Calligraphy began to filter into Japan during the seventh century A.D.

Buddhism had travelled from India through China and Korea and was making many converts in Japan, including the Emperors. The Buddhist sutras first brought to Japan were recorded in Chinese script by Korean monks.

The most famous Japanese calligrapher was probably the Buddhist monk Kukai, the founder of the Shingon-shu.

One story records how the Emperor Tokusokutei asked him to rewrite a section of a badly damaged five panelled screen. Kukai is said to have picked up a brush in each hand, gripped one between the toes of each foot, placed another between his teeth, and immediately written five columns of verse simultaneously.

There are five basic scripts in Chinese calligraphy:

  • tensho (seal style)
  • reisho (scribe's style)
  • kaisho (block style)
  • gyosho (semi-cursive style) sosho (cursive style, literally "grass writing").

These had all appeared before the end of the fourth century.

In addition to these the Japanese developed the phonetic kana characters during the eighth century, characters that express sounds in contrast to characters used ideographically.

Three types of kana have been developed, manyogana, hiragana, and katakana.

The manyogana are certain chinese characters (kanji) used phonetically to represent the syllables of Japanese, and are named after the eighth century poetry collection Manyoshu.

At the time this collection was compiled the Japanese had no writing system of their own. Some of the Japanese poems were rendered in Chinese characters used phonetically, and in others the Chinese characters were used sometimes phonetically and sometimes ideographically. Very difficult to read.

Out of this, by way of drastically simplifying the characters, came hiragana and katakana.

In the hands of Japanese noblewomen of the Heian era, hiragana developed into a beautiful script which is the unique calligraphic style of Japan.

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