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Kanji curves and strokes

by Stephen Mansfield

DESIGNING WITH KANJI: Japanese Character Motifs for Surface, Skin & Spirit, by Shogo Oketani and Leza Lowitz. Stone Bridge Press, 2003, 144 pp., $14.95 (paper).

If there are a thousand different ways to learn kanji, there are almost as many ways, and excuses, for giving up on the study.

Here is a book for professionals, inspired amateur designers and the curious who sense the beauty of Japanese ideograms but would like to know what lies behind them. Shogo Oketani and Leza Lowitz’s “Designing With Kanji” is not, as the title suggests a textbook, though it might rekindle interest among those who have made a number of false starts in studying kanji, or still worse, those who have slipped off the learning curve on the very first ascent.

Characters are attractively laid out in five different styles, the kanji sections divided respectively into the “Way of Nature,” “Spirit,” “Warrior,” and the “Heart.” The criteria for the 130 entries in this book are based on their design value, intrinsic interest and their usage in advertising, tattooing and items such as greeting cards. Ideograms are arranged on a faint background grid like those used in kanji exercise books, a clever touch that provides scale.

The ways in which kanji can be written along different linears allow for tattooing on various parts of the body: “vertical kanji lines for tubular arms and legs, horizontal kanji lines for broader torsos, backs, and necks.” Applicable subjects for design and decor listed in this book of ideas run from computer screen-savers and tablecloth motifs, to pastry designs and frosting decorations.

Etymology is also explored, literary references made, proverbs and aphorisms given. Anecdotes trace the morphology of kanji but also illustrate how they have been co-opted to serve different ends. When discussing the kanji for “rebel” (han-gyaku), for example, we learn that John Lennon wore a helmet with the Japanese word printed on it — a student apparently had given it to Yoko Ono — for his 1972 Madison Square Garden “One to One” concert.

Several historical and literary figures also appear in the book, from the Chinese priest Ganjin and the Edo Period heroine Oshichi to the decadent writer Osamu Dazai. Akira Kurosawa’s film “Yojimbo” is invoked when explaining the evolution of the word “bodyguard”; a tanka by Saigyo is quoted to illustrate the emotional appreciation of beauty contained within the form for “heart” (kokoro); snippets of Confucian dialogue appear in relation to the word “morality.” Another page, musing on the kanji for “truth,” refers us to Nagisa Oshima’s film “Taboo.” There is even an allusion to the Pokemon animation series.

Though their beauty and grace have never been in dispute, kanji can seem esoteric and chilly. This book, springing as much from Japan’s astonishingly vibrant contemporary cultural milieu as its age-old traditions, illustrates how kanji serve not only as tools for literacy, but as transmitters of emotions, sensations and experiences that are universal.

Analyzing the kanji for “rejuvenation” (rin), the authors define the components of the word as “coldness surrounded by ice,” an image used to express an adrenaline surge of clarity, a sense, as the authors put it, of the exhilaration that comes “from soaking in an outdoor hot spring in the snow and then standing up and feeling the cold mountain air against your skin.” For lapsed students of kanji, this engaging book may be just the right thing to rejuvenate interest in a topic that is all too easily consigned to the boneyard of good intentions.

Should your interests be purely graphic, however, you can take comfort that, armed with this book, the next time you commit to having a kanji tattoo, or an indelible imprint made on some cherished fabric, you can be sure it will be the right way up.