Kaoru Akagawa, a Master of Japanese calligraphy and guardian of the Kana Shodo (Women Hand) script, discusses her work and why it is her ‘duty to preserve this old tradition’ and bring it to the world’s attention. As a guest of the Book and Print Initiative at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, she will be demonstrating Kana Shodo at a free event at Senate House, 26 June, 6–7 pm.
Tell us a little bit about your journey to becoming a Master of Japanese calligraphy.
I was born in Canada and grew up in the US and Japan. I studied human science at Tokyo’s Keio University. My thesis was on ‘The history of posters in Japan and the effect of advertising on people’s behaviour’. Afterwards I worked as a 3D computer graphic designer for TV commercials. I gradually became aware of my inner conflict of working for the capitalist advertising industry. Rejecting machine-produced products, I altered my medium to traditional Japanese ink and brush.
What is Kana Shodo?
When one talks about Japanese calligraphy, one normally thinks of Kanji Shodo, a style of calligraphy imported from China. By contrast, Kana Shodo is a style of calligraphy unique to Japan, which was developed and disseminated mainly by noblewomen in the middle ages.
While Kanji characters are called ‘男手 (Otokode)’, which literally translates to ‘Man Hand’, Kana characters are called ‘女手 (On’nade)’ meaning ‘Woman Hand’. Women were not encouraged to learn Kanji Shodo, but Kana Shodo made is possible for them to learn how to read and write.
What sort of texts did women write in the Kana Shodo script?
Intellectual women of the nobility started to compete with each other and published significant novels or essays. Two of the most famous are Murasaki Shikubu’s The Tale of Genji or Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book, both produced in the early 11th century. Kana Shodo was the backbone which allowed women’s literature to flourish earlier than in any other culture.
How many people can read and write Kana Shodo today?
Most people in Japan nowadays don’t even know of the script’s existence. Kana Shodo used to be the epicenter of the Japanese culture until 1900 when new government regulations dictated that only 50 Kana characters out of at least more than 550 were to be taught in schools. Only those who actively seek to learn and practice Kana Shodo can still read and write ancient Kana characters.
When did you first encounter the Kana Shodo script?
After starting my career as a calligrapher, I followed the old trading trail Nakasendo that connects Tokyo and Kyoto. It is also called Himekaido, meaning ‘Princess Road’. Unlike Tokaido, an old trail that runs along the Pacific coast, where the rivers were not bridged until the 19th century as a military security measure, Nakasendo goes through mountains, meaning women could travel on their own without asking male bearers to carry them across rivers. On my trip, in ancient castles and temples along Nakasendo, I was able to see old documents such as diaries written in Kana Shodo.
What did you feel when you were reading these old documents?
Due to my globetrotting background, I always had the feeling that I didn’t really belong to any country or culture. When reading the documents in Kana Shodo I remembered my grandmother’s handwriting. All of the sudden, I understood that she was using traditional Kana. She was one of the last generations to use the old Kana in daily life. Connecting with my family’s heritage through this ancient style of handwriting made me feel for the first time that I wasn’t rootless but was someone capable of crossing time and borders. I came to realise that the Kana Shodo calligraphy had been calling me, trying to show me that it is my duty to preserve and to present this old tradition to the world.
You are also an artist. How does your work bring together your calligraphic training and artistic practice?
I trained myself diligently to become a Master of Calligraphy and when I achieved this in 2008, I felt uncomfortable just expressing myself within the constraints of tradition. I firmly believe that tradition must be preserved and passed on to the next generation. At the same time, I felt a strong urge to go beyond traditional borders with my own style of art, Kana Art.
‘To cross borders’ (see cover image) has become one of the core ideas of my work. My aim is to create pieces based on common ideas shared by human beings, independent of the culture or epoch. With my Kana Art, I want to reach out to people who have no knowledge of Japanese as well as the younger generation in Japan who are unaware of their calligraphic heritage.
The ‘Writing women: reviving Kana Shodo’ event is a rare opportunity to see this ancient female script — one created mainly by and for woman — come to life. It is free and open to all, but seats must be reserved at: https://t.co/xpjnALgGXh. Dr Elizabeth Savage, a director of the Book and Print Initiative at the School of Advanced Study is delighted that ‘Kaoru Akagawa will share the secrets of this millennium-old women’s script with all who would like to learn. This lecture and demonstration is part of the rich public offerings of the Book and Print Initiative, an interdisciplinary programme for research into the history of writing and printing at the School of Advanced Study.’
I am researching a female calligrapher of the 16th Century who wrote a Scroll in 1594 of the Genji Monogatari. Would you have expertise in this subject?
If the so-called hentaigana is meant here, when “more than 550” are referenced, then, I think, it makes it even more fascinating – many of the hentaigana characters represent a transitional stage between logograms and the modern syllabary, and it is indeed a pity such an important historical material is not studied well enough.