibly. The aim is to create neat characters using balanced strokes of the brush, that can come only from exhaustive practice and repetition.

This may seem like a very difficult notion to understand for somebody who has not practiced Japanese calligraphy.  But, with practice, one can learn the how to minimise the pressure of the hand. Eventually, the brush will replicate exactly that what is in the mind.

Any distractions can ruin a work, and can raise questions about the calligrapher’s focus on the task at hand. Hence, it is essential to make each character with the right fluid strokes. This is important as each character is not merely an expression of a word, but a statement about the calligrapher as well.

For some, learning Shuji Calligraphy can be a great fun activity for a few hours of relaxation and entertainment. For others, it can even be a way to build up patience and calm oneself down. Calligraphy is not just a simple way of writing a word or a character on a piece of paper. It is in face a way to express one’s emotions and state of mind.