On a recent trip to Hawaii I stopped by a BOOKOFF store that had an excellent selection of used books, and I wanted to write a review about one of the books I ended up purchasing there. It’s called 筆ペン練習帳 (fudepen renshuuchou) and is written by 鈴木 曉昇 (Gyoushou Suzuki). You can roughly translate the book’s title as “Calligraphy Pen Practice Notebook”.
Many students of Japanese may be familiar with the art of calligraphy, where characters are written in a beautiful, dynamic style that can end up producing a work of art that is worthy of hanging on a wall. But perhaps more commonly known is calligraphy using a long, thick brush such that you can only fit a handful (at most) of characters on a regular size of paper.
It turns out there is another way to get into Japanese calligraphy that can be less expensive, and is much easier in several respects: the 筆ペン (fude pen), which can be translated as “calligraphy pen”. The fude pen is a pen-sized implement that has a special tip that simulates a traditional regular-sized calligraphy brush. There are various sizes, but the larger sizes can give quite beautiful results that are similar to what a typical brush can produce. The biggest advantage of this is that you don’t need to worry about manually grinding or at least pouring ink, which can get quite messy. Also, the smaller size of the brush can make it easier to control for some people, and you use up paper much more slowly. (The biggest drawback is that the ink can run out quite quickly, since I practice several times a week I had one pen run out in less than a week.)
In Japanese society, fude pens are used to make simple calligraphy in a variety of places, such as postcards and invitations to events such as wedding ceremonies.
This book has a few pages of text talking about selecting the right pen, a list of fundamental things to practice, and also some notes on how to draw beautiful characters. There’s also some practice drills and details about how to draw some of the basic strokes (horizontal line, vertical line, etc.) A majority of this information also applies to using a regular brush, so if you already know how to draw with that you won’t learn much from these sections.
But the best part of this book is the variety of examples of characters written in several different styles. It starts out with simple characters like 一、日 and 月 written in the simple (楷書, kaisho）style, and eventually ends up moving onto a more advanced fluid style (行書, gyousho) Many of the examples first show the character in black ink, then in gray ink (for tracing), and finally there is an empty square for you to write it yourself––though I haven’t actually written in my book. One slight annoyance is that sometimes the two variations of a character look extremely close and it’s hard to tell them apart. But many of the samples have annotations to help you see the important parts, for example a little circle where space should be, or a triangle showing how certain strokes should align.
In the latter part of the book there are a few examples of full (postal) letters, which are educational for their content in addition to the character’s themselves. There’s also a few pages on phrases used for New Years’ and other important events.
While most of the book is in black and white, near the end are a few pages of color examples of work done by the author, a master calligrapher. Each example has a handful of textual notes. After that are a few pages of characters in an extreme abstract style that are difficult to read at a glance, but you can study these to help improve your eye for these types of calligraphy.
One nice thing about these examples is that they can be used even if your Japanese reading ability isn’t up to par with understanding advanced text. But the two things that are lacking are the meanings for the characters and the stroke order. So I think it would be best for readers of this book to first have good basics of common kanji characters and their stroke orders.
At around 150 pages, this book gives an excellent introduction to writing with a calligraphy pen, and also gives a unique view into how calligraphy is used in Japan on a variety of occasions.
I admit learning Japanese calligraphy without a teacher is quite an undertaking, but great references like this really help you get an edge as opposed to watching random YouTube videos on the topic.
You can find the book here on Amazon Japan.