Japanese Calligraphy – The Ancient Art of Shodo

Japanese calligraphy, otherwise known as shodo, is the artistic writing of the Japanese language and has been part of their culture for well over 1,000 years. Here we will give a basic overview of how it started, why it’s essential to Japan and how you can begin practicing it.

Topics Covered

  • Why is calligraphy important to Japan?
  • How did it start?
  • Performance shodo
  • What is needed for Japanese calligraphy?
  • The best Japanese calligraphy sets
Calligraphy pensSix refillable pens with medium, fine and extra-fine tips from MISULOVE.
Caligraphy rice paper100 Sheets of calligraphy rice paper from Daiso Industries Co..
Kuretake calligraphy setA calligraphy set from Kuretake, which includes a guidance booklet, hard case, 180ml sumi ink, brush holder, thick and thin brush pen, inkstone, poly pitcher, Japanese paper clip, and a paperweight.

Video is owned and created by Gohitsu Shodo Kai.

Why is calligraphy important to Japan?

Japanese calligraphy is connected to Zen Buddhism and was practiced by everyone from ordinary citizens, Buddhist monks, samurai, and most especially noblemen. As a matter of fact, calligraphy was the most crucial skill a nobleman had to master. The purpose of writing calligraphy is to clear one’s mind and let the characters flow easily yet perfectly. As soon as the calligrapher begins to focus or think about what he is doing, he will make mistakes. Therefore, the brush strokes display the calligrapher’s state of mind at the time of writing.

Calligraphy is still important and practiced in modern-day Japan. It’s a compulsory class for elementary and junior high school students while it’s an optional subject for high school children.

Where did calligraphy start?

An example of Japanese calligraphy.
An example of shodo.

Japanese calligraphy did not start in Japan, as one might automatically assume. Instead, its origins date back to 2800 BC in China. Calligraphy was only introduced to Japan somewhere around 600 AD. The Japanese did it the Chinese way with kanji characters up until the Heian period when Japan developed the kana syllabary writing system – and with it, their own styles of calligraphy.

Performance shodo

At this ILC Tokyo Event, famous shodo artist, Tomoko Kawao, performs. The video is owned and created by ILC Communications.

Performance calligraphy is a new modern twist to the ancient art form that has become extremely popular throughout East Asia. Read more about it here.

What is needed for Japanese calligraphy?

Wonder what you need to practice Japanese calligraphy? Here we have compiled a list of every item and tool to help you master the art of shodo.


The best paper you can use for calligraphy is not from Japan. It’s a Chinese paper known as Xuan and has the best Sumi ink absorption qualities, is insect resistant, and can last for thousands of years. The Japanese washi paper is your second best option. Both these papers can be hard to come by and can be quite costly; therefore, they are not recommended for practice.

Fortunately, there are cheaper and more readily available options available. These include bleed-proof marker paper, premium inkjet paper, smooth watercolor paper, and Clairefontaine Triomphe.


In essence, any ink can be used for calligraphy, but not all inks are equal or have the same appearance. Traditionally, Sumi ink is used and loved by many calligraphers for its beautiful matte finish. Other equally good options include Iron Gall Ink, Winsor & Newton Calligraphy Ink, and India Ink – all of which are readily available at your nearest art supply store.


Many types of paper and ink can be used for Japanese calligraphy, but when it comes to brushes, things get a lot more specific. Whether a thick or thin brush – the sharpness of the brush tips, the hair structure, and its resilience are important things to consider.


Since you will be working with ink and brushes, an inkstone will be essential. Ink stones can be made from a variety of materials such as stone, porcelain, bronze, iron, or clay.

Best Japanese calligraphy sets

Interested in giving Japanese calligraphy a try? If so, then check out these two excellent calligraphy sets that are ideal for both beginner and intermediate-level skills.

Kuretake calligraphy set

The Kuretake calligraphy set is ideal for beginners and has everything you need to get started. Included with the kit are a hard case with a tea plate, 180ml quality black Sumi ink, two brushes (thick and thin), a fudemaki (roll-up brush holder), a suzuri (inkstone), paperweight, a poly pitcher, and a Japanese paper clip. Also, if you’re entirely new to the art, then you’ll be glad to know that they have included a guidance booklet to help you get started.

The product weighs 2.8 pounds and has dimensions of 12.2 x 1.8 x 8.5 inches.

9 Piece Japanese calligraphy set

This nine-piece Japanese calligraphy set is ideally suited for not only beginners and intermediates but also teachers. Included with the set is a clear case that is easy to carry around, a calligraphy mat, a Japanese paperweight, an inkstone, an ink stick, three different brushes, and a bag of 100 calligraphy paper sheets.

The total weight of the package is around 1.6 pounds and has dimensions of 15.6 x 10.8 x 1.3 inches.

Related Content

Learn more about Japan and its culture.

Find out more about one of the most famous shodo performance artists, Tomoko Kawao.