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Calligraphy and the Kutani ceramics

Published on : 1 September 2018

Japanese calligraphy is called Shodo (書道) and takes its origin in the Chinese calligraphy. Kanji, writing styles and techniques are very similar.

There are 5 ways of writing kanji and the 3 last one (Kaisho, Gyosho, & Sosho) are used in Japanese calligraphy.
• seal script (篆書, tensho)
• clerical script (隷書, reisho)
• regular script (楷書, kaisho)
• semi-cursive (行書, gyōsho)
• cursive (草書, sōsho)


KAISHO or “block style” is a regular and the first style of writing Kanji. The strokes order are to be followed strictly. Composition and proportions are to be carefully executed. Because of this, KAISHO is the base of the other writing styles.


The second style, and probably the most popular, is GYŌSHO, literally meaning “moving style. Kanji brushed in this style must have a sense of motion, continuity and fluidity. This style is less strict and formal than KAISHO, therefore brush strokes order, shape, and composition can be slightly modified by the calligraphist to match his own style.


The third style is called SŌSHO. However, because of its cursive nature and simplicity this style is used mostly in abstract works of art. Kanji with as many as 10 strokes can be simplified to just one or two strokes, making this style of writing illegible to many. Only those with a trained eye in calligraphy may be able to read it. This is the most difficult style to brush.


A Covered tea cup with Tomobako - Painted by Gakuyo 1st - Calligraphy Oda Seizan

A cup (Yunomi) painted by Kinzan kiln ( Yoshida Minori) - Calligraphy by Shozan

In the early 1880’s the ceramic painters Nomura Zenkichi (野村善吉), Miyasho Itto (宮荘一藤) and Takahashi Hokuzan (高橋北山) started in Kanazawa to brush calligraphy on ceramics by writing very small kanji around and also inside small kutani ceramic objects such as guinomi, sakazuki.

The fashion slowly developed and few years later a lot of rice bowls, dishes, koro, tea cups produced by famous Kutani painters such as Shimizu Bizan (清水清閑), Sasada Yuzan (笹田友山), Takeuchi Kozan (竹内誠山), Hachida Itsuzan (八田逸山) appeared in Kanazawa area shops.

In fact these famous painters were requesting local calligraphists to write kanji inside and or outside pieces to decorate their production. At the beginning calligraphists were using Kanshi (漢詩), which is a Japanese term for Chinese poetry using also old Chinese characters.

Later during Taisho period the fashion moved to Japanese traditional poetry and mainly Japanese poems such as Waka (和歌) as well as Haiku (俳句 have been used. Waka is a Japanese short poem written with 31 syllables in five lines of 5, 7, 5, 7, 7 syllables. Haiku is also a very short poem based on 17 syllables in three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, respectively.

It is then understood that the production of a such à Kutani calligraphy piece may require from one to 3 persons. The producer of the blank pot, the painter, and finally the calligraphist. Few painters are also calligraphist. But the most looked after pieces are those produced of course by the combination of a famous painter/shop and a famous calligraphist!

The most famous calligraphists :

There are not so many famous calligraphists, here are just the most well-known.

Oda Seizan (小田清山)
is born in in Terai in 1874. He started calligraphy in 1895 under the guidance of Nomura Zenkichi. He has improved the technique and became specialized in this field. In 1912 he was really mastering the calligraphy and will eventually become the most famous calligraphist. In 1953 he was selected as a Living National Treasure. He died in 1960.

Tamura Kinsei (田村金星)
is born in Matto (松任) in 1896. He started in 1911 to be a student of Oda Seizan (小田 清山). Kinsei studied at Seizan place for long time and eventually married his daughter. He was made famous in 1953, when he attended the Tokyo Metropolitan Government exhibition. In 1965, he was selected as a Living National Treasure by Komatsu city. He died in 1987.

Sumida Kinyo (住田金陽)
is born on 1930, as the 3rd son in a Kutani potters family. His father was Sumida Kikumatsu (住田菊松) the 2nd generation of Kutani potters. Kinyo is therefore the third generation. Especially his grandfather Sumida Yoemon (住田与え門) has been very famous for having participated in the development of the detailed calligraphy technique. The 3 generations of Sumida family have been very active in developing this technique.

Tamura Keisei (田村敬星)
is born in Komatsu in 1949. He started learning in 1969 from his grandfather Tamura Kinsei (田村金星). He became also a master in calligraphy technique. He is now the third generation of calligraphy artist and took the name of Keisei 3rd – (三代敬星).

The calligraphy motifs :

The most famous poems used are Hyakunin Isshu (100 poems, 100 poets) and Sanjurokka Sen (36 immortals). They have been widely used and I would say that probably 75% of all calligraphy refer to these 2 most famous poems.

小倉百人一首 - Ogura Hyakunin Isshu - 100 persons, one poem

This is a compilation of the 100 most famous poems written by 100 different poets in a Waka style. This compilation is very famous and every Japanese know about and for the most advanced student know the whole content.

This particular compilation running from the seven to the thirteenth century is said to have been made by a poet called Fujiwara no Sadaie or Teika (1162- 1241) from Ogura district in Kyoto.

This is so famous that there is a game card generally played at new year’s with the 100 poems and players should tell the end of the poem at the view of the first sentences.

Example of titles of the Hyakunin Isshu motif:

三十六歌仙 – Sanjurokka Sen - The 36 immortal poets

It is a list of the most famous poets compiled in the Xth century by Fujiwara no Kinto as representative of the period. All these poets were specialist of Waka. These poets are also called the immortals.

Example of titles of the Sanjurokka sen motif:

明治天皇御製 - Meiji Tenno Gyosei

It is a set of 90 000 poems (waka - 和歌) written by the Japanese Emperor Mutsuhito (睦仁) (1852-1912).

Example of title for Meiji Tenno Gyosei motif.

G Bouvier