CACA現代アート書作家協会 特別顧問 岡本光平

Artist Talk at Yale University

Calligraphy and the Beauty of Japan
Kohei Okamoto
11 Nov. 2014 at Yale University


「Cloud and Flame」 Kohei Okamoto
Collection of yale museums 

Chinese characters are the core element of Japanese calligraphy which entered Japan with Buddhism in the 5th-7th century. In this respect the foundation of Japanese culture was built on immigration from China and the Korean Peninsula. At the same time there was immigration from the adjacent region of Siberia and from South East Asia. These peoples migrated to Japan and mixed together to create the foundation of Japanese culture. After many more centuries of hybridization, what emerged was Japanese culture. So based on this, there are a few key points that I’d like to discuss.

One of the characteristics of the emerging culture was respect for differences. With immigration from all across Asia, there had to be openness and tolerance. Afterall, Japan is an archipelago and a small geographic area. People had to get along with one another to create a Japanese society. One of the major examples of this tolerance was the synthesis between the ancient Japanese gods of Shintoism and the Buddhism coming from China and the Korean Peninsula. The people that came from China and Korea were mainly fleeing warfare on the continent. So they were averse to war and sought peace. Japan, relatively isolated because of its geographical location and surrounded by water, was still close enough to the Asian continent to absorb these immigrants. But at the same time, it was still isolated enough to develop its own unique culture. Some of the geographic characteristics of Japan are the very distinct four seasons and the abundance of water. Four distinct seasonal changes gave Japanese culture a sensibility and refined taste. And the abundant water also provided stimulus to the local culture and to various crafts in Japan. Even though with the advancement of technology in the modern day world, the abundance of nature and water, the four seasons and the blessings of nature make Japan still a society in which nature and the respect for the gods is basic.

One example of this continued reverence for the gods is that anywhere you go in the Japanese countryside, you find many local festivals taking place which are rituals for the deities dwelling in the land. All festivals are rituals expressing reverence for the local deities. This is actually the point of departure for many crafts and arts of Japan. The Buddhism which came from the continent eventually became enmeshed and amalgamated with this local reverence for the gods and the different cultural elements were able to harmonize with each other. The art of calligraphy is no exception.

For about three hundred years, there was a period in which Japanese calligraphy directly copied or used Chinese characters as a mode of expression. But from about the time of 9th century, phonetic scripts such as Katakana and Hiragana were invented and a Japanese style of calligraphy came about.

In China, calligraphy is termed Sho-hou, or, the Law of Calligraphy. In Japan the expression is Sho-do or the Way of Calligraphy. I believe there are actually some differences about the calligraphy which you can see through the differences in these terms. The Chinese term Sho-hou with “law” embedded in the name points to a concept of the universe9/ that is discovered through certain laws and phenomena of nature. This philosophy is very much tied to the Yin-Yang philosophy of ancient China. To summarize this complex philosophy, there are male and female, night and day, fire and water. Yin-Yang philosophy believes these opposing forces are not really opposing but actually complementary to one another. In their harmony is the way that the world works.

So you can see, the concept of Yin-Yang philosophy embedded in every act of calligraphy. When one paints with a round brush, puts it onto the square - white piece of paper, with black ink on the white paper of square, and writes circularly/, you can see the synthesis at /the core of Yin-Yang philosophy.

So in Chinese calligraphy, many of the rules and techniques also derive from Yin-Yang philosophy. It also ties in with the idea that through the brush, through writing and through the characters, one is trying actually to represent directly the universe through writing. In contrast, Japanese calligraphy tries to actually get closer to nature, tries to harmonize with nature rather than trying to still nature. So the calligraphy, the line itself actually becomes more similar for instance to water flowing over the waterfall and the lines try to directly represent nature itself. The letters themselves also become softer and rounder.

The writers of Japanese calligraphy were aristocrats from the court. In the 9-10th century, they started to write calligraphy on folding screens and incorporate them into their daily lives. And as they put the folding screens around their interiors, they would look at them and appreciate them in conjunction with the exteriors and natural landscapes that they saw beyond from their interiors. Calligraphy begins to resonate and harmonize with the outside landscape.


There are three major figures in the early history of Japanese calligraphy, Ono-no-Tofu, Fujiwara-no-Sari, and Fujiwara-no-Kosei. As I mentioned earlier, in Japan, calligraphy is termed Sho-dou rather than Sho-hou. So the term, Sho-dou, or, the way of calligraphy, there is an imbedded term in the character of “dou.” In the way of calligraphy, there is the idea of spiritual training and purification. In many of the other traditional Japanese arts, you might know some of them, the term “dou” refers to teaching. So we have the way of poetry or Ka-do, the way of tea or Sa-dou, the way of flower Jyu-dou, and the way of the Samurai or Bushi-dou. All these traditional arts have imbedded in this term the ideas that practice requires both cultivation and training, including spiritual training. So this term actually includes the idea of cultivating and purifying one’s soul.

There are actually two distinctions between Japanese calligraphy and Chinese calligraphy. One is actually the beauty of Kasure or dry brush strokes. We can see this style in Kukai, a monk from the 9th century. In his work there is intentional Kasure. Kasure refers to when you can see the white on the paper through the black lines of the strokes.

Generally speaking in Chinese calligraphy, Kasure style does not exist. Kasure style evokes a waterfall, the rush of the waterfall, or the mist and haze that one might see in a landscape. Places such as waterfalls or mountains that are shrouded by mist were thought in Japan a very long time ago to be places where gods reside. This style of Kasure culminated in the work of Ikkyu, an eccentric 15th century Zen-monk.

Another distinction from Chinese calligraphy is the idea of empty spaces. So this is the style in which one intentionally and deliberately leaves white empty spaces on the paper. This too does not exist very much in Chinese calligraphy, but one can find it in Japanese and Korean examples. I do think that the examples from Korea are not so intentional but unconscious. In the case of Japan, one can find examples of empty spaces, the deliberate use of empty spaces in other parts as well. One might visit a very large shrine such as a Shinto shrine building where the building itself is not very large but the path to the shrine is very long. So we can understand the whole shrine precinct to be an empty space in which the shrine building is much smaller a small area within a large emptiness. In ancient times it was understood that a shrine precinct contained no buildings at all. Instead, the god descended and built a space full of old trees and rock and dwelled in those natural phenomena.

Another example in Japanese traditional architecture is a space connected to the end of reception rooms called Tokonoma, which can seem to be a rather wasteful area. Tokonoma is an alcove where one venerates gods which ensure the prosperity of the house. It’s where you put decorative scrolls and calligraphy, where you place flowers and burn incense to pay homage to these gods.

How much rice you put into a rice bowl is another example in practice. There is always an appropriate volume to be seen right. That too can reflect the Japanese sensibility of appreciation of empty spaces in the daily life.

On the surface, two dimensional space, this Yohaku, empty space might seem wasteful, inefficient and illogical. What really can quantify the value or the meaning of this empty space? These empty spaces are actually three or four dimensional places where the gods descend from the heavens and where one can actually worship the gods and pray and exercise one’s imagination. This idea of empty spaces then merged with the Buddhist philosophy of impermanence. All things that have a shape are destined to change and to lose their shape. So there is a philosophy of emptiness. This morality introduced the idea that anything that has a shape is a provisional shape and the essential truth lies in nothingness. This is the philosophy that holds that the truth resides in nothing. So the world of calligraphy is one which, very early on in the Japanese arts took the ideal and value of this philosophy and embodied it into its esthetics.
This concept of emptiness is one which still lies at the foundation of Japanese esthetics and one from which the public derives much inspiration and calm.


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