In our discussion of Calligraphy as an Art Form in Japan, we again must begin in historical foundations. The Heian Period when Prince Shotoku brought in cultural riches from China and Korea and literally changed the face of a nation, was also the period where writing was examined and refined.
This is a picture of the oldest surviving writing on paper in Japan. It is credited to the revered Prince Shotoku and was written early in the 7th Century. Note that this is before the Heian period, and that it is written in Chinese characters.
With the advent of new writing style, the angular format of the katakana came to be use only for religious or official purposes. Women used hiragana for letters, diaries, poetry and the new form of novel. So we see it is in this form that the world's first great novel, The Tale of Genji, was written.
The Sanjurokunin Kashu was a collection of works by 36 poets (1112 AD). It represents the best of Heian calligraphy in the form of the beautifully fluid hiragana on the most richly decorated papers. Here is an example:
You can easily decipher the difference in style between this writing and that in the first example.
This next beautiful selection is the reproduction of a sutra or Buddhist text. These were often beautifully decorated as in this example.
The main purpose of Zen calligraphy was the force of spirit rather than aesthetics, like the Heian hiragana's passion for beauty and subtle effects. Even so in reviewing the works produced, seek the artistic satisfaction within. A few of the Zen calligraphers are mentioned here:
Nichiren-san (1222-1282). This piece is the Daimandara Honzon dated from 1281. It is a mandala of calligraphy. In the middle is a sutra with the names of Buddhist guardians in the corners and dotted with famous names. Much like Western medieval paintings where hold figures dot the production, this piece uses the names of the important figures instead.
Ikyu Sojun, (1394-1481) Ikyu-san is one of the primary Zen monks in Japanese history. This particular example demonstrates a bold energy and confidence and less of the balance, precision and fluid beauty seen in the earlier Heian hiragana work. As you look at this can you imagine what the monk must have looked like as he concentrated and brushed on these beautiful strokes denoting power in spirit.
"Do no evil" and "Do good"
Kanoe Nobutada (1565 - 1614) Nobutada was an eccentric nobleman. This calligriphic form is a painting of Tenjin, a Heian statesman and scholar. The style is called moji-e and became a popular trick in the Edo period. The cap and right sleeve of the figure make up characters reading "ten" and "jin". A nice little wordplay folded into the art.
Retrieved 7/20/08 from Japanese Arts by Martin Skidmore. I encourage you to go explore his beautiful collection and commentary.