Barakamon is a slice-of-life anime series set in the Gotou Islands, Nagasaki prefecture, Japan, that features the islands’ local traditions and the importance of human relationships. The protagonist, Seishuu Handa, is a professional calligrapher. The art of calligraphy has a rich history in Japan and in this article I would like to introduce you to the artistic writing of the Japanese language.
History of Japanese calligraphy
Japanese calligraphy, known as shodou in Japanese, originated from Chinese calligraphy when the Chinese characters (now called kanji in Japanese) were introduced to Japan in the ancient Yayoi Period. The original Chinese calligraphy has a very long history. The earliest known form of Chinese writing is oracle bone script from prehistoric times (script carved on animal bones or turtle plastrons). The pictographic oracle bone script developed into the present day logograms, kanji and hiragana. Calligraphy is still practiced today as a way to write correctly or as an artistic way to represent the characters in unique ways.
As Buddhism was introduced with these characters in Japan, shakyou, or sutra copying, became popular. When Japanese envoys to ancient Sui or Tang Dynasty China came back to Japan with their cultures, the traditional regular style attributed to Wang Xizhi and seen most often in sutras became well-known. The Japanese syllabic scripts known as kana were later invented based on these Chinese writings.
Shodou is rich in history and has a lot to offer. There are many principles, techniques to learn, as well as various script styles such as kaisho (regular script), sousho (cursive), gyousho (semi-cursive), and many more. What’s most important, however, is to learn correct and careful writing and to enjoy practicing and improving.
Tools required for Japanese calligraphy
There are four basic tools you need to practice Japanese calligraphy, an inkstone, brush, inkstick, and paper. They are collectively known as bunpou-shihou (Four Treasures of the Study).
You can buy these tools at 100-yen shops too, but you should probably choose tools of better quality if you want to do a good job. People are often particular about each tool: material used for the inkstick varies, brushes come in various shapes and sizes, made with different kinds of animal hair.
The quality of the tools affects the quality of the work.
Taking good care of the tools is also important; they could last for more than 10 years if you take good care of them. On the other hand, they might not even last a year if you are negligent in their care. The culture of shodou is profound and careful even when it comes to the tools.
Calligraphy as a Profession
Seishuu, the protagonist of the series, submits his works to exhibitions and sometimes does calligraphy for shop signboards. Kawafuji, his friend who is an art dealer, also offers him some work. So, how do you follow this profession in real life?
To become a Japanese calligrapher, you first have to learn basic calligraphy from a master and from classic scripts, and then submit your work to exhibitions to become known. Seishuu’s father, Seimei Handa, is also a calligrapher and has sold his works to hotels and high-class restaurants. There are not many reputed calligraphers like Seimei. By the way, the calligraphy appearing in the anime series is the work of the professional Japanese calligrapher, Ungai Hara.
Other than selling their art works and accepting calligraphy offers, some calligraphers also teach calligraphy in workshops.
Gagou: A Pen Name for Calligraphy
Seishuu’s real name is actually Sei. Seishuu is his pen name, or gagou in Japanese.
This custom of using a pen name originated in China. In Japan, the pen name of a calligrapher is usually a combination of family name + gagou. You can choose whatever you like for your gagou, but quite often masters give names to their apprentices, similar to what we have seen in the Winter 2017 anime Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu. I too had my own master give me my gagou. The image below is the certificate I received with the name from my master.
You can use your real name or part of it in gagou like the ‘Sei’ in Seishuu, or you don’t have to at all, but there is a general custom in choosing which kanji to pick; you pick either water-related or mountain-related kanji depending on your family name.
For example, the protagonist’s family name is 半田 (Handa), which uses 田 (rice paddy) that reminds you of water. His gagou is made of his real name 清 (Sei) and the water-related 舟 (shuu), a boat on water.
Moreover, you can also use kana instead of kanji. The kana syllables look softer in general, and some calligraphers, who found their gagou in kanji unfit to their nature, write their gagou in kana. Some use either kanji or kana depending on their work.
The Art of Japanese Calligraphy
The Barakamon series features the slow lives of its protagonists and the comfortable atmosphere on the local island. You can discover something new when you look at it in the different perspective of Japanese calligraphy. Please check out the beautiful calligraphy work by Ungai Hara shown in anime!