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Styles of Japanese Calligraphy

Japanese calligraphy uses both borrowed Chinese characters or kanji (漢字) and two unique Japanese scripts (kana)—syllabaries of modified Chinese characters. The two sets of characters for writing kana are hiragana (rounded, flowing strokes, more cursive in appearance)—e.g., ひらがな— and katakana (mostly straight, angular lines)—e.g., カタカナ. Modern Japanese often uses a mixture of all three scripts. Originally, kanji, hiragana, and katakana were not used together. Today, however, kanji and hiragana are used to write the Japanese language itself and katakana are mainly used to write foreign words adopted into the Japanese language. Rōmaji is the standard way of transliterating Japanese into the Latin alphabet. In everyday written Japanese, it can be used to write numbers and abbreviations. Kanji is usually written in styles based on five main Chinese styles. For more information about the Japanese writing system and/or Japanese calligraphy see Suggested Readings.

tensho (105K)
seal script
reisho (94K)
clerical style
kaisho (43K)
square style
(block style)
gyosho (37K)
semicursive style
(running style)
sosho (70K)
cursive style
("grass" style)

Often kanji (see below) are brushed in a bold, splashy, and forceful way while hiragana script tends toward an elegant cursive look, even wispy like tendrils of smoke. Katakana has a more straight forward angular look. Each script style has its own peculiar visual pleasures.

kanji (51K)
kana_script (33K)
Mixed kanji and hiragana
hiragana (135K)
katakana (79K)

Within these main traditions a wide range of variations is possible. For example, see the character 月 (moon) in several works by Maki Haku 巻白 (1924-2000):

Moon_Maki_Haku_moon (150K)
Moon_Maki_Haku_moon_serigraph (106K)
Moon_Maki_Haku_Poem71-4 (63K)
Poem 71-4
Moon_Maki_Haku_Poem72-2 (55K)
Poem 72-2
Moon_Maki_Haku_Poem72-42 (88K)
Poem 72-42
Moon_Maki_Haku_Poem72-44 (90K)
Poem 72-44

Many Japanese calligraphers are influenced by a style called bokuseki 墨跡 (ink trace) developed by Buddhist monks, especially Zen practioners. This style is characterized by invention, personal expression, and often a studied disregard for calligraphic rules. Such works are often hard to decipher even for experts since the vitality and dynamic flow of the brushwork are often more highly prized than immediate legibility. These works exemplify the Chinese concept of xin yin 心印 (heart imprint) as a direct material expression in ink on paper of personal spirit. Another script style developed under the influence of esoteric Buddhist sects such as Shingon. This is called bonji—a script based on the siddhaṃ alphasyllabary. Typically it is used to write sutras, mantras and seed syllables for meditation.

bokuseki (91K)
Bokuseki 墨跡
Maniwa Nobuzō 馬庭信蔵.
bonji_siddham (37K)
Bonji 梵字

In addition to the styles mentioned above, some contemporary Japanese calligraphers push the "normal" rules in their work and emphasize the painterly characteristics of the art.

Zuito_One-stringed_instrument (183K)
Zuitō 翠涛.

Japanese Calligraphy