Have you ever wondered at why every Japanese person has exquisite handwriting, when writing in English? I believe it is because they have finely honed fine motor skills, due to the fact that they practice calligraphy throughout their schooling life.
Last time we were in Kyoto we were fortunate enough to experience a calligraphy homework session with our friends. My friend Maki, who is Japanese, and lived in China for many years, explained that the Chinese no longer practice writing kanji (Chinese characters) as part of their education, but for the Japanese, it is viewed as a very important element of their culture.
Calligraphy practice of kanji is not a simple “pull your books out and bang out a few kanji” type of situation. The ritualistic nature of the practice fascinated me. Very precise and beautiful (how very Japanese). Firstly, a felt mat is placed down, then all the brushes and other equipment are set out in a very certain order. Special paper is then placed on the mat and weighted in each corner. The ink is then ground, adding some water, from a solid block. It was hypnotic to watch.
The actual writing is tremendously difficult. The paper feels as if it will be very absorbent, making you feel like you do not want to leave the brush in one place for too long. However, very slow and careful strokes are exactly what is necessary to correctly form the characters, with pauses at the beginnings and endings of many strokes.
I watched the girls. They were amazing, creating beautiful and intricate kanji. I had, at that stage, just started learning kanji. I was invited to give it a try. Wow…. so very challenging… and what a mess my 川 (Gawa- river) ended up being! Maki was very good at calligraphy at school and came over to demonstrate. I loved watching her measured and exact movements.
The calligraphy text book has instructions on how to sit properly, with feet together, back upright and brush at a 90 degree angle. Calligraphy is practiced all the way through school, from about 10 years old until completion. As many of you know, I work in a primary school in Australia. The teaching of handwriting has nearly completely vanished from our education system. I think it’s a very tragic loss, that many children will never know the joy of creating a visually pleasing, handwritten piece of work. My kanji has improved, exponentially since my last attempt. I am looking forward to another attempt with the calligraphy brush on a future visit….