Japanese calligraphy is a challenge at the best of times. So why go to the trouble of using a piece of paper as large as the side of a bus, and a brush that’s almost two meters long and weighs 50 kg?

Come New Year’s and the usually urbane pastime of shodo (Japanese calligraphy) suddenly grows in stature, literally. The primary reason is the tradition of kakizome, where people take up brushes and paper to make written declarations of their goals for the year.

These aspirations are often crystallized in a single kanji (Chinese character), such as “yume” (dream) or “hajimeru” (to begin), with the boldness and clarity of the stark black strokes thought to reflect the writer’s level of conviction.

Size plays a role too, and school children in particular can be seen unrolling great lengths of paper on tarpaulin mats outdoors and using oversize brushes so that their goals can be “writ large.”

But the artists of one particularly creative calligraphy association, the Dokuritsu Shojindan Foundation, take the quest for size to an entirely different level. Using specially made brushes resembling big heavy mops, and dozens of large paper sheets joined together, they create works of calligraphy occupying more than 20 sq. meters in area — about the size of the side of a small bus. And they tend to fill those entire expanses with just one or two giant kanji.

The group is currently holding their annual New Year’s exhibition at the National Art Center, Tokyo, so I went along to find out just how they do it, and — a more delicate inquiry — why?

I was greeted by Rebun Matsuzaki, 46, a high school shodo teacher from Saitama Prefecture who, I had heard, was responsible for one of the largest pieces in the show. With the shaved head and round features of storybook monk, Matsuzaki guided me through galleries adorned with hundreds of smaller works. “Takuwaeru” (to save), said one piece, about 1.5 meters square. “Tsukishita” (under the Moon), said another.

Matsuzaki’s work towered over almost all the others, extending six meters in length and about three meters in height. I couldn’t read it at first, but, having been told that even foreigners with no knowledge of Japanese should be able to “feel” the meaning, I quietly submitted myself to this version of the renowned ink-blot Rorschach test of personality.

Um, I thought, giant cobra! Rearing to strike! Medusa, perhaps? There was definitely something serpentine going on, something snakily scary.

“Nobi,” Matsuzaki said, uttering a word I knew to be the title of a novel about the Pacific War by Shohei Ooka. “Fires on the Plain” is its usual English translation. “Nobi” consists of the characters for “field” (no) and “fire” (hi, or bi). “Ah, yes, I can see it,” I said, just managing to trace the paths of the strokes used to make those characters in cursive text.

“You know those fires when farmers burn off rice straw and husks and things on their farms,” Matsuzaki said. “When I was young I had one very scary experience when my grandfather went a bit overboard with the burning off, and for a minute we were totally surrounded by big flames.”

Matsuzaki had sought to write the word for “fires on the plain” in a way that would convey his own memory of just such a thing.

“I definitely got the scariness,” I said — deciding against mentioning the novel, which clearly hadn’t been a reference point. In fact, my mind had already turned to questions of a more logistic nature. I started by asking about his brush, which he had kindly brought with him to the gallery.

Just a little shorter than the artist himself, the first thing that struck me was how heavy it was. With most of its 25 kg of weight centered in the block of wood behind its horse-hair bristles, it was extremely unwieldy. “Don’t forget that it’s dry now. With ink it weighs an extra 25 kg or so,” Matsuzaki said.

Now I was really impressed. To make this single image, Matsuzaki continued, he at first prepared about three buckets of black sumi ink. “I set up a big trough on one side, loaded the brush with ink and then brought the brush over the paper up there,” he said, pointing to the top of the work. “And then I began to write.”

Matsuzaki kindly agreed to re-enact the process then and there — albeit without paper or ink. With his whole body lurching back and forth and up and down, he led the weighty brush through a tightly controlled dance across the gallery floor. It lasted about 30 seconds and when he was done his face was bright red from the effort.

“You would’ve noticed that once I finished the first kanji, I ran off the paper,” he puffed. “Then I ran around the side and started the second kanji up there on the left.”

“Ah, yes,” I answered.

There is no turning back in calligraphy. Once you start your stroke you must follow it through to its conclusion. And in the joined-up, cursive style, a single stroke will dart up and down and back and forth until the entire character is complete. “You can’t go back and make corrections,” explained Matsuzaki. “If you make a mistake you have to start again on a new sheet of paper.”

Later, I learned that another key aspect of writing on such a scale is to make sure you don’t leave any footprints. “You have to map out where you will step in advance,” explained Foundation Vice Chairman Shigekazu Kataoka. “You either make sure you won’t be stepping on any paint, or, if you will be, then you make sure you step in the path of your brush.”

Adding that the brushes used by Matsuzaki would each cost “a seven-figure sum” in yen, he explained that as the paper used is a thick washi (Japanese-style paper), artists have to leave their finished works to dry for about a day.

And so to that other question that had played on my mind: Why so big?

“There are some subjects that are best dealt with at this size,” Matsuzaki explained matter-of-factly. He reminded me that the flames he saw in his childhood had towered well over his head.

And, I had to admit, his explanation made perfect sense. After all, if the same work had been executed at a more moderate size, my Rorschach test would have yielded completely different results. Indeed, as I look back now over my miniature photos of the work, it’s starting to resemble a puppy dog.

The 59th annual Dokuritsu Shojindan Foundation exhibition runs at the National Art Center, Tokyo until Jan. 17. For details, visit www.nact.jp.

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