For many contemporary Japanese — both children and adults alike — everyday life is becoming unthinkable without personal computers and cellular phones.
But such devices can deprive people of their own words and expressive power, calligrapher Kyuyo Ishikawa warns.
“It’s OK to use computers, word processors and cellphones to improve the efficiency of clerical work and other business,” said Ishikawa, who is also a professor at Kyoto Seika University. “But these tools should be kept as far away from homes and places for expression and education as possible.”
The 56-year-old calligrapher has never used a personal computer, word processor, or mobile phone. In contrast, he picked up the brush and embarked on the path of calligraphy at the age of five.
In 1966, while he was a law major at Kyoto University, Ishikawa took up the histories of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy as his lifework.
According to his studies, in East Asia, which uses ideographic “kanji,” Chinese characters, the written, rather than spoken, language has played a core role in cultural development.
“(Japanese) children obtain words and build their own verbal worlds through writing by hand . . . (Japanese people) nurture their aesthetic senses by making efforts to write characters beautifully,” Ishikawa said.
“Thus, losing (the power to) write using one’s own hands is equal to losing words, which in turn leads to the stagnation of Japanese culture,” he said.
In the West, the use of computers and typewriters has less of an impact on culture because languages have developed phonetically and writing can be considered closer to speaking, according to Ishikawa.
In the belief that Japanese people should have more opportunities to write by hand to improve their expressiveness, Ishikawa in 1979 started a calligraphy school which now has about 100 adult students in Kyoto, Nagoya and Tokyo. His publications over the past decade range from those on the history of calligraphy to critical essays on current social issues.
However, innovations in information technology and the mass consumption of products like personal computers and cellphones are moving society in a direction opposite to the one that Ishikawa envisions.
With the government trying to improve IT literacy at the elementary school and junior high school level by reducing the amount of time spent on other subjects, young people are embracing the Internet and e-mail with alarming rapidity and fervor.
“The social obsession with IT has made many people purchase PCs and cellphones,” he said. “We’ve got to cut off the vicious circle to restore our own culture.”
A number of heinous juvenile crimes in recent years furthers his suspicions that products which supposedly have made life convenient and fun, like mobile phones and computer games, seem unable to fill the emptiness youths often feel.
“Excessive convenience and comfortableness prevail in today’s society,” he said. “(But) I believe people will eventually come to be dissatisfied with things that don’t give them any pleasure in life.”
The pleasures of life, Ishikawa said, exist within a traditional lifestyle built on such mundane and time-consuming events as cooking, shopping, writing letters and face-to-face quarrels with friends. “Ten to 15 years from now, people will start distancing themselves from their PCs and cellphones, at least in everyday life, while IT will be further promoted for business use and occasions in which such technology is really needed,” he predicted.
While Ishikawa’s current works feature contemporary poetry, the calligrapher will head a research center scheduled to open at Kyoto Seika this summer whose aim is to take a new look at writing, culture and aesthetics.
“At a time when only information and technology seem to intrigue people, I want to start a movement to rethink our history and culture with writing at its center.”
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