The Japanese Character: Takahiko Watanabe

If you’re Japanese, then you would have tried calligraphy at least once. Just go into any elementary school and you will see the characters written by the students decorating the classrooms.

Recently NHK educational programs about calligraphy have been popular and TV is filled with things like shodo performances with huge brushes or contests between celebrities to see whose strokes are the more beautiful. Calligraphy exhibitions abound, bustling with visitors even during the week. We could say there’s a bit of a calligraphy craze at the moment. But just what is Japanese calligraphy (shodo) in the first place? It’s something you might think you know but perhaps don’t really understand. To find out, PingMag spoke to calligrapher Takahiko Watanabe during his current solo show.

The history of kanji dates back to the twenty-eighth century BC and it came to Japan from its birthplace in China in the first century BC. By the fifth century it was being widely used and then kanji was borrowed in order to also denote Japanese words. This was the start of the script unique to Japan, kana. Although the characters came about for practical purposes, they evolved into something beautiful as the local culture developed.

To start, let’s look at a few examples of classic calligraphy.

Tachibana no Hayanari‘s famous ‘Ito Naishinnou Ganmon’ takahiko-watanabe01

This example of callligraphy is from the Heian period (794-1185) and the paper is made from kouzo fibers. It is distinguished by how the strokes and characters run on into each other.

Koyagire takahiko-watanabe02

This manuscript is for the late Heian period collection of poems, ‘The Kokin Wakashu’. It is said to be the greatest example of kana calligraphy and is an extremely important work in the history of Japanese shodo.

Hell Scroll (Jigokuzoji) takahiko-watanabe03

This work dates from the late Heian period to the early Kamakura period. The calligraphy on the scroll forms a commentary to the picture.

Congratulations on your first solo exhibition.

Thank you. I’m holding my first solo exhibition at the age of fifty but actually that’s very young for the calligraphy world. In Japanese calligraphy the apprenticeships are long and I have many seniors. The people at the heart of the world are seventy years old. There are teachers who hold solo exhibitions at the age of ninety. Some even at 100. It’s a tough world. The teachers are very scary, the apprenticeships strict. Going to my teacher’s place for the day would exhaust me mentally. I lost a kilo. But I really practiced, just kept on practicing all day long. I used up ten years’ worth of ink in two years. Not that I like it. If people ask me if I could live without doing calligraphy, I think I probably could. If I had money! [Laughs] But I don’t want to throw in the towel. I want to do my best writing calligraphy as far as I think I can go, until I am satisfied with what I’ve done.


Calligraphy on display at the exhibition. The paper has been dyed by Watanabe himself using the kuzaki-zome method.

What got you started doing calligraphy?

My father was a famous calligrapher in the shodo world but I didn’t want to follow in his footsteps when I was a child. I did calligraphy a lot when I was a student but it was just shuji. After college I got a regular job and worked for about two years, but I sensed that I wasn’t cut out for that life so I quit. But you need a reason to quit a job. The easiest one was to say that, since I was born into a calligraphy family I wanted to be a calligrapher. I thought I would put together an art unit with some people and handle the calligraphy and keep the culture going in Japan. I wanted to be able to introduce it overseas in the future.

Could you please tell us the difference between shuji and shodo?

Shuji is learning form, like learning how to write out examples beautifully when you are young. But there’s nothing moving about it. There isn’t much emotional involvement for the viewer. Shodo is artistic. It’s about considering how to take your training and put it into an artwork — and writing calligraphy that moves people, where the viewer feels something in the characters.

I don’t really want to be called a calligrapher (shodoka). I’m not a calligrapher, I’m a penman (shoka).


What does that mean? Is there a difference?

A calligrapher has to do things properly. [Laughs] But a “penman” is like a singer. The motifs of kana calligraphy are from waka poetry but I know nothing about that. I write what I want to express with a mood that fits the waka. So I don’t have a very deep knowledge of it. I just have the feeling that I want to write beautifully. But then I can’t call myself a calligrapher. They are more professional. So I call myself a “penman”.

A singer? That’s easier to understand.

Yes, a singer sings all kinds of things, from rock to jazz and ballads, and there are ways to write for a certain song and emotion that fits with that person. Well, my solo exhibition is like that too. For a one artist show, it’s got lots of different things in it. Probably most people will think I should have organized it better! But I like it like this. It’s like having a sandwich, rice ball and pasta all together. I’d like to be more like a showman. I wanted to make it interesting for more people so I also created work fusing ceramics with calligraphy. It’s usually the case that only fans of shodo look at my work so I worked together with painters and potters.



Collaborative artwork with ceramics artist Sadatoshi Araki

The outside of this artwork is celadon and then calligraphy was mounted onto that. The ceramics is like a frame. It might be my first collaboration with pottery. You can often find examples of calligraphy written onto ceramics but this time it’s more of an update on that.

Can we define what are “beautiful” kana characters?

What’s different about kanji and kana is that kana are soft and connected. People often talk about what strokes to “cut the space”. Does putting a long one here and then a large one horizontally bring something out? It’s about the quality of strokes that fit within it. Masters say that a work is made when you assemble density, contrast, lubrication and size together. But in terms of what kinds of strokes to use, without training on the technical side there are all kinds of strokes you cannot produce. There lies the difference between professionals and amateurs. It all comes down to the strokes you can write.

The strokes are clear, whether thin or thick. What is beautiful is a very big dilemma. To write with a firm, thin stroke you need to keep it strong till the end. This is what it’s all about. You do one and then you try another, one that’s fuzzy or warm, something with real emotion. You express what is soft — warm and cold, strong and weak. And the space is also beautiful. How do you show what hasn’t been written? That is the biggest emphasis in Japanese calligraphy.


Some of the characters used in calligraphy. There are many variations of even the same kana character.

takahiko-watakabe16 takahiko-watanabe08 takahiko-watanabe10 takahiko-watababe09

Though calligraphy has always been written with a brush, the character form has changed. Shodo style was perfected in the Heian period. In this way, calligraphers alive and working today use calligraphy from around 1,000 years ago for their models. But after that era it is like there is a gaping hole in calligraphy, since very few famous works have appeared since then. However, one new innovative field emerged after the end of World War Two, so-called avant-garde calligraphy.

Nankoku Hidai ‘Cable Work #1: Electric Variations’

This 1945 work is famous as the first calligraphy without written characters. It was the start of avant-garde calligraphy.

Sokyu Ueda ‘Love’ (Ai)

This 1951 work was entered into the Nitten annual art exhibition. Though we might see only the quality of the kanji, in fact it can be interpreted as picture of love between a mother and child playing at home.

Your work, though, is not so much “avant-garde calligraphy” as something closer to Heian period style. Why is it that such old things are still being continued in 2013?

The postwar avant-garde calligraphers produced those kinds of works after a lot of training. Calligraphy comes about when you have studied the classics a lot and then thought about how to express your own ideas. It takes a lot to put this kind of calligraphy as an artwork into the context of traditional calligraphy. But the people being called avant-garde today are just imitating the avant-garde calligraphers from after the war, and that’s not avant-garde. So for me, the next era is about going back to the source. Learning from the Heian period and asking how much of the taste of the supreme “kana” from the Heian period can be passed onto the next era. This isn’t about re-making them but just adding a little to the beauty of the space and what you feel. It’s not about making something new. Traditional arts are passed on. So it’s the role of my generation to introduce calligraphy to people and show how to enjoy it, how it’s interesting even for people who don’t do calligraphy.

But to become a calligrapher you have to write characters. Do you start by memorizing the form?

If you’re studying the classics then you write what the masters wrote. Replicating what you see is a motor skill. We say that calligraphy is motor skills and a sense of music and rhythm. If you can’t do sports or music, then you can’t do calligraphy. You need reflexes and rhythm in order to replicate what you see. Next comes the issue of the diversity of skills and techniques, and then being able to see properly. Your technique changes depending on how much you can see by looking at the same thing over and over, by whether you are observing or not.

Lastly, please tell us how someone should look at calligraphy.

There are steps for how to view calligraphy. There is calligraphy you look at quickly as wall art and calligraphy you look at as content or poetry. And then if you are a bit more specialist, you look at the technical parts, like the strokes. I think it’s fine for everyone to have their own way. Another thing is that it’s not just a space for the artwork. Calligraphers are imagining the space where the calligraphy will be displayed while we write. In a Japanese home we are lucky to have an alcove where you can hang calligraphy and this makes it more elegant. If possible, we want people to look at the calligraphy not for a moment but for the rest of their life. To keep on gazing at it, to enter right into it.

takahiko-watanabe12 takahiko-watanabe13 takahiko-watanabe14

Takahiko Watanabe’s solo exhibition is being held July 16th to 21st, 11:00-19:00, on the fourth floor of the Kyukodo Gallery in Ginza. Please be aware that the final day is only until 17:00.

Takahiko Watanabe first solo exhibition
July 16th-21st, 2013

Mainichi Shodo Tokyo Exhibition
July 17th to July 22nd, July 24th to July 29th, July 31st to August 4th,2013
The National Art Center, Tokyo
July 17th to July 23th, 2013
Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum

P Calligraphy Exhibition
July 16th to July 21st, 2013
Daikokuya Gallery

‘Power of Characters, Power of Calligraphy II — The Dialogue between Calligraphy and Painting’
July 6th to August 18th, 2013
Idemitsu Museum of Arts

takahiko-watanabe15 Takahiko Watanabe

Born in Shizuoka City. Graduates from Waseda University’s faculty of commerce. Promoted to membership of the Mainichi Calligraphy Exhibition in 2003 and won the Mainichi Calligraphy Exhibition Members’ Prize in 2008.