At this time of the year, you may have received and sent any number of Christmas cards. Or, in the Japanese tradition, you might still be panicking about writing all the New Year’s postcards that the nation’s army of mailmen and women endeavor to deliver on New Year’s Day.
Even though e-mails have taken over from “snail mail” as many people’s routine way of messaging, the custom of exchanging posted seasonal greetings is a reminder of how nice it feels to receive a handwritten card or letter from a friend or family member.
Though writing by hand is believed to date back around 6,000 years, until recently it seemed that the fountain pens people used 50 years ago had themselves become part of prehistory. Not only were they largely replaced by ballpoints, in the last decade computer keyboards have increasingly become the normal way of “writing.”
But despite the time-saving convenience of computers for people with busy lives, recent trends suggest a steady resurgence of interest in Japan in that age-old art of writing with pens.
Industry observers point to rising sales of fountain pens, while in rapidly graying Japan, the manual dexterity that goes with penmanship is also increasingly being seen as a pleasurable means of countering any loss of mental or physical faculties with advancing age.
One of the surprise publishing hits of the year has been a book from Shiyo Asai, manager of the editorial department of Poplar Publishing Co. Titled “Enpitsu de Oku no Hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Pencil),” this is a version of the classic 17th-century Japanese travelogue “Oku no Hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North)” by haiku poet Matsuo Basho — a version printed in very light-gray characters so the readers can intricately fill them in using a pencil.
Nobody, including Asai, expected the book to become a best-seller, but more than 900,000 copies have already been sold since it was published at the end of January. Many other publishers have jumped on the bandwagon since then, and bookstores have had shelves set aside for “penciling books.”
“I can’t tell precisely why this book became just so popular,” Asai said. “But probably people were attracted to the basic practice of writing by hand.”
Asai, who said she had planned the book to provide people with something “slow” in their busy, efficiency-oriented lives, explained that she believed “if readers handwrote the text, they could take more time to enjoy it.”
“People had probably been wanting such time to write quietly much more than we had assumed. I chose pencil because everybody has them, but they are scarcely used these days and are one of those items that make you feel nostalgic.”
Initially, the book was targeted at people in their 50s and above. But gradually it has also become popular among those in their 20s and 30s, Asai said.
For many older readers, the book and others like it are in demand not just out of nostalgia, but as part of the wider “brain-training” movement in Japan’s aging society. Coloring books, work books, game software, puzzles and other products for boosting brainpower and keeping minds sharp have all been selling well of late, and certainly Asai’s book came at just the right time to serve that growing market.
In fact, according to Ryuta Kawashima, a professor in Tohoku University’s Institute of Development, Aging and Cancer, writing by hand does help to stimulate cerebral functioning. Following several previous books he’s had published on brain training, just this month he added “No o Kitaeru Otona no Shosha Drill (Workbook of Tracing for Adults to Train the Brain),” in which readers fill in characters in haiku and tanka poems.
Kawashima, who is one of Japan’s most prominent neuroscientists specializing in the brain, said that people use the prefrontal cortex of the brain when their hands are busy cooking, drawing, sewing, playing music, writing and so on. The prefrontal cortex, which is the anterior part of the frontal lobes, plays a significant role in creativity, memory, communication and self-control, according to him.
“We have found recently that when you are writing something on a piece of paper by hand, you use the prefrontal cortex very actively,” Kawashima said. “But when you type the same sentences, you scarcely use it at all.
“I have yet to find out the biological reasons for this phenomenon,” he said, “but in a way, it does make sense because a computer is a system to work in place of your brain to process information, so naturally you do not need to use your brain much if you have that system doing the processing for you.”
Reaction to technology
The recent “brain-training” wave is not only the reason for people’s re-evaluation of writing by hand. It is also a reaction to the ongoing march of technology, observers say.
A spokesman for the specialist shop Maruzen Co., which has been retailing Western writing materials through numerous branches in Japan since 1871, confirmed the penmanship trend, saying that sales of fountain pens last year were 15 percent up on the year before.
“The biggest reason for the rise is the trend for people to re-evaluate the personal touch that comes through penmanship in a life dominated by computerized writing,” said Kazumasa Sanada, head of the store’s stationery planning section.
“We especially notice that young people have come to regard fountain pens as a special item to express themselves, and they buy them as one of their fashion items,” he said.
Analyzing the trend, Mari Tanaka, from the marketing division of Pilot Corporation, Japan’s oldest maker of fountain pens, said that it’s because the occasions these days on which people write by hand are typically very special ones, so they want to use something special at such times.
As a growing trend over the last five years, Tanaka said that, “Faced with floods of printed business letters, people are trying to differentiate themselves with handwriting, and they are finding that using a fountain pen is one of the best ways to do this.”
It was because he shared similar views to Tanaka and Maruzen’s Sanada that Masaki Sugiura, the president of Haguruma Envelop, said he opened the company’s Winged Wheel shop in Tokyo’s upscale Omotesando district in 2001. There, where Sugiura said sales are steadily climbing, customers can peruse about 1,000 different items in various designs and types of paper, though some of the most popular are its original 100-percent cotton-paper letter sets and cards.
“Writing and sending letters are something more than just transferring information,” he said. “I opened this shop because I thought people are more and more nowadays remembering that obvious fact.”
At Osaka-based Haguruma Envelop, which has now been making envelopes for 88 years, Sugiura said one of his main aims is to keep alive the letter-writing culture, which he believes, “is one of the most necessary habits as a human being.”
Meanwhile, Kazuaki Uozumi, a professor at Kobe University and a famous calligrapher, has long striven to establish an academic society bringing together experts across the broad field of handwriting, from calligraphers to historians and analysts, since he believes it has great significance in terms of personal identification.
Uozumi, who is well known for his study of writing by hand, and is often asked by the media to analyze handwriting on screen or in print, believes that people in Japan often have only a shallow understanding of the subject.
“Some people show me one kanji character and ask about the writer’s character. It’s impossible,” Uozumi said. “But it is true that if you study handwriting, you can tell such things as the writer’s age and academic background, and you can guess at their character from their way of writing — whether they write tiny letters or big letters, or whether they have a very strong touch or a weak touch.”
More technically, Uozumi explained, handwriting can be identified by the strength, length and balance of strokes. But what makes analysis difficult, but interesting too, is that people have their own handwriting but they can’t write the same letters in exactly the same way again. Also, your handwriting can be slightly changed when you get old or when you get sick, he said.
“Of course, handwriting cannot be identified completely scientifically like examining DNA or fingerprints,” Uozumi said. “But if you make a thorough study of handwriting, you become able to identify a person’s individual touch more accurately.” In particular, he pointed to the importance of such study in Japan, where by law, people have to write their will by hand. Often, he said, accurate handwriting analysis is very important in trials concerning the validity of a will.
So where is handwriting going?
“I don’t think people will lose interest in handwriting completely,” said Asai of Poplar Publishing. “But the speed of advances in technology is so fast, and it’s providing us with amazingly convenient alternative systems. I believe that although writing letters, taking memos and keeping handwritten diaries will survive, they may become rare practices in the future.”
For his part, neuroscientist Kawashima’s footnote was a humble “don’t know.”
“I don’t know about the future for handwriting. People may say 200 years from now that a scientist named Kawashima was just silly 200 years ago when he said handwriting was important for human beings.”