(First of two parts)
In a calligraphy studio on the outskirts of Tokyo, Shoko Kanazawa—dressed in white tabi, black hakama, and a cornsilk-colored kimono with circular flower patterns—stands before a four-foot-square expanse of paper and folds her hands in prayer.
For a few moments, a stillness falls over the studio. Then, smoothing out her kimono and hakama, Shoko picks up an enormous calligraphy brush, some three feet long, and plunges it into a bright red lacquered bucket filled a third of the way full with thick, raven-colored ink. Without a hint of indecision, she stabs the giant brush on the paper, pulling it towards her, picking it back up again, drawing it across the page, resting briefly halfway through, and finally putting the last flourish on the last stroke of the Chinese character which she has chosen for the new year.
It takes just a minute or two for Shoko to write the six-stroke character. During this time, she is intensely focused on the task at hand. Her mother—also her teacher—kneels beside the work in progress, sopping up over-inked areas with smaller rectangles of paper and reminding Kanazawa to watch her technique, to pause where strokes should be thicker, to breathe.
The Artist as a Young Woman
This artist in intense concentration is a far cry from the Kanazawa whom we met just half an hour earlier, when we arrived at the studio and were taken to the home upstairs to meet her. After greeting us in English, she noticed the microphone we had brought for our interview, and asked if we would like to record her singing and dancing like her favorite YouTube stars. Gleefully swaying back and forth, Shoko beatboxed and moved to the rhythm she made, hamming for the camera and then ending her impromptu performance with a tremendous smile.
As Shoko listed for us the stable of Youtubers she admires, and gushed about Michael Jackson and how much she loves his dance moves, it was easy to forget that Kanazawa Shoko is arguably the most famous living calligrapher in Japan.
Shoko Kanazawa has made more than 1,000 exhibitions and other public appearances in the past decade. Her work has hung in virtually every major temple and shrine in Ise, Nara, Kyoto, Kamakura, Tokyo, and beyond. There are four museums dedicated exclusively to her calligraphy, one of them located next door to the Higashi-Honganji, the enormous wooden temple in the heart of Kyoto. The Emperor and Empress of Japan hold Shoko’s work in their private collection. Her calligraphy has adorned the opening titles to a major NHK period drama. She has won the praise of the most discerning critics in the country, and the hearts of the Japanese people.
Not only is Shoko Kanazawa the most famous calligrapher in Japan, she may even be the most famous calligrapher in the world. She is regularly featured in major media outlets worldwide. She has spoken at the United Nations headquarters in New York. Hers is perhaps the only contemporary calligraphy which those outside of specialist circles might recognize.
Untouched by Fame
And yet Shoko herself, when asked about her remarkable career, is unaware that she is a world-famous artist. She tells us about how much fun it was to sing karaoke with the family of a Buddhist monk once. (The monk is the abbot of a temple in Shikoku which was built specifically to house a more-than-dozen-yard calligraphic installation, possibly the first time in Japanese history that a temple was constructed around a work of calligraphy.) She invites us to sample the Chinese cuisine that she so loves to prepare. On a short walk around the neighborhood, she politely greets the many people who stop to say hello to her.
During our interview, we ask her about how she sees herself. In almost every newspaper article and television appearance, Shoko is introduced as having Down Syndrome. Indeed, Shoko may be, not only the world’s most famous calligrapher, but also the world’s most famous Down Syndrome person. Is there a gap, we ask her, between the way she is presented and the way she feels inside?
Shoko is puzzled by the question. We glance at her mother sitting beside her, who asks Shoko what Down Syndrome is.
“Sometimes babies have Down Syndrome,” Shoko answers. We quickly move on to a different set of questions.
Later, after Shoko has left to change out of her formal kimono, her mother explains that Shoko does not know that she has Down Syndrome. It does not enter her mind.
Earlier, we had asked Shoko why she chose the character, “light,” for her new year’s calligraphy.
“Because I want everyone to shine brightly in the new year,” she explained.
“She is pure, untouched by the world,” Shoko’s mother afterwards told us. “The world sees her as a Down Syndrome person. But Shoko just wants to make other people happy.”
Shoko Kanazawa has provided a special new year greeting for JAPAN Forward readers:
“Happy new year to everyone reading JAPAN Forward! I chose to write the word ‘light’ for you because my wish is that you will all shine brightly in 2018. I hope the year ahead will be happy for everyone!”
(To be continued)