Japan and Love of Shodō (愛の書道)

Japan and Love of Shodō (愛の書道)

By: Bill Acton

My time in Japan gave me a unique, East/West perspective on embodied learning and teaching that has gradually become the heart of my approach to teaching pronunciation and language in general.

I had studied Japanese in college thirty years earlier when we arrived in Japan. In no small measure because I am the great grandnephew of Lafcadio Hearn, I was invited into places and relationships that a fifty-year old gaijin[1] university professor would not otherwise have been. Having learned English penmanship through the Palmer (full body) Method, calligraphy had always fascinated me. A friend, a well-connected Japanese teacher of English, arranged for me to visit the shop of a master in his late eighties, said to be one of the greatest living Shodo calligraphers or artists.

[1] “foreigner”

The first visit was “otherworldly,” as if stepping back into the Edo period, absorbing but not consciously understanding. The Master’s greetings, translated for me, focused first on his personal sojourn—and then, surprisingly, on mine, at one point even wondering aloud how much of Hearn’s spirit I had brought back to Japan with me. I left saying that I would be honored to come back and maybe even one day study with him.

Weeks later the lessons began. At first, I’d just sit and observe the place and process. One substantial learning for me was sitting motionless on tatami with the assist of a 10 by 10-inch little decorative stool. In time, in a low, gravelly voice, perhaps an artifact of decades of cigarettes, I was given a careful, thoughtful tour of materials and tools, comprehending only some of what I was hearing but feeling as if I were grasping purpose and function, nonetheless.

The following week I was instructed to come and kneel across from him. Between us were a set of several brushes, a small pot of water, two “ancient looking” ink stones . . . and a page from a local newspaper. He gently placed a larger, dry brush in my right hand, positioning my fingers around it. I was to pick it up and then set it down several times. Next, he took a brush, moved it back and forth smoothly across the wet ink stone in front of him and demonstrated a simple, sweeping brush stroke across the newsprint.

Then a most extraordinary thing happened. After quietly telling me to breathe deeply, relax, pick up the brush, and close my eyes, he slowly moved around to my right and covered my hand and the brush with his. For what seemed a pause in time, to the accompaniment of maybe half a dozen small words whispered repeatedly, the three of us, the brush, the master and student moved around the small space in front of me, sometimes in patterns in the air, sometimes over the ink stone, sometimes to the paper, pushing down and then moving away in what seemed an infinite number of pathways, each finishing with a lifting off and then back into room.

Gradually I arrived to where I would spend the time doing just one kanji (character)—

especially that for love—on the newsprint, a character with many varied, subtle strokes. By then, also, my ability to respond to comments about my brush work had improved greatly. I might be told to do the kanji with a person and context in mind and body, such as tender or passionate love (for my wife), love for a young child on her birthday, a message done in love and sorrow or compassion . . . until more and more meaning and emotion began flowing through the brush on to the paper . . . until newsprint became expensive washi paper, and occasionally, in moments I cannot forget, a character of almost astonishing depth and beauty appeared …

I was recently reminded of that “close encounter” with something of the soul of Japan, a fleeting essence of “whole being” learning together with a master teacher. Few have that moving experience, perhaps, but it is always there potentially, the mystery and magic, the moment class begins.

Bill Acton - eleven good years teaching English in Nagoya

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