Colby Sato: Shodou, Learning Kanji

Studying under Mr. Chisaka has been a gift. Mr. Chisaka started my first day by having me write my name. Satou, Jirou. Embarrassingly, I did not know how to write Jirou. So my sensei looked it up in his book of characters, considered the variations on it (I love seeing variations on Kanji. This is so interesting to see.), and wrote an example for me. From this, I practiced writing my name. I probably went through about twenty tries, and by the end, I had one that I liked.
This is how most days go. I want to write a certain character, usually one that’s on the Kanji test for the week, and I practice writing it for an hour to an hour and a half. Between sheets, I sometimes practice strokes I find difficult to make, and I compare the one I just did with Sensei’s example, looking where I wrote the character differently. Through this process, I become more aware of how sensei fit all the strokes together, and the energy and flow in each stroke.
At Shodou, sometimes young kids come and practice their writing. One time, a five or four-year old girl spent 30 minutes practicing た. I thought this was impressive that a child that young was studying calligraphy. In America, calligraphy is considered a very academic hobby. I’ve heard of young children studying violin or baseball, but not calligraphy. I asked my teacher about this, and she explained that handwriting is very important in Japanese culture. People are judged by their handwriting, and when highschool juniors apply for jobs, they must hand-write all of their cover letters. Not only do they handwrite their cover letters, but Japanese students often apply to a lot more companies than Americans, sometimes between 50 and 100. This explains why the mother would bring her child to Calligraphy.
I asked my calligraphy teacher how I could study kanji, and he recommended reading children’s books. He brought some books to calligraphy class. What first struck me was not the Kanji, but the drawings. They’re very graphic and scary, especially for Children’s books. There were pictures of Kapa, Oni (demons), and zombies. What made the drawings even more disturbing was the style of illustrations. Lines were thick and blurry, and made use of very strong, dark colors. I’m sure not all children’s books are like this, but I’m so used to seeing cute illustrations in advertisements, these drawings really surprised me.
But back to kanji. The Kanji in the manga had furigana written next to them. It seems that rather than simply memorize lists of Kanji, children can learn Kanji by reading. I think this is a much better way of learning, because even if I don’t always know what the words are, I can get an idea, frame by frame, of what’s happening.
Japanese children have multiple ways of learning characters. They can learn through formal study, or by reading manga and short story books. In contrast to this, in Japanese class, we learn Kanji by memorizing lists and reading essays. When I return to the states, I think I’ll try learning Kanji by reading children’s books and manga.

4 thoughts on “Colby Sato: Shodou, Learning Kanji

  1. Did you start practicing Shodo with the intention to study Kanji? Based on your explanation, shodo isn’t really about learning how to read kanji. What do you think the heart of shodo is about? How can you write well?

  2. I honestly am still very much a beginner, so I am not a good writer. I am learning the first level of calligraphy that looks like print characters. There are more stylized forms that are less recognizable to readers like me, but look much more interesting.

    I started Shodou to learn about Shodou. My sensei says it is a good way for foreigners to learn about Japanese culture. One thing that I’ve learned is that to do a character well, I need to be very observant, and focused throughout the entire stroke, and I need to fit everything together well. Usually I am disorganized in my thinking and not focused, so I think this is really good for me. Also, everything that I do at any point in writing a character affects everything after it. A stroke too long can make less room at the bottom of the paper, and a stroke at the wrong angle can throw off the balance. I’m not sure this is the heart, but this is what I’ve been working with so far.

  3. It sounds like shodou has become both an intellectual and spiritual experience for you. How do you think you’ve grown as a person since beginning calligraphy? Academically (i.e. your writing improved) or spiritually? Do you think that studying shodou is an important part of studying Japanese? Should it be required in classes like the ones we take at KCJS?

    • I’ve learned several kanji this way, and some of them even show up on the test. 平等 and 真っ白, for example. I think it’s a good way to appreciate Kanji. If Kanji are just characters that one needs to remember for a test or quiz, then they’re quite empty. But while I write them in calligraphy, not only do I learn them really well, but I also try to see how every stroke fits in, and the characters become like pictures. However, I don’t think it should be required, because that would take away from the fun of it. It takes a lot of focus, and if one did it by requirement, one might not be as invested in it, and one would probably not get much from it.