Some examples of calligraphy performance in Japan

I am very interested in calligraphy as a physical, as well as an intellectual, practice. One important aspect of this is the notion of performance. This might refer simply to the process of giving a thought concrete form, that by realising a poem or phrase in one’s head, one ‘performs’ it. Or it might mean that the process of writing is something beautiful and worth watching in-itself. Either way, it means that writing a word beautifully is equivalent to singing it.

Certainly, the rhythm of the writing may be conceived in musical terms, just as the contrast of mark and space may be likened to sound and silence. Anyway, here are some examples of Japanese performance calligraphy that I have come across in my research.

According to legend, Kukai (空海, also known as Kobo Daishi) was a Japanese Buddhist monk who in 804 A.D. aged 31, was ordered to go to study in China. He studied calligraphy with Han Fangming, and as a result was summoned to perform for Emperor Shunzong of the Tang Dynasty at Xi’an (then Chang’an). Chang’an palace walls had previously been written on by China’s most famous calligrapher, Wang Xi Zhi, but his work had faded over the centuries, and Kukai was instructed to cover the walls in his own calligraphy instead.

According to the story, he sat down facing a wall and held five brushes, one in each hand, one with each foot and one in his mouth, and wrote a five-line poem in one go (similar to Ezra, the Jewish scribe). It is possibly that in reality the five brushes refer to the five standard scripts of Eastern calligraphy.

In another room he apparently splattered ink onto a wall and a huge “tree” character (木) could be seen in the splash.

He was also able to write in air and on water (for a description of his life and legend see here).

In pre-Meiji era Japan tooth blackening was practiced among fashionable women, known as “ohaguro” (お歯黒) it was a sign of beauty and maturity. In the figure below, from a decorative lacquer writing box, a woman is writing by spitting out tooth dye. It has been suggested that the image recalls a folklore-inspired scene in a play (originally for puppets then adapted for Kabuki theatre) entitled Kuzunoha no Kowakare (Kuzunoha’s Child Separation); although there the heroine writes with a brush held in her mouth. This image shows an even more inventive use of the body within a (somewhat improbable) calligraphic performance.

The video artist Shigeko Kubota (久保田 成子) (1937–2015) perhaps drew on such references in her performance work “Vagina Painting” (1965). In this she dragged a paint brush across large sheets of paper, creating abstract lines in red paint. Apparently geishas would write in this way to amuse their clients. The work is often considered a feminist response to Jackson Pollock’s somewhat phallic method of action painting, although Kubota herself did not conceive it as such. The idea since been copied by the Chinese calligrapher Sun Ping.

Shigeko Kubota (久保田 成子) Vagina Painting, New York, 1965

Of course, increasing the scale of writing will necessarily entail a greater degree of physicality. Once paper manufacture became cheaper during the Ming dynasty (in China) the scale of the writing increased and more flamboyant practices became possible. In the 1980’s it became fashionable to for artists to write very large, and this can be taken to even greater extremes in theatrically staged performances in front of audiences. Often this type of performance takes place for ceremonial purposes, at the opening of a new business, the start of a cultural festival, or as part of a student graduation ceremony. This is because calligraphy carries considerable cultural weight and prestige in Japan. For this reason too, political figures sometimes write in public to demonstrate (perform?) their cultural and moral standing – calligraphy being a reflection of the character of the writer.

Traditional Japanese culture is highly ritualised and this mentality persists in contemporary Japan far more than most other societies. Calligraphy itself can be a ritualised activity with prescribed preparation, a clear overlap with meditative practices, a belief in the power of written words to transcend their material – or their symbolic significance – and affect the physical world, and a reverence for the equipment used that far exceeds mere tools (old brushes are ritually burnt in the Fudekuyo ceremony on 23rd November).

Kakizome (書き初め / first writing) for example, is calligraphy ritually written on January 2nd with ink ground with wakamizu (the first water drawn from a well on New Year’s day). Part calendrical and part propitious rite, auspicious words and phrases are written while facing in a lucky direction (eho) and then burned on January 14th in the Sagicho (a ritual bonfire of New Year’s decorations). Every year thousands of calligraphers perform Kakizome in a competition held at Nippon Budokan which is broadcast on National television. The writing of such phrases it is believed has a “performative” effect within and on the world (in the J.L. Austin sense), crossing the divide between symbolic exchange and physical reality. 

The Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation, which promotes kanji in contemporary Japanese culture, has conducted a survey every year since 1995 to find the word / character of the year. It has become customary for the head priest of the Kiyomizu Buddhist temple in Kyoto (Seihan Mori) to ceremonially write the character live on television; this helps close the year by providing a ritual summary of it. Above is the 2021 word: 金 / gold, in reference to the Olympics. The 2022 word was 戰 / war.

Another example of calligraphy performance in contemporary Japanese culture is the choreographed display of (usually female) school students, in matching uniforms and accompanied by music. These synchronised exhibitions of grace and creativity are both a cultural and an athletic performance; when teams are in competition with each other, they are judged on both the final work and its execution. To watch an example of this type of calligraphy performance, from an annual national competition called the “Shodo Performance Koshien” (2018), see here. The film Shodô Girls!! (2010) told a fictional account of one such competition.

Finally, the J-pop girl group Menkoiガールズ fuse singing, dancing and calligraphy in their music videos and live performances. 


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