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Forms of Japanese Writing

There are three distinct alphabets of modern Japanese writing. All of which have equal importance in daily Japanese life. Their styles vary considerably and can represent the feeling you wish to capture in your custom work of art. Hiragana is a flowing form of cursive beauty, Katakana is angular, even masculine, while Kanji is purely symbolic.

Kanji 漢字

Hiragana ひらがな

Katakana カタカナ

Kanji is the traditional form of the Japanese written language. It is known as logographic, which means each symbol represents an entire word, phrase, concept or idea in a single character. The first written record dates back to 700 AD when Japanese officials adopted Chinese characters to begin creating a new form of written language.

Hiragana is the Japanese phonetic alphabet that was created and standardized in 1900 from an old system of phonetic symbols dating back to 500 AD. It was primarily created to help people read and write in Japanese without having to learn the thousands of characters in the traditional Kanji alphabet. It can also depict words that may not be found in the Kanji alphabet

Katakana is fundamentally Hiragana, but written in an alphabet to accentuate the uniqueness of loan words or foreign words. It was developed in the 9th century and is almost the equivalent of italics in Japanese. Katakana can also be written in what is known as Rōmaji, a latin-script adaptation of the phonetic pronunciation.



Shodo is the term for traditional Japanese calligraphy. It that has its roots in ancient China, where this rich, artistic writing has been found inscribed in animal bones as early as the 28th century BC. It wasn't until the 7th century AD that Japan began adapting it into their culture to form their own unique style. Today, it has developed into what we find in Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana.

While Shodo is the Japanese calligraphy itself, Shūji is the art and practice of creating it. It is the focused effort of writing each stroke, as well as the meaning, feeling and intention put into each character. Shūji is practiced by students for many years in elementary schools all across Japan and is a popular elective in high schools as well as in universities. In modern day, it has become a popular form of performance art.

Materials of Shūji

Tools of the Shūji trade include those that have their history dating back to the creation of Shodo in ancient Japan. All have their roots in natural sources, but in modern day, almost all have been reproduced with more affordable, synthetic materials. While they may be more readily available, the traditional, natural sources have proven to provide the greatest reliability and quality of the finished Shodo product.




Hanshi is the traditional off-white, almost yellow type of rice paper that was used for centuries to create scrolls, texts and communications in Japan. It has always been a sought after and rare material. In modern day, it is common to find rice paper mixed with other materials to make it more affordable and available for everyday use.

Pronounced foo-day, this traditional Japanese brush is used in Shūji to hold much Sumi to create the iconic brush strokes of Shodo. In modern day, brushes can be found with synthetic bristles, but traditionally have been created using a variety of humanely attained animal hair from horsetail and the Tanuki, a Japanese racoon-dog that symbolizes good fortune.

Sumi is the black ink that is used to create the visually heavy imprints used in Japanese writing. It has traditionally been made from a mixture of charcoal and formed into sticks, which are later mixed with water to create the ink. Using sumi takes years of training and practice, as once a brush stroke is made, it is permanent and cannot be altered.

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