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.