Art

Of the many items in a calligrapher’s toolbox, the most important are words

by Katherine Whatley

Contributing Writer

Shiinamachi is a working-class neighborhood in northwest Tokyo that consists mainly of shopping arcades and two-story homes. It’s where 78-year-old artist Yuyushi Furuta was born, where she grew up working in her father’s sweets store, and where she still lives with her sister, Asae.

I have a personal connection to these two women, whom I’ve come to think of as godmothers. Growing up, they’d give my sister and me watermelon on hot summer days and cheer us on when we marched mikoshi (portable shrines) through the streets. Yuyushi also taught me shodō (Japanese calligraphy).

Visiting her apartment felt like entering another world, and a particularly fun one for a child. There were many things to touch and play with: stones and carved things, soft brushes and books to flip through. Later on I came to realize these weren’t toys but tools — the accoutrements of a beautiful art form.

Furuta’s main tool, though, is language — the written word to be precise. And each kanji she draws comes with a tiny piece of history, a biography that begins in China and evolves in Japan.

“My interest in shodō began in a used bookstore,” she says. “I wanted a book on photography, but accidentally grabbed one on shodō instead.”

Her father had made her write out signs for the store before, but she says she’d never had any serious interest in shodō before that moment. Soon, she began training as a calligrapher and started winning awards at competitions that got more and more presitigious, like the Mainichi Shodo Exhibition.

“You win awards like that because you’re good at copying,” Furuta says, humbly rebutting any idea that she’s a big shot. “I had my teacher’s support and that’s what counted.”

Despite a promising and prestigious place in the art world being within reach, Furuta surprised her teacher by pursuing an interest in tenkoku (seal engraving), and so she consulted the person who created the seals she would use to “autograph” her work.

“We’d commission a tenkoku maker to make seals for when we’d submit our pieces to exhibitions,” she recalls, “but they never fit my work, so I wanted to make my own.”

Furuta also began to dive deeper into the history of kanji by studying the work of Shizuka Shirakawa (1910-2006). An authority on Japanese script, the Fukui native studied kōkotsubun, the ancient Chinese predecessors of modern kanji that were carved into shells and bones. For Furuta, Shirakawa’s findings about the connections between religion, divination and human communication were enlightening, and she paired her newfound knowledge with her interest in seal engraving.

“People carved before they wrote with a brush, in caves,” she says, adding that she “wanted to go further back in time, to the roots of characters” to understand how they affected her art.

Furuta has spent her career creating art on paper, of course, but also creating logos for companies and carving signs that adorn historical monuments. This led to an interest in architecture — in particular, getting her work engraved into the architecture — as part of a desire to “make things that will last,” even after the context around them, their civilization, falls away.

Thus her calligraphy marks the entrances to several sites from the Jomon Period (roughly 10,000 to 200 B.C.) across Japan. In a way they’re the perfect canvases for her work — places where modernity has preserved the ancient past. Perhaps in the future, people will compare her carved stone signs to the Jomon Period pots and clay figures they’re meant to designate. For Furuta, that might be the highest compliment.

I hadn’t been to Furuta’s apartment for more than five years. Predictably, the outside world had changed. The road nearby was widened, and there were new apartment blocks and Indian- and Chinese-owned shops in the area that hadn’t existed before. I was older too, of course. But as soon as I walked into Furuta’s small first-floor apartment, I realized that the calligrapher’s world that had fascinated me as a child hadn’t changed. After all, what’s five years when you’re dealing with characters with thousands of years of history?