Japanese book review: 「書道」の教科書 (Calligraphy Textbook) by 横山豊蘭 (Houran Yokoyama)

By | September 28, 2020

A few weeks ago I began learning the art of Japanese calligraphy, which is called “shodou” (書道). I posted a lengthy article here on some of the things I discovered, and included some hints for those interested in learning shodou. Right around the time I finished that article, a book arrived that I had purchased,「書道」の教科書 (Calligraphy Textbook) by 横山豊蘭 (Houran Yokoyama), and this post is my detailed review of that book. (Note: some people spell the word “shodo” but I prefer to add the final “u” to make it match up more accurately with the Japanese spelling.)

The version of the book I read (the revised edition) was published a few months ago by 実業之日本社 (Jitsugyo no Nihon) and is around 160 pages with full-color illustrations and photographs. I got my copy from Amazon Japan here. You can easily tell the revisioned edition since the picture on the front shows drawing a line from left to right, whereas on the older edition it is up to down. Also, if you are searching for the book beware that there is a different book with the same title, but a different author and subtitle.

In the age of the Internet, with nearly unlimited learning resources available on a wide variety of topics, I feel the role of the textbook is changing and may even eventually become obsolete. Having said that, the main advantage of a textbook is presenting educational material from a reputable source in a well-organized, easy-to-understand fashion––all things that can be lacking in Internet resources. The only true “textbook” that I have had my hands on in the last few years is “Genki”, an excellent Japanese textbook, although that was for a teaching purpose, not a learning one. So I think in the back of mind this had set some expectations for “Calligraphy Textbook”.

This textbook is broken down into five chapters and an appendix:

  • Chapter 1: Fundamentals of Japanese calligraphy
  • Chapter 2: Fundamental brush strokes
  • Chapter 3: Styles of Japanese calligraphy and historical roots
  • Chapter 4: Shodo as art
  • Chapter 5: Shodo in the age of Reiwa
  • Appendix: Examples by the author

(Note: I’m using my own English translations of the titles instead of those in the book, read on for the reason why.)

The first two chapters are very information-dense and contain a wealth of important details for those new to Japanese calligraphy. Chapter one talks about basic materials, including information about brushes, paper, and ink, as well as how to hold the brush and proper body posture. The second chapter begins by showing how to draw the simplest possible vertical and horizontal lines, including a few variations (varying brush angle, etc.), and then gives a two-page treatment of each of the basic strokes (hane, harai, magari, etc.) Each of these pages has a few kanji examples with salient points (alignment and spacing of elements, etc.), and the chapter ends with pages of brush-written hiragana and katakana charts, and a section on differentiating similar terms: shodou (書道), shuuji (習字), and shosa (書写).

The author uses his own special notation to describe strokes, which involves not only the angle of the tip of the brush and the amount of contact it makes with the paper (this is related to brush pressure), but also where the upper part of the brush is pointing. Keep in mind this level of description if only for a subset of the characters in the book.

One of the confusing parts about learning shodou is that there are a variety of common styles used, each with its own rules for how to write it. Chapter 3 of this book focuses on the five most common styles (楷書 [kaisho]、行書 [gyousho]、草書 [sousho]、隷書 [reisho], and 篆書 [tensho]). I won’t go into details on the styles in this post, but it’s fair to say the book covers everything from the simplest style to the more ornate, cursive styles. I like how the author uses many historical examples, including a few centuries-old texts to illustrate traditional examples of each of these styles. 

The visual appearance of the book is pretty good overall, with many informative photographs and diagrams, but the content of these first few chapters is especially well done, with over half of the content being presented in some easy-to-understand, non-textual form.

The fourth chapter talks about Japanese calligraphy as an art form and gives some important historical context, including information when calligraphy was considered as an art, and by whom. There are some samples of artistic shodou, and as you might expect they generally lean towards a more abstract style. There is a section enumerating a handful of commonalities shared by much modern shodou, and a section with varying brush techniques and compositional ideas. There are also some hints on how you can make your own pieces of shodou art. The closing thoughts in this chapter were memorable, especially the author’s comment on how in this day and age anyone can claim to be a calligrapher by simply making a webpage displaying their works, but it is ultimately up to you to study and develop an eye for recognizing expert calligraphy. The final chapter is about how shodou is changing and will continue to change into the future, with an emphasis on the community and cultural aspects of Japanese calligraphy. 

While there were some interesting ideas and visuals in these last two chapters, I admit my interest was not as strong as with the first three, and some sections (especially about the ‘art’ angle) I just skimmed over. It isn’t that I don’t value shodou as art, but I feel like I am not at the level where I can properly judge, and I need more experience until I can actually have an educated opinion.

The short appendix has a few samples of postcards with calligraphy done by the author, and then a few pages about 千文字 (senmoji), an ancient Chinese story told in 8-character sentences that is formed with 1000 characters. There are descriptions for each sentence and the author says to use the characters themselves for reference, but they are pretty small (with 64 on each page) and lack any compositional lines or other hints to help draw them correctly.

Overall, I’m divided on this book. It packs a lot of information into 160 pages, and covers many important areas of Japanese calligraphy in a way that really pleases the eye. For someone new to calligraphy (as well as reasonably fluent in Japanese) I would highly recommend reading at least the first three chapters. 

On the other hand, I felt something was lacking in terms of actually helping to improve one’s calligraphy beyond the very basics. First of all, I felt there wasn’t enough large-sized kanji with detailed notes on composition, spacing, etc. Also, while there was some discussion about practicing using characters which are regarded for their beauty and historical value, there wasn’t much in terms of a clear set of steps to follow. Nor was there much in terms of exercises (which I came to expect, especially when comparing to “Genki”) except a few half-hearted sections like “Let’s try to draw in an ancient character style”. I appreciated the tables of characters in the “sousho” section (cursive), but one of the few examples was extremely difficult to pick through and analyze. It would have been better to start with some simpler examples and move gradually to more difficult passages. 

I was also a bit confused about the style of the characters in the first two chapters compared to the “kaisho” style introduced in the third chapter. I guess the first two chapters were essentially written in a simplified “kaisho” style, and the section in the third chapter about a more historical “kaisho” style, but it would have been nice for the author to clarify that. But this could just have been something I missed. Regardless, I think talking about the styles first (putting chapter 3 earlier) and then going into the individual strokes might have been a better flow for readers to follow.

Anothing thing is that while I just recommended reading the first three chapters, to be honest I didn’t learn that much in the first two. The reason is that many of the important points, especially about the strokes themselves, I had already picked up from watching a bunch of Youtube videos done by Japanese calligraphers. Some of the other content that was new to me (like technical details about paper and brushes) was of less interest for my immediate goal of drawing beautiful characters, but it’s good to have those for future reference.

While I liked the idea of the author’s unique way of representing strokes, in particular I found that the indication of the upper part of the brush was a bit hard to visualize and difficult to actually use in practice. It reminded me of my training in Aikido where sometimes too much information (do this and this at the same time as you do this…) can be overwhelming and even counter-productive. Conversely, watching videos of others doing calligraphy (even if not as skilled as Yokoyama san) was much easier to follow and has helped me improve over the last few weeks.

The Japanese language in this book is quite advanced, though in one part it says elementary school students enjoyed the book (which I guess shows how quickly Japanese natives learn Japanese). In particular, furigana reading hints were very sparse and odds are you will have to look up a bunch of kanji. The historical sections were the hardest, with words like 秦 (“shin” = the Qin dynasty) that I had never seen before, but even the terms about brushes used a few words whose pronunciation I didn’t know.

Fortunately, the book does have a nice bonus for those not skilled in Japanese––the introduction of English translations in various places around the book, including many of the diagrams as well as a special forward and afterward in English. While the result is far from being truy “bilingual”, I think the supplemental English is just enough for English-speakers to make some use out of the first few chapters, even if you know little to no Japanese. This is especially true regarding the strokes, where diagrams are the most important part anyway.

The dark side of this is that the English translations are quite awkward. There are various problems, from the use of words I’ve never heard before to typographic issues (missing spaces) and awkward phrasing. To give an example of the phrasing: “By all means, I would like you to practice calligraphy a lot with this book.” What the publisher/author decided to translate also seems somewhat arbitrary, though it is clear they gave an emphasis to the diagrams. As a Japanese publisher, I realize that the majority of Jitsugyo no Nihon’s target audience is native Japanese speakers, and the addition of English may have been more to help Japanese people learn English. But the mediocre translations mar what would have otherwise been a very professionally produced book; a little bit of advice from a native English speaker could have drastically improved the quality of the English. 

In closing, I wanted to return to the matter of whether the material in this book is sufficient for a learner of shodou. Clearly, no single textbook will be enough to make you a master of some skill that generally takes years, if not decades to master. But with a lot of practice, as well as some other reference and workbooks, I can see “Calligraphy Textbook” being a valuable learning resource––especially on account of its clean design and good breadth of topics, from modern to historical. After all, given that elementary school children in Japan typically start learning about shodou around their second year, it’s fair to say that the average reader of this book will have a lot of knowledge before they begin. Nevertheless, I will still give “Genki” a higher rating for comprehensiveness.

Even though in the end this book did provide me with some good background information and as a result increased my interest in Japanese calligraphy, I think making major advances in my actual brushmanship will require practice hours. I’ve been posting some of what I’ve drawn on Twitter once in a while, and I hope to gradually increase the quality of those. One thing I like about calligraphy, and Japanese language in general, is that to a certain extent the quality of the result is based on real skill (what you can call 実力の勝負 [jitsuryoku no shoubu]), not luck. There’s no faking things, and when you reach a certain level it should be clear to your peers and sempais that you have really achieved something worthwhile.

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