Shannon Mewes: Japanese Calligraphy

For my CIP, I have been taking weekly lessons in shodō, or Japanese calligraphy. I was introduced to my teacher, Asakusa-sensei, by a classmate’s host mother. Every Wednesday after lunch, I take the bus to Shimogamo Jinja bus stop, then walk a few minutes to Asakusa-sensei’s home where the lessons are held. The classroom is small but comfortable, mostly occupied by a large table and chairs—this was a pleasant surprise, since given what I’d seen of other CIPs related to traditional culture, I’d been bracing myself and my knees for an hour of sitting in seiza. Since I’m the only student with a lesson during my time slot, I’ve been able to interact one-on-one with my sensei far more than I expected, and I’m exceptionally glad to have had that opportunity.
The structure of my lessons is always more or less the same: each week, I determine what it is I want to work on writing (generally 3-5 specific kanji, though we’ve also worked on my hiragana handwriting) and bring a list with me. Asakusa-sensei then demonstrates each character so I have an example of the stroke order, and I practice each one a number of times, with Asakusa-sensei providing input on what to fix and what I did well. In theory, this kind of lesson in a one-on-one situation seems kind of daunting, and at first I was nervous during my lessons due to both my lack of experience and a fear of messing up my Japanese or accidentally being rude by poorly employing honorific language. However, the more I talked to her, the more comfortable I felt during lessons. It also helped that Asakusa-sensei is extremely friendly—overall she reminds me very much of a peppy grandma.
Though I’ve definitely slipped into informal speech from time to time out of habit, on the whole I’ve been able to use and get better at a more formal, less casual way of speaking. This has provided what I think is an important supplement to my Japanese class and the speaking practice I’ve gotten with my host family, since it’s more formal than, say, chatting with my host mom, as well as more natural and conversational than most interactions with professors. Though there are still times that one of us will have to look up a word (for example, I didn’t know the Japanese word for thunder and my attempt to describe it was more awkward than helpful) to keep the conversation alive, I feel that overall my communication ability has increased greatly as a result of these lessons.
Another benefit of my CIP is what comes after each lesson. After my very first lesson, I was surprised and delighted when sensei brought out a cup of tea and a cookie and offered them to me. Though my actual time slot is from 2:00 to 3:00 in the afternoon, we ended up chatting over tea until 3:30 or 3:45. This is a weekly ritual; after I’ve finished my calligraphy and cleaned my brushes, sensei will duck into the other room for a few moments and return with a hot cup of tea (in a ceramic cup she made herself, no less!) and a small snack of some sort and we’ll talk for another half an hour or so. I’ve found that during these conversations we talk a lot about what I’m learning in my classes, as well as discussing cultural differences between my background and hers. I feel really fortunate to have this kind of cultural exchange; compared to the other people I interact with in day-to-day life, Asakusa-sensei has far less experience with exchange students, so there’s a much different kind of mutual learning that happens in these conversations.
Entirely secondary to the social and language-related benefits, I’m also very happy to have taken these lessons from an artistic perspective. Part of my initial interest in Japanese calligraphy came from my hobby of English calligraphy, and investigating the differences between the two practices as well as letting shodō influence my English work has been an enlightening experience as well. I also feel that paying such deep and individual attention to writing kanji, including really looking at the radicals that compose them, has given me an added edge when learning kanji in an academic setting. Where before I struggled to remember and make sense of the characters, the intensive work with kanji has functioned much like studying word roots did for me in English; specifically, writing them slowly and with intention and thought has allowed me to pay attention to their pieces and configurations, drawing connections between characters and words that previously seemed unmanageably different.
Both socially and linguistically, I feel that my CIP has really rounded out the rest of my experiences at KCJS. From a more personal standpoint, I am also very grateful for the weekly chance to slow myself down and give something my undivided, almost meditative attention—and then enjoy cultural exchange over a fresh cup of tea.

4 thoughts on “Shannon Mewes: Japanese Calligraphy

  1. The one-on-one interaction seems to be helping you at a pace that is comfortable for you. However, most of the other CIPs involve interaction with peers as well as a mentor. Do you feel as though you lose something by not interacting with fellow students?

    • On a certain level, I do think it’s possible that I haven’t really had the same social opportunities that other people have had in CIPs that are more group-oriented than one-on-one, particularly in terms of interacting with people my own age. However, I don’t really feel like I’ve missed out, in the grand scheme of things, since I was able to get really close with my sensei.

  2. I’m glad that you not only got to practice an artistic skill but also got to really hone your conversational skills as well. I hope I can get to that level with my own CIP Sensei next semester, but he usually seems pretty busy after we’re done. Would you say you have a better appreciation for kanji practicing for class now?

    • Absolutely!! I’ve definitely started paying more attention to the way kanji are written, and the amount of repetition involved in shodō has really given me a consciousness of the technique and motions of building the radicals (does that make sense at all?) that I didn’t really have before. It’s even changed the way I write kana, which I was apparently doing wrong in several cases. My writing is MUCH more methodical now.