Not Your Grandmother’s Calligraphy

One of the most well-known traditional arts of Japan is calligraphy (“shodou” or 書道). I’d practiced calligraphy for the better part of a year, but it started slipping in my list of priorities when the calligraphy teacher at Aomori High School got transferred. As much as I regret falling out of practice, part of me isn’t that heartbroken, because:

1.)   I was absolutely terrible at it. I am bound to fail at anything remotely artistic.

2.)   I’m left-handed and Japanese calligraphy is traditionally a right-handed activity. The cards were stacked against me from the beginning.

Even though I’m no longer a practitioner of 書道, however, I can still definitely appreciate the beauty behind it. Some of my favorite students are in the calligraphy club at school, and this past weekend, they put on an exhibition in the city of their talents. Though Japanese calligraphy is an extremely graceful, peaceful activity (After all, the stereotypical image that comes to mind is probably an elegant woman in a kimono, serenely dipping a brush into a lacquered bowl of ink, right?), the act can definitely be modernized. Insert “this is not your grandmother’s 書道” wisecrack here.

Calligraphy in progress.
Calligraphy in progress.

The walls of the exhibition were lined with calligraphy banners from the participating schools, and that traditional display was in sharp contrast with my students’ exhibition.

Calligraphy hangings
Calligraphy hangings

It was set to a rock song, and the girls were dressed in colorful painters’ smocks. And that butterfly trailed by a rainbow? Pretty sure that’s not entirely traditional, either… As my students began to fill the paper with kanji and hiragana, sharp cries of “はい!!” punctuated the air.

The finished product
The finished product
A calligraphy butterfly.

There’s a Japanese concept called “wabi-sabi” (侘び寂び), which involves accepting imperfections as adding to the overall beauty of an object. That can definitely be applied to this style of calligraphy, because ink was splashing everywhere and random blotches dotted the paper. Though it might not have been perfect, I’d definitely consider it more attractive – and certainly more emotional – than paper filled with sterile kanji characters.

The "seal" of my school's calligraphy club. Think of it like an artist signing his work.
The “seal” of my school’s calligraphy club. Think of it like an artist signing his work.

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