I watched some Japanese movie the other day. It was a slapstick comedy set in this big prestigious hotel. Visitors and workers kept running around and …. No- hang on! I am not going to talk about this movie! Just about that one thing which really surprised me when I watched it. Since it was set in a hotel, many of the characters were hotel staff, so they had the guy from the service desk, concierge desk, housekeeping staff, a manager and a professional calligrapher (called Hikkou in Japanese)!? The Hikkou is in charge of the all handwritten materials such as banners for a party, wedding cards, the direction board for an event and so on. Wow, I didn’t know that such a profession exists!
written by Kyoko & Uleshka
One example of Hikkou’s work. Writing address for invitation cards.
Another example. These ribbons are often used at award ceremony. Name and appointment are written.
This made me very curious so I did some research on this profession afterwards. I found out that besides the Hikkou in hotels, there are many individuals and companies who specialized in this kind of handwriting service. It is still common to get handwritten graduate certificates and testimonials in Japan and someone has to take care of that. Wedding invitation cards also seem to be a big business. Since everything “feels so digital” nowadays, I am amazed about the number of different Hikkou-services I could find. It seems like there are enough people who consider it to be more apropriate to go for unique handwriting – especially at big occasions like traditional celebrations or some religious rites – as opposed to reproducable, “cheap” computer text.
The free choice of rare, beautiful, exclusive Japanese paper might contribute to this hand-written trend (since those kind of papers would probably cause a print problem). Besides that, many people simply consider handwriting to be warmer.
But I can also think of another abvious reason why handwriting is still popular in Japan: because of the Japanese writing system.
At the end of the 16th century technology of typographical composition was introduced to Japan from Europe and Korea. However those common ways of printing didn’t really get popular in Japan at that time. Since the Japanese writing system consists of Katakana and Hiragana – which makes over a 100 characters already, there are vast amounts of Kanji – which adds up to several thousands of characters. Now I would call this pretty disencouraging when trying to make a piece of type for all the characters!
Besides – around that time, Hiragana was written in “running hands”, which means that those seperate characters melted to one long flow of writing and people felt weird to uncouple them. So how did the Japanese print their books etc. then? They kept curving sheets of wood to create the printing plates for another 250 years!
Obviously typesetting and Japanese didn’t get along very well…
Changing the writing direction from up -> down to left -> right is one of the reasons this one long writing flow changed to seperate characters. Besides the digital fonts of today ended the whole Japanese typesetting problem altogether.
However the Kanji problem still exists. The characters didn’t really reduce in numbers, so when designing a Japanese type face, font designers still have to create thousands and thousands of characters. Of course people tried to solve that with software. Since Kanji are often based on repetitive elements called Radicals – some font software takes one radical a designer defined before and combines it with other radical to create a “new” Kanji. However, the balance of these computer generated designs is mostly pretty terrible, so if you want to do it right, you still have to sit down and look at every little Kanji and correct, correct, correct….
In case you didn’t know that by now, that is the reason, why there just aren’t that many nice Japanese fonts and that’s why there are still so many hand-written characters to be found when walking in the streets of Japan.
Here is where I’d like to share some of the examples I found in the past few days – just for you.
Did you ever pay attention to those flashy handwritten characters in front of a Japanese supermarket? These characters are called POP characters. I always imagined that POP comes from “popular” or something, since they are colorful and cute. But I just found out that POP stands for “Point of Purchase” – advertising, meaning that these characters are promotional tools to make people buy stuff!
Lately many stores started using software to create POP characters. But I have to say that handwritten POP stands out more – in positive and negative ways. (Sometimes they use their POP to such an extend, that it makes me want to leave the store!)
Surprisingly, there are several correspondence courses of POP – “art”. In their course descriptons they say something like: “Would like to earn money from home? Learn how to draw POP characters!” Hmm, does that sound promising?
very common POP art at drug store. colorful and kitsch
another POP art at pet shop. Often accompanied with illustration
You often come across some beautiful signs or menues written with a calligraphy-brush, too! (Especially at Japanese restaurants and Izakayas (Japanese style bars). Just take one walk through a street in Shibuya and you will find countless calligraphy examples.
Just as with POP characters, calligraphy font software becomes popular. Try to find out, if you can tell the difference.
I was quite surprised to find this handwritten shop-sign – one of these plastic glowing lights you place in front of your business. I don’t know why, but this plastic texture and the light lead me to believe, that the typography should also be plastic and printed, or at least some sort of a sticker… The idea that someone actually draws on it with a real brush is something which I thought to have vanished ages ago.
handwritten poster for town fair. Warm and welcoming
handwritten shop-sign – one of these plastic glowing lights
And now look at these: hand carved signs!
If you now think, that everyone is a real calligraphy champion in Japan you are unfortunately wrong! It is becoming quite a big issue in Japan lately, that many children cannot write words or read handwritten letters since they are so different from what they are used to: the computer. Who knows!? Maybe these lovely handwritten signs will all be replaced before long.