As exotic as kanji (Sino-Japanese logographs) may appear to the uninitiated, most of those we encounter in everyday situations are intended to convey notices and other mundane or essential information, such as 禁煙 kin’en (no smoking) or 駅長室 (ekichō-shitsu, stationmaster’s office).

But as one’s comprehension of kanji grows, so does awareness of the historical and cultural baggage its characters bring with them.

From a character’s style, some readers will know at a glance the era in which it was created and its purpose. And from that point, you become not only a reader but a history buff and art critic.

The oldest known examples of ideographs are those excavated in China’s Henan Province, which are believed to date from the 11th to 14th centuries B.C. About 2,000 of these 亀甲獣骨文字 (kikko jūkotsu moji, tortoise-shell and animal-bone characters), which were used for divination, are known to exist, although not all of them have been deciphered. While crudely inscribed, they are amazingly readable, and it is indisputable that these are the lineal ancestors of today’s kanji.

What was to become the predominant form of kanji in use today, the semi-cursive 楷書 (kaisho) style evolved between A.D. 200 and 600. This also coincides with the period when the Chinese writing system was introduced to Japan.

As opposed to Chinese, which is written entirely in kanji, Japanese writing began to combine kanji with its hiragana and/or katakana phonetic script. To make the mixed text appear more attractive, the style of written Japanese gradually began to diverge from Chinese.

During the Edo Period (1603-1867), a uniquely Japanese style with exaggerated, heavy “wormlike” strokes known as 江戸文字 (Edo moji, Edo characters) made its appearance. Written in several different styles, Edo moji can still be seen in kabuki theater programs and on sumo banzuke (ranking lists).

Japanese designers have created a tremendous variety of 書体 (shotai, typefaces), from playful juvenile ones used in comic books to those shouting from the neon signs that illuminate Ginza. They can be found in gothic, ornate and baroque styles. They can appear to be dripping blood — conveying horror or the bizarre and grotesque as manically as the works of Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali.

While the general trend in recent years has been for corporate logos and product names to adopt the Roman alphabet, kanji still hold their own, thanks to the work of innovative designers such as Katsuichi Ito.

Ito, author of “漢字の感じ” (“Kanji no Kanji” [“The Feeling of Kanji”]), is brilliant at modifying characters to graphically convey both their meaning and spirit. His work can be found on the walls and shopping bags at 食遊館 (Shokuyūkan), the food sections in Marui department stores.

Even more exotic are the characters created by design firm Zetuei, which developed a “cyborg” typeface. Zetuei even produced a four-page newspaper, the “鼎國経済新聞” (“Teikoku Keizai Shimbun” [“Tripod Country Economic News”]) written entirely in these characters; reading it is like trying to decipher the Rosetta Stone.

The most perceptive and readable critique I have encountered about kanji is “Chinese Calligraphy,” published in 1938 by Chiang Yee (1903-77). The book was reissued in 1974 by Harvard University Press. It is lavishly illustrated with useful examples throughout its 230 pages, and Chiang not only explains the principles of good calligraphy but also demonstrates, equally instructively, what constitutes “bad” calligraphy.

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