Popular Science Monthly/Volume 73/September 1908/Japanese Writing




SOME time ago a Japanese student handed me the following statement:

In Japan we aim at two distinct objects in giving instruction in writing. One is to teach the children the mode of writing ordinary characters, and to make them acquainted with the management of the brush. But we have another important object in teaching writing; in Japan it is regarded as one of the fine arts. Japan is a land of hero-worship. Nothing delights us more than the memory of great heroes and sages of the past. Every relic connected with them is cherished as a visible token of their great minds. We believe ourselves to be especially inspired and ennobled by their autographs. So the educated classes decorate what is set apart as the sacred part of the room—called "Tokonoma"—with such an autograph. We study the writings of eminent persons as a physiognomist would study the various expressions of human faces to know their inner characteristics. When we are trying to copy after an eminent writer we feel very much as we would when standing in front of a marble statue of a great man. Therefore we pay special attention to the posture of every limb of our body, and especially to the management of the brush, for we think we are in the presence of that hero himself. In that moment we concentrate our mind to direct all the energies of our body in a certain definite direction, in consequence of which our lower passions and appetites are extinguished as the dark clouds of night are dispersed by the radiance of the rising sun, and our spirits are freed from all the cares and anxieties of the present world and are wafted to the ideal region of highest felicity, where we commune with the holy spirits of the great heroes and sages. It was thought by the sages of old that by means of such a method of writing they could regulate the outward postures of their disciples and in consequence could discipline their inner spirits, So they counted the art of writing as one of the "Six Arts" by which they sought to edify man's character.

In Japan writing plays an important part in the social life of the people. On the second of January, on which day the work of the year begins, educated persons—especially the younger people—try their new brushes on specially prepared paper by writing sentiments in praise of nature and by expressing their wishes and hopes for the coming year. The Japanese give writing-parties just as we do lawn-parties and euchre-parties. At these gatherings the guests exhibit their best pieces of writing and receive prizes. Again, a piece of silk with an elegantly written sentiment serves as a highly acceptable wedding present. Even the walls of the rooms are decorated by writings in place of paintings.
Fig. 1. Manner of Large Writing.

Writing is also a part of the divine service of Buddha. The empresses and emperors in the olden days made copies of the Sacred Books; the characters were golden on a white field, the style of the letters was dignified and beautiful. There is even a special god of writing, Ten Jin. He was a great statesman, poet and scholar of the olden time, and also a fine writer; he was afterwards deified. Now the children offer up to Ten Jin their early attempts at writing and pray to him for help in the difficult task which has been set before them. The sacredness of the art of writing attaches even to pieces of paper with written characters on them; the Japanese do not allow them to be trampled into oblivion, but carefully pick them up and religiously burn them.

What is our American view of writing? We consider illegible and careless writing a thing to boast of. You have all read Mark Twain's story of the letter from Horace Greeley, and I need not repeat it to
Fig. 2. Manner of Fine Writing.

illustrate the point. The story is told of Rufus Choate that he wrote three hands; one which he could read and his clerk could not, one which his clerk could read and he could not, and one which nobody could read. Of a certain well-known Baltimore clergyman it is stated that he could not read his own manuscript twenty-four hours after he had written it. Similar anecdotes might be collected by the hundred. It does not matter whether they are literally true or not; the fact remains that the humorous way in which bad writing is treated shows that the general public sentiment regards poor writing as a thing to be proud of rather than otherwise.

Writing is to us a means of communication to be used as economically as possible—the biggest amount of communication with the least expenditure of pen-energy. Of course, from this point of view the best writer is the typewriter, and when typewriters are cheap enough we can expect the school-children to be taught typewriting instead of pen-writing.

This commercial view has brought it about that writing is no longer on a level with spelling; bad writing is excusable, but bad spelling never. This careless and frivolous treatment of the art of writing is, I maintain, an ill-bred trait of national character which we should endeavor to correct on the principles followed by the Japanese.

In Japan writing was regarded as one of the six arts of education. By the six arts were meant the postures, writing, riding, shooting, mathematics and music. The object of these arts was to teach the control of both the body and the mind. By writing, the control of the arm, hand and fingers was to be taught. The Japanese use the "Fude," a peculiar kind of brush made of the soft wool of the white rabbit. Fig. 1 shows the position for large writing. The long roll of paper is held in the left hand; the characters are written downward. The stone block on which the stick ink is rubbed in water is shown on the table. In the first stage of writing they have to learn to write large letters and characters. When they want to write large characters, it is forbidden to support the arm on the table or anything else. The movement of the arm must be entirely free in both the horizontal and the vertical direction. Not only are quickness and steadiness of movement required, but the arm is trained also to graceful movement and slow adjustments. Now a bold stroke is demanded and then a hesitating touch of the brush is required. It is said that "Sometimes the stroke of the brush must be as rapid and as dreadful as the lightning in the sky, but sometimes it must be as gentle and as graceful asthe young virgin in her private apartment."

In the second stage of writing they have to learn to make smaller characters. Here again the arm must be free; but in this case one point of the wrist is supported on the table, or more properly on the row of fingers of the left hand laid on the table (Fig. 2). This point serves as a fulcrum for the movement of the hand and fingers. The object of finer writing is not only to train the fingers, but also to train the eye. So they are sometimes required to write characters not larger than a millimeter square. Even in writing such a small character, every jot and every tittle must be brushed according to a definite form of writing and by a single stroke.

We must change our American views of writing. In communicating by speech a well-bred person tries to avoid mutilations and transformations of language that might be offensive to cultured ears. The New Englander tries to save his g's, the Southerner to keep his r's, the Englishman not to drop his h's. In communication by writing, however, you may insult your correspondent by characters over which he has to puzzle long to derive any meaning; you may flaunt slovenly y's and g's and b's before his face; you may offend his nostrils with the garlic of reversible n's and u's, etc. This is quite wrong. Let, your "Dear Sir" and your "Yours truly" speak their meanings in their forms as well as in their spelling; treat your friend with the politeness of legibility and feed your correspondence-guest with a meal of words more than half done.

Fig. 3. Specimens of Writing.

It is especially when we consider writing as the expression of ourselves that we understand the Japanese feeling toward it. The voice and the hand are two great means of expressing what is in us. Our thoughts, our instincts, our very natures find expression in the tones of the voice; we are familiar with the effeminate voice, the manly voice, the sympathetic voice, the mean voice. Our hands also tell similar stories, hut we have never learned to recognize them because we have not thought the matter worth considering. No facts whatever are yet settled concerning the relation between character and writing, yet that need not trouble us. It is a well-established law that our mind seeks expression by movements and that the practise of the movements tends to confirm the condition of mind that produces them. Certain attitudes are connected by repetition with devotional impulses; the mere assumption of such an attitude will arouse the same impulses. The careful putting of our best instincts into our writing on every occasion can not but have some of the moral effect attributed to such a practise by the Japanese, and the constant effort at clearness, correctness and gracefulness in expression must inevitably have some influence on our inner selves.