Britain-born Marc Davies, 47, is a longtime resident of Japan and has been practicing shodō (calligraphy) since 1996. In 2019, he achieved the rank of shihan (Master Instructor) in Japanese calligraphy, and in both 2020 and 2021 he was awarded a national recognition in the art form. You can find examples of his work on Instagram, where he goes by @shodoboy_2.

1. What first drew you to shodō? I was completely fascinated by kanji characters. I was intrigued that the character for speak (言) resembled the way that we drew longitudinal sound waves in physics classes when I was at school. On a short day trip to Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, shortly after I came to Japan, I found myself sitting in a temple garden in Kamakura staring at the name of the temple in kanji. I was fascinated by their symbolism and structure. Years later, in China, I witnessed calligraphers writing on the pavements with water, the characters evaporating moments later. I was hooked.

2. What is a typical calligraphy lesson like? Typically I sit for four to five hours and attempt to copy the monthly models of the designated Chinese poem. I will practice five or six styles of kanji in one sitting.

3. What’s your approach to teaching? Never stop learning.

4. Do you remember the first time you got a hanamaru (a flower-shaped mark teachers write on student work indicating excellence) for your writing? Yes I do! I remember thinking “Why did you do that?? You just ruined my work!”

5. How would you explain the different ranks in calligraphy? Are they like belts in martial arts? Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, actually took the ranking system of judo from the Japanese fine arts. The ranks give you some idea and sense of forward accomplishment.

6. And what rank are you? In Japanese, fine arts and martial arts ranks start with the “kyū” (grades) which then lead into the “dan” (ranks) which can then lead into master levels. There may be several master levels of which the final level is “shihan” (師範). In calligraphy, shihan can be translated as “Master Instructor.” It could be thought of as the 10th dan, although it is not a dan rank.

7. Calligraphy and Zen often seem to go together. Would you say there’s a special mindset you have to get into before picking up a brush? To write beautifully is to solve a fundamental problem of art. The line must be unerringly placed; it must be in exact relation to its fellows; and though it may pass from strength to softness, it must never look weak, but must remain alive throughout its length. There must be a seamless transition of energy from the shoulder to wrist to paper. The trick is to think nothing about any of that when you write.

8. How do you deal with frustration when a character won’t come out right? I write it again.

9. Calligraphy has a lot of “rules.” Are there any you consistently choose to break? I am a big fan of the Rikuchokaisho style of calligraphy developed in ancient China. It breaks most of the standard “rules.” I enjoy studying this style. It is kind of a rebel art form of calligraphy.

The kanji for 'sake' as written by Marc Davies. | COURTESY OF MARC DAVIES
The kanji for “sake” (alcohol) as written by Marc Davies. | COURTESY OF MARC DAVIES

10. You won a national calligraphy competition last year, can you tell us a bit about that? It was a good opportunity to write in a different style and experiment with making my own ink. When you are writing for an exhibition, you are not allowed to use bottled ink. It is one of the rules.

11. What’s the most difficult character for you? The most rewarding? For me the most difficult style of kanji is kaisho (regular script). For calligraphers, kaisho is the beginning, and the end. I find it the least artistic of the five styles, but the most rewarding when done well.

12. Japan chooses a kanji of the year. What would your pick be for 2021 (so far)? 家 (ie, house). Because that is where I have spent most of my time this year!

13. What’s your opinion on kanji tattoos? Would you ever get one? I think they can look great, but they are too permanent a fixture for me.

14. Any advice for the unlucky left-hander who wants to pick up the art form? Be very careful when selecting your brush.

15. Do you have a favorite brush (or type or paper or ink)? I have a custom super long brush (chōchōhō), which can produce some interesting results. The combination of brush, paper type and ink is in itself another complete study and is a closely guarded secret by a lot of the very top calligraphers in Japan.

16. You’ve lived in Japan for decades. Is there anything you miss from your home in the U.K.? Proper fish and chips.

17. If you could bring three impractical things to a deserted island, what would they be? A cassette tape, CD and vinyl record to remind me of progress and form without function.

18. What’s your signature dish? I am a big outdoors fan and most of my “cooking” is done on the road with a camping stove. My signature dish is pizza from Seven-Eleven cooked in my Trangia stove. They are good!

19. Any pet peeves? Overpriced craft beer.

20. Do you collect anything? I have been trying to practice more danshari (decluttering) in recent years and possess less, but I still add the occasional vinyl record to my collection!

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