What is the History of Calligraphy? A deep dive into the traditional culture of calligraphy that continues to this day!

Motenas Representative
Motenas Representative

Do you know the history of calligraphy?

In fact, it is believed that the prototype of calligraphy has already existed since the Yayoi period, when Chinese characters were introduced.

It explains the history and origins of calligraphy, which is still loved by many people as an art form, as well as the basic movements of the art.

Please see to the end for a deeper understanding of calligraphy!

What is Calligraphy?

What exactly is calligraphy? First, let’s learn more about calligraphy.

Calligraphy is one of the traditional ways of expressing thoughts and feelings through letters and calligraphic styles by writing characters on paper using a writing instrument called a “brush” and ink.

Japanese people learn calligraphy in elementary school, but while the goal of calligraphy is to write beautiful, well-balanced characters, calligraphy sometimes uses bold, broken characters. Depending on how the characters are broken, calligraphy can express power, delicacy, strength, or loneliness.

Calligraphy is also considered to be a spiritual discipline, as it requires the cultivation of concentration and the mastery of the “noh brush” technique of writing beautiful characters.

While calligraphy is the practice of writing characters, calligraphy is an aspect of art.

History and Origins of Calligraphy

We Japanese are familiar with writing with a brush because we learned calligraphy in school, but when did calligraphy originate?

The history of calligraphy and its origins will be explained.

The Yayoi Period, when Chinese characters were introduced

Japanese calligraphy is said to have its beginnings in the culture of Chinese characters introduced from China during the Yayoi period.

Copper coins inscribed with the characters “kasen” (貨泉) in seal script have been excavated from a burial mound dating from the Yayoi period, indicating that Chinese characters were used from this time onward.

In Fukuoka Prefecture, a gold seal inscribed with three lines of five Chinese characters, “Han,” “委奴” and “国王,” has been excavated and has become a cultural asset. Many of you may have heard of the phrase “Kan-no-wa-no-Koku-o.”

This gold seal is also believed to have been made around the Yayoi period.

However, the seal script that was widely used at this time had a distinctive vertical, horizontal, and symmetrical style that was time-consuming to write. It was also a culture that had not yet been popularized at that time.
The slogan was gradually simplified, and it is said to be very similar to modern Chinese characters.

Introduction of Buddhism

As time passed, Buddhism was introduced from the continent in 538 AD. According to the Chronicles of Japan, an envoy from Baekje presented a bronze statue of Buddha Shakyamuni and sutras, and it is believed that this was the beginning of the introduction of Buddhism.

With the arrival of Buddhism, many people began to copy sutras during the Asuka Period. This is the beginning of calligraphy, which is the act of transcribing sutras to calm the mind and concentrate.

The “Sangyo Giso” written by Prince Shotoku, a deeply religious man, is the oldest book in Japan, and is truly a calligraphic work copied using Chinese characters.

When Japanese envoys to China were dispatched to the Tang Dynasty and Sui Dynasty, exchanges between the two countries became more active, and calligraphy is said to have gained further momentum.

Nara – Heian periods

Emperor Shomu, a leading figure in the cultural heyday of the Nara period (710-794), built Todaiji Temple, which houses the Great Buddha. At Todaiji Temple, the Shakyojo, a place for sutra copying, was established as a national project, and calligraphy further developed.

In 712, the oldest book in Japan, Nihonshoki (Chronicles of Japan), was compiled, using a unique Japanese writing system in which kanji characters are represented by their sounds. This led to the birth of hiragana.

In the early Heian period (794-1185), Emperor Saga, Kukai, and Tachibana Isei were noted as Noh calligraphers who wrote beautiful letters, indicating that calligraphy was becoming popular.

Also in the mid-Heian period, a style known as kokufu culture gained momentum. This style emphasized Japan’s unique culture, and soft calligraphic styles became popular. At this time, hiragana was also born, and Japanese calligraphy developed into an art form.

It became art and went to the present day.

By the Kamakura period (1185-1333), the use of a mixture of kanji and hiragana, as we see today, became common.

In addition, a school of calligraphy was born in the Muromachi period (1336-1573).

Of the three schools, Ono Dofu, Fujiwara Sari, and Fujiwara Gyosei, known as the Sanseki, Fujiwara Gyosei is said to have led to the four schools of Sesonji, Hoseiji, Seirenin, and Jomyouin. By this time, as calligraphy became more popular, the culture of displaying works in an alcove and appreciating them took root.

Among the schools, the Seirenin School became popularized during the Edo period (1603-1867), when it was used for writing seisatsu, a type of official document issued by the imperial court and the shogunate, and calligraphy became popular among the general public. The two schools were separated into calligraphy as an art form and generalized reading and writing, which continued into the calligraphy and calligraphy taught in modern school education.

Basic Calligraphy

By the way, do you know the basic movements of calligraphy? There are a variety of gestures, all of which are considered necessary to calm the mind. Here, we will explain the basic movements of calligraphy.

ways of sitting

The basic sitting posture for shodo is basically sitting seiza on a zabuton (Japanese cushion). If you are not accustomed to sitting seiza, or if you have difficulty sitting seiza due to back pain or joint pain, you can sit on a chair.

However, care must be taken not to sit at an angle to the desk. If you do not sit straight against the desk, the letters will collapse and slant, and they will not be beautiful. Even if you are not sitting in an upright position, try to sit straight against the desk.


Posture is just as important as sitting posture.

Do not hunch over, keep your back straight and do not slant. You must keep it straight, as if you have one column from your head to your hips, or the letters will fall out. The basic sitting posture is to keep the desk straight and the back straight.


There is no set attire for calligraphy. You can enjoy calligraphy in any clothing you like, but it is best to avoid wearing new or white clothing, as the ink may splatter and stain.

In addition, clothing with bulging sleeves or wide open cuffs is not recommended because of the possibility of being soaked in tin.

It would be safe to wear black clothing or clothing that is no longer worn to perform calligraphy.

how to hold a brush

First, before starting to write, make the sumi ink. Put a small amount of water in the hollow part of the tin and gently rub the sumi ink. Calm your mind and rub the ink slowly, and it will gradually dissolve and the ink will be ready to be used.

Once the ink is ready, dip the brush in the ink.

To hold the brush, use your thumb, index finger, and middle finger to hold it about in the middle of the brush. Pencils are tilted at an angle, but in calligraphy, the brush is held upright.
When writing, use the non-dominant hand to lightly press down on the paper.

Calligraphy Brush Kanji Styles

There are several different brush strokes for Kanji characters used in calligraphy, each with its own characteristics. The following is an explanation of five of them.

characters used on seals

Tensho is a character used for seals and passports of Japanese nationals. The angular part of a character such as “TEN” or “Nichi” is called “Tensetsu,” but in the case of Tensho, this part is characterized by a rounded curve.

As mentioned in the history, copper coins made in the Yayoi period were written in seal script. It has a very long history among the calligraphic styles.

clerical script (ancient, highly angular style of kanji)

Reisho is used for characters such as “Bank of Japan note” and “10,000,000 yen” on Japanese banknotes. It is a typeface that was created after seal script, and is said to be distinctive because of its flattened corners. It is a very interesting typeface, but is rarely used in calligraphy.

Incidentally, in ancient China, it had a history of being treated as the second official calligraphy after the seal script.

standard style

Kai-sho is a basic style of calligraphy that was created after clerical script. It is the first calligraphic style learned at calligraphy classes. Students learn the basics of this style by carefully writing each stroke without breaking it.

It can be said that the character has a softness that is Japanese and conveys sincerity.

running script (a semi-cursive style of kanji)

Gyosho is said to be a typeface that originated from clerical script. It is characterized by its easy-to-read, one-stroke writing style.

Since you are free to connect and separate dots, you will be able to express your individuality depending on how you write.

cursive script

Cursive is the English writing style, and is written in a more broken style than Gyosho, like a single stroke. It is intended to be written quickly, and is written in a more broken style.

It is difficult to write, but it is also difficult to decipher without a certain level of knowledge, making it a typeface for advanced calligraphers.

How can foreigners experience calligraphy?

Recently, as more and more foreigners are becoming interested in calligraphy, we are receiving more and more requests to experience it. Wearing a kimono and calmly advancing your brush is a Japanese beauty, and it is very moving, isn’t it?

Because of this, there are more and more places where foreigners can experience calligraphy. Some neighborhood calligraphy classes offer one-hour lessons with an English-speaking instructor, while others allow groups to experience calligraphy.

First, you should inquire at a nearby calligraphy school.

Spots where you can experience calligraphy

If a foreigner wants to experience calligraphy, where is the best place to go? Here are some spots where you can experience calligraphy.


MAIKOYA is recognized by TripAdvisor as a popular experience facility for tourists to experience calligraphy.

Before writing, they explain the history of calligraphy so that you can enjoy it more deeply, and they also take photos in a Japanese-style room, so we recommend this store to foreigners who want to experience calligraphy.

Basically, calligraphy is done in a Japanese-style room, but they also provide chairs and seating, so even those who are not comfortable sitting on the floor can experience it with ease.

This is one of the best calligraphy schools to check out when you stop by Tokyo, Kyoto, or Osaka.

HP: https: //mai-ko.com/jp/culture/calligraphy/
Store name: MAIKOYA
Phone: 075-606-5303
*Only groups of 10 or more people are accepted in Tokyo and Osaka. Please inquire.


In this article, we have explained the history and origins of shodo, as well as its manners. Calligraphy is a mature art form that is distinct from calligraphy, which is familiar to Japanese people. We hope that Japanese people and people from other countries can understand the beauty of calligraphy as much as possible.

Motenas Japan proposes projects for groups coming from overseas and corporate recreation to introduce traditional culture.

Since they have come all the way to Japan, please feel free to contact us for more information on how we can meet your needs to have them experience traditional culture and enjoy doing things that are uniquely Japanese!