Traditional Japanese calligraphy lessons available at Camp Zama

Ken Ishida, a shodo instructor at the Camp Zama Arts and Crafts Center, demonstrates the traditional Japanese art form at the center Nov. 27, 2019.
Ken Ishida, a shodo instructor at the Camp Zama Arts and Crafts Center, demonstrates the traditional Japanese art form at the center Nov. 27, 2019.

Traditional Japanese calligraphy lessons available at Camp Zama

by Winifred Brown
US Army Garrison - Japan

CAMP ZAMA (Dec. 2, 2019) -- Ken Ishida started teaching shodo--the traditional Japanese art of calligraphy--at the Camp Zama Arts and Crafts Center about 10 years ago.

Since then, Ishida has observed that some students come only once for the experience, while others take several classes and make a lot of progress. Either way, Ishida said he is happy to share his knowledge with members of the Camp Zama community.

"I want them to enjoy it," said Ishida, who offers classes by appointment only at the center.

Ishida does, however, want all of his students to come away with at least one important understanding: "[With shodo], I want to say and speak, not only write; this is art," he said.

The tradition of shodo is more than 1,000 years old, and Ishida said it is essential for students to know that it is an art form that even experienced devotees do not expect to perfect.

"Most of Japanese culture and martial arts have been here a long, long time," Ishida said. "For example, 10 years of [shodo] lessons is a beginner, and then [after] a long time, 50 years, I continue to not be good, but my final target is far away."

Most of the shodo Ishida creates with his students includes two kanji characters (adopted Chinese characters used in the Japanese writing system) made with brushes, paper and black ink.

The idea is to write the characters in a way that expresses a feeling, Ishida said.

"Lines are different, short or thick, depending how the person feels," Ishida said. "Each line has a different feeling."

The first character, for example, might be for "flower," Ishida said, and the second character would express how the person feels about the flower, such as happy, nervous or angry.

Together, the brush, ink and paper are three factors that influence each other in creation of the final product, Ishida said.

Artists use different types of papers for shodo, Ishida said, and some people make their own paper.

Ishida uses ready-made ink for the classes, but when he was younger he made his own ink by grinding a bar of solid ink and dissolving it in water.

For example, when Ishida and his friends went to a special house for training for two or three nights, they would spend the first night making ink.

"For five hours we are talking that first night. We are talking and making ink, and then the next day we use the ink," Ishida said. "So [it is] very important."

Ishida, a retired minister of internal general affairs from Hitachi, said he began studying shodo in earnest because the company sponsored several sports and culture clubs, and he picked shodo.

"The teacher came to my company … and every week we studied there, and sometimes we [went] to the teacher's house to take a special lesson," Ishida said.

Shodo holds a special place in Japanese culture because when it began, people considered it (especially for women) one of the three pillars of a solid education that also included making music and writing poetry, Ishida said.

"These three were very important lessons, so nowadays calligraphy is still one of the important [lessons]," Ishida said.

Many Japanese people think if a person is good at writing, that person is also a good person, so many children take shodo lessons, Ishida said.

Ishida compared shodo to Japanese tea ceremonies or martial arts such as judo, kendo or karate, which take several decades to master.

Kendo teachers, for example, might be older than 60 years old, but they will fight and teach students who are much younger, Ishida said.

"Some might consider it strange that an old person fights a younger person, but normally the old person is better; the old person is very good, strong," Ishida said.

Ishida said that normally people can make a lot of progress with shodo with just one lesson a week.

Ishida said he starts by teaching students the basic lines, and if all they want is just one lesson, he makes sure they come away with something they can frame or put on a wall, but he encourages students to study further.

"Maybe they will think that calligraphy is like art and explain their feeling, and then they can continue to come to training," Ishida said.

After all, Ishida said, shodo is art, "It is not only just words."

The 90-minute classes cost $10 per person and there is no minimum or maximum number of students per class. To schedule a class, call (DSN) 263-4412 or (COMM) 046-407-4412. The center is closed on Mondays and Sundays.

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