Pencils and computers haven’t replaced brushes at schools — brush work is alive and well.
I just walked into the kitchen with my arms full of groceries and nearly tripped over my 10-year-old, who was kneeling on the floor. “What the heck are you doing down there?” I demanded.
“What does it look like I’m doing?” he said, not unpleasantly. “I’m doing my winter-vacation homework.”
Sure enough, he had his school supplies spread out on top of old newspapers. He was doing his kakizome practice.
Kakizome is the first calligraphy of the year. On Jan. 2, those who still observe this tradition use brush and ink to write something auspicious. Maybe their resolution for the new year. Or a poetic phrase that evokes the season.
The word “kakizome” is written with the characters for ” write” and “first.” Japan celebrates all kinds of “firsts” in the new year, including the first visit to a shrine (hatsumode) and the first dream (hatsuyume). There is even due ceremony paid to the first stock trade of the new year (daihakkai).
Schools are closed for winter vacation on Jan. 2, so schoolchildren write their New Year’s calligraphy after school reopens. Standard winter-vacation homework is to practice writing their kakizome phrase several times.
“So what are you writing this year?” I asked my son.
“We had a choice between genki na ko (healthy, happy child) and akarui kokoro (bright heart),” he replied. “I’m doing ‘genki na ko’ because it’s got fewer hiragana.”
I said I’d have thought he’d take the one with fewer kanji if he wanted an easier phrase.
“Nope. Hiragana are harder to get right because they’re curvy.”
Calligraphy is taught in all Japanese schools, and is part of the kokugo (national language, i.e., Japanese) course of study, not part of the art curriculum. There is a separate calligraphy textbook for every grade. Students get two or three lessons per month in calligraphy.
First- and second-graders aren’t coordinated enough to handle a brush, so they work with pencils. Their calligraphy lessons focus on the rudiments of good handwriting. They learn to sit up straight with their feet flat on the floor, and how to hold a pencil correctly. They are taught to pay attention to the shapes of letters and characters, and to write neatly using the correct stroke order.
Students get their first calligraphy brushes in third grade. At the beginning of the year, the school sends order forms home so parents can buy a shuji setto (calligraphy set). The set we bought for our son is pretty standard, and cost 2,300 yen.
I’d never seen a school calligraphy set before. This one had two brushes rolled up in a little bamboo mat, a felt pad to provide a soft surface under the paper, and a weight to hold the paper in place. I was particularly interested in the suzuri, a rectangular inkstone with a well at one end. To make ink, you put a little water in the well, wet an ink stick and rub it on the smooth surface rising out of the well. But schoolchildren rarely do this now. Most of the time, they use the liquid ink that comes with the set.
In the upper grades, students work on the finer points of good calligraphy, such as spacing between letters, and the proper beginnings and endings of each stroke of the brush.
Although children are expected to brush letters in standard ways, teachers do encourage them to reflect on the artistic nature of calligraphy. They point out that Taro’s calligraphy will always be different from Atsushi’s. And that no matter how many times Suzuko brushes the character for yuki (snow), each effort will be as unique as a snowflake.
Despite the widespread use of computers and word processors, beautiful brushwork is still prized in Japan. Particularly good examples of student calligraphy are often displayed in the school lobby or the principal’s office
Most schools hold a special calligraphy event in early January, called kakizome taikai. At our school, the students come to the gymnasium, one grade at a time, and spread out their supplies on the floor. Everyone faces the same direction. First- and second- graders do their New Year’s writing in pencil, but the older students write with a fat brush purchased especially for kakizome.
Students write their phrase several times. Each child selects his or her best effort, which is displayed outside the classroom. I love visiting the school in January because every inch of hallway space is papered with fluttering kakizome calligraphy.
I stood in the kitchen doorway and watched my son do his homework. For a moment, it looked as if he might start a character with the wrong stroke, but I held my tongue. I didn’t want to repeat the mistake I made a year ago.
Last December, when he was in third grade, his kakizome homework was a terrible struggle. He was supposed to write “Fujiyama” in three relatively simple characters, but he couldn’t get it right. Exasperated by his tears and crumpled papers, I snatched the brush to show him how it’s done.
Mind you, I had never done calligraphy before. But I assumed an adult would have better coordination and control. Wrong! I couldn’t make the brush do what I wanted. My Fujiyamas looked worse than his.
My son gently took his brush back. He showed me how to hold the brush upright. How to move it slowly to control the tip. Humbled, I watched as he produced his best Fujiyama yet.
This year, I didn’t interfere with his kakizome homework. And on Jan. 2, when no one is around, I’m going to try my hand at my own New Year calligraphy. I’ve already chosen my phrase. It’s not at all the kind of thing one normally writes for kakizome, but I’m going to brush a Confucian saying: Kosei osoru beshi.
It means, “Youth should be regarded with respect.”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5