The keyboard has all but supplanted the handwritten message as the communication mode of choice, but calligrapher Souun Takeda believes the pen — or more precisely, the brush — is a mightier tool for tapping into something more visceral.
Although Takeda recognizes the practical applications of modern-day social networking, he suggests Japanese calligraphy, which can be traced back to the origins of Chinese civilization, offers an insight into beauty, depth and positive energy that transcends language.
The deeper the message, he says, the more important it is to express oneself in writing.
“I use social networking sites for speed and convenience. I write by hand to add depth and weight to my messages. I take the best of both worlds,” says Takeda, one of the most celebrated Japanese calligraphers today.
“The deeper the message, the more I will rely on the latter. There’s the option of using text emoticons but I’ll definitely write out a letter, for example, if I want to apologize to someone. It’s more sincere,” he says.
The 40-year-old Kumamoto native, whose name Souun is a stage name given to him by his mother Souyou Takeda, feels the technological revolution has only served to elevate his social status as a professional calligrapher.
Writing by hand has become increasingly rare these days, but Takeda feels that in the computer age there is a yearning for the ancient art as a form of healing.
“I look on the bright side of things. Since computers appeared, more Japanese people have been craving a spark that can melt hearts that have become cold,” he says. “Japanese calligraphy has become a healing method much like yoga.”
Takeda, along with his two younger brothers, was first exposed to Japanese calligraphy at the age of 3 through his mother, and all three siblings eventually became teachers.
After studying information science at the Tokyo University of Science, he worked for Japan’s largest telecom company, NTT, for nearly three years.
But he realized the power his calligraphy can have on others one day when a colleague became overwhelmed by tears after seeing him write her name with a brush. She told him it was the first time in her life she liked her own name.
“It was such an eye-opening experience. I realized how important a single name can be,” he says. “It’s like a logo you carry on your back your entire life. I imagined how wonderful it would be if I could express the beauty in a name through my calligraphy.”
Takeda never thought twice about replacing his business suit with a samue, the traditional work garb of Zen monks and writers of his craft. He resigned from his company the next day.
After performing on streets in his 20s and developing his own network, Takeda opened a calligraphy school in the Shonan Beach area of Kanagawa Prefecture in 2006, where he currently teaches 300 students with hundreds more waiting in the wings for instruction.
His youngest student is a kindergartener and oldest 77, proof that age is no barrier.
Reading, writing and soroban (Japanese abacus) were traditionally taught in terakoya, or temple schools attended by the elementary school children of commoners during the Edo Period (1603-1868).
To this day, many Japanese, especially children, take part in calligraphy classes because penmanship is believed to reflect a person’s character.
“You’d be surprised how many parents in Japan have an inferiority complex about their poor handwriting,” Takeda says. “They don’t mind if their kids never learn to play the piano or wear a kimono, but they really do care that their kids have neat handwriting.”
The main instruments used for shodo, translated as “the way of writing,” include a brush (fude), an inkstick (sumi), inkstone (suzuri) to grind the inkstick against, standard-size paper (hanshi) and paper weight (bunchin).
Aside from calligraphy lessons, Takeda has published over 40 books, many of them of the self-help variety, as well as lectured and provided custom calligraphy services. He has designed logos for name cards, doorplates, T-shirts, umbrellas, beach sandals, wall stickers, sake bottle labels and even gravestones.
One customer recently paid ¥3 million for a signed artwork of Takeda’s consisting of a single kanji character, measuring seven meters in height.
Last June, Takeda made his overseas debut with an exhibition in Ojai, a small city in California located northwest of Los Angeles.
He has been invited back this summer and is also scheduled to hold an event in Houston in June.
“I want to work more overseas, but I don’t care where I go,” he says. “I believe we are all governed by a universal law, so anyone can relate to shodo and what it can do — lift spirits, bridge communication gaps, simplify life challenges, bring people together.”
As for the challenge of overcoming language boundaries through a calligraphy brush, Takeda says, “It’s like playing rock music with a shamisen. If I write in kanji and people don’t understand what it means, they will still see its beauty.”
Learning calligraphy, he says, is like picking up a sport. Good players have good coaches, and if you practice long enough you can reach an above-average level of proficiency. But unlike sports, shodo is not about competing. The ritual of meditative breathing begins and ends at your own pace, he says.
“I see eternity in a single line. Your breath, your posture and all the emotion you put into writing that line — they all become part of that line,” Takeda says.
When Takeda finds difficulty maintaining his physical and mental balance, he kneels on the floor, takes a deep breath and focuses on each brush stroke. It’s a way for him to have fun and reduce stress at the same time.
“Your body is like a guitar. It needs regular tuning and maintenance,” he says. “I’m always trying to find the perfect balance between relaxation and enjoyment. I have to be in a good state, and my classroom has to be filled with good energy if I’m trying to teach people to relax and enjoy.”