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Sosuke Kitamura: A man of painted words

by Ayako Nakano

Staff Writer

Name: Sosuke Kitamura
Age: 59
Nationality: Japanese
Occupation: Calligrapher
Likes: Analog stuff, food, clothing, housing from 1960s Japan
Dislikes: Digital stuff, especially touch screens


1. What do the kanji that comprise your first name mean? 宗 (so) means “to better oneself” and positively influence one’s surroundings. My father chose a very lofty character. But thankfully 介 (suke) adds a familiar tone to my name.

2. How did you come about your distinct hairstyle? I’ve had this hairstyle for about 20 years. During university I had long hair, then short and then a skinhead. One day my wife said that I looked dodgy, so I grew some hair at the top for a mohawk, which lead to this. It’s fun choosing the color of hair bobbles every day.

3. What’s great about Shizuoka Prefecture, where you’re originally from? Tea, tangerines, bonito and Shizuoka oden (Japanese stew), which is different from the Kanto region’s — we add miso sauce and bonito powder. As for landscapes: the tea fields with Mount Fuji as a backdrop.

4. Why did you choose to be a calligrapher? When I encountered a Heian Period calligraphy piece by the Japanese monk Kukai (774-835) in university, I felt blood rush through my entire body and I shifted paths from science to sho (calligraphy).

5. What is your calligraphy style? Using classic Chinese calligraphy as a basis, I focus on the character’s bone structure and space. Ink is about the world of gen, which means black, but I try not to confine my expression to the characters and explore the white space as well.

6. What do you think is the attraction of calligraphy? Human liberation and obtainment of freedom. Even in a small space, calligraphy allows you to time-travel freely to the world of sho, and listening to your brush can teach you so much.

7. Whom in Japan do you most admire? From the world of sho, I’d name the Buddhist monk Ryokan Taigu (1758-1831) and the Edo Period (1603-1868) painter/calligrapher Nukina Suuou (1778-1863). Both studied documents of Chinese classics, gained a great appreciation of beauty and nurtured it on Japanese soil. What a feat.

8. What’s your favorite Japanese word or phrase? “吾以外皆吾師” (“Ware igai mina waga shi,” “Everyone but myself is my master”). I feel particularly strong about this as I reach 60. When I was young, I used to think I had control over my life, but the fact is we are being allowed to live.

9. If you could have dinner with anyone from history, who would it be? Though not from history, I’d name my teacher — the late poet and calligrapher, Sanzan Kimura, who passed away at 60. As I’ll be 60 this year, I wish I could ask him to scold me, his unworthy pupil.

10. Of your calligraphy pieces, do you have a favorite? Tough question. Maybe a copy I made in eighth grade of a letter by bacteriologist Hideyo Noguchi’s mother Shika. It made me realize that sho is not about the character shapes but about the writer’s spirit.

11. What’s the strangest request you’ve ever been asked for work? A collaboration with an idol group at a festival in Kawasaki. I had to keep producing sheets of calligraphy and throw them into the air, to an audience of mostly male fans.

12. Do you have future challenges planned? I want to do more live calligraphy, so people can see and feel my brush strokes breathing, change in pace and so on.

13. What’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve done? At university, I got really drunk and said some really horrible things to T-kun, my flat mate. I regret it to this day and want to apologize to him for my embarrassing actions 40 years ago.

14. What is the biggest difference between using a pen and a brush? To form lines, sho uses the elasticity of the brush to strike and pull. A pen doesn’t really have this elasticity.

15. How should a beginner practice calligraphy? They should really look hard at the classics of calligraphy. It’s important for your body to grasp the general rhythm, rather than focus on shapes.

16. What do you think about while standing on the train? I sometimes imagine placing Edo Period wigs on people’s heads and group them into categories like samurai, merchants and town girls. It’s amusing to think their features were passed on by their ancestors’ DNA.

17. Is Japan cool? I feel interpersonal relationships have become cooler. There’s less of a communal feel that existed during the Showa Era (1926-89), the spirit to help each other. Maybe people are just too busy.

18. What do you most enjoy about your job? Sho allows for endless talks with the past, present and future. I can firmly shake hands with people who created the classics thousands of years ago.

19. Any words of advice for young people? Move forward one step at a time, seeking your soul for answers. Don’t fear failure, live with a generous heart. Once in a while, breathe deeply and look back.

20. If you weren’t a calligrapher, what do you think you would be? A middle or high school science teacher, or maybe an izakaya (Japanese pub) owner. Office worker probably wouldn’t be an option.