Review by Barbara Litt, Adjunct Faculty, Department of Modern Languages, Carnegie Mellon University; formerly taught Japanese in the Pittsburgh Public Schools
An Introduction to Japanese Kanji Calligraphy, by Kunii Takezaki and Bob Godin, is a comprehensive introduction to Japanese calligraphy. The book is about both the kanji themselves and how to write them. The intended audience is “non-Japanese students who have an interest in learning how to write kanji and speak Japanese.” As such, it would be an excellent book for a non-Japanese teacher of the Japanese language, as a supplement to a regular curriculum, to teach writing both syllabary and kanji. It might also be useful for art teachers who want to learn Japanese calligraphy. The book is divided into three sections. The first introduces the Japanese language, with kanji as part of that, focusing on a variety of linguistic aspects. The second introduces the equipment needed and basic technique for writing with the brush. The third, and longest section is the kanji library, 166 kanji chosen for their “functionality as well as their beauty.” I review all these sections in more detail below, and then comment on strengths and weaknesses of this book.
The linguistic part of the book begins by explaining the origins of kanji, and the historical development of the Japanese writing system. Then, styles of kanji used in modern Japanese are briefly introduced, but all kanji taught in this book are of the plain style, deemed appropriate for beginners. The next chapter explains the modern Japanese writing system, including a complete guide to pronouncing all sounds in the Japanese language, and how these sounds are written in hiragana, katakana, and romanization. An information-packed section on the structure of kanji follows, explaining how what, to the uninitiated look like random drawings, are actually combinations of patterns, the formation of which are governed by rules. Next, we are taught how to look kanji up in a dictionary.
The middle part of this book devotes a scant two pages to equipment. Terms are given in both English and Japanese, and the photos are helpful. In most cases there is no information about where one might procure these supplies. I would have found it useful to discuss acceptable substitutes. For example, are Chinese and Japanese calligraphy brushes and paper interchangeable? (I think not.) As a current calligraphy student of a Japanese teacher, I have found some materials (liquid ink and paper) in a local Japanese food market, made my own felt mat, and used a stone as a paper weight instead of a bunchin until my teacher brought me a proper bunchin from Japan (and yes, the real thing is more effective).
The how-to part of the book is brief. There is one page about posture and how to hold the brush. The basic information is all there, and the photos and diagrams are helpful. After that come two pages describing how to make a stroke, from the head, the body, and the tail. Next are two pages on which the eight basic brush strokes are catalogued, with physical instructions for how to make each stroke. The authors have used English names for each of the eight basic strokes. It would have been nice to also include the Japanese names for the eight strokes, to facilitate discussing calligraphy with Japanese calligraphers. I list my teacher’s equivalent phrases here (tear drop = ten; horizontal line = yoko no tome; vertical line = tate no tome; hook stroke = hane; bend stroke = kado no tsukaikata; right stroke = migi ni haneru; left stroke = hidari ni nobasu). After explaining stroke order, and general rules related to it, there is a brief discussion of variations in character shape (p. 32). This is especially important for westerners trained to write on lines. Kanji are written in square spaces, and one pays special attention to their balance within the open space. With a little preparatory advice, you are now ready to write kanji. Pages 34 to 116 give models of 166 individual kanji, with guides to pronunciation, meaning, stroke order, and radical composition. Pages 117 to 126 use these kanji to write two-kanji combinations. Finally, there is a kanji index that lists each kanji by stroke order, and separately, by meaning, followed by an index of other terms used.
Now that you know the contents, what are the strengths of this book? It is an excellent reference about calligraphy for any Japanese language teacher who did not grow up in Japan and learn calligraphy in school. As a non-native speaker of Japanese who started learning as an adult, I did not have ability to teach my high school students calligraphy, so I took lessons with a local Japanese instructor. With her instruction and this book, I feel confident I can give my students a taste of the process of calligraphy, whetting their appetites--not that our calligraphy will look like that of a well-trained Japanese person, but that we can understand its cultural importance and experience the joy of producing something carefully. This book would also enable Japanese language teachers to collaborate with art teachers, or language arts teachers (perhaps complementing English haiku with Japanese kanji, for example). However, if I were an art teacher with no prior background in Japanese language, while this book would enable me to get started and write 166 characters, and the cultural background information would be helpful, most of the linguistic content would be irrelevant. An art teacher might prefer a book with a deeper focus on different materials and tools, and techniques.
This book is also an excellent linguistic reference about how to read, write, and remember kanji, as it clearly and concisely explains the Japanese writing system. Some people (Dave Barry comes to mind, in Dave Barry Does Japan) joke that kanji are individual patterns that require memorization on a case-by-case basis. Indeed, many beginning students think of kanji this way--one down, 2,999 to go. Certainly, learning kanji can be difficult, but this book debunks the myth that each one must be memorized from scratch. Kanji are actually made with combinations of patterns. The patterns are (1) individual strokes, (2) radicals and (3) characters made from combining radicals according to particular structural rules. The authors explain the rules clearly, so the book may contribute to better memory for what you’re writing, better reading ability, and an easier time finding kanji in a dictionary.
While the book is mainly about kanji, the hiragana chart (p. 14) and katakana chart (p. 16) are some of the best I’ve seen for teaching how to write kana (even better than watching animations of the kana being written, such as on the Gahoh site). The dotted lines show the direction the brush (or pencil) moves between the end of one stroke and the start of the next one; how each stroke progresses to the next in a certain order. American students of Japanese often have trouble recognizing and valuing (from a cultural standpoint, as well as a communicative one) the need to write with correct stroke order. These charts should be very helpful in teaching students from cultures that do not use kanji how to write kana.
One aspect of the book that is both an advantage and a disadvantage is its large size. On the positive side, the models are all large enough to see and to trace. On the other hand, it is cumbersome, barely fitting into a standard backpack. The dimensions are approximately 26 cm x 36 cm x 1 cm.