Kenpitsu Issho: The Pen and Sword as One

The stroke of the brush is ultimate, just as the stroke of the sword…

A question was asked on a Koryū Networking Group the other day asking about any links or influences between Budō and Shodō, Japanese Calligraphy. The question caught my attention on a personal level as I have always made the connection between the two due to my own practices in Calligraphy and Iai, and personal frequent analogies of the similarities between the two. After receiving such warm feedback I felt I’d expand on it and make it into a brief article. I hope this is of as much interest to others, as it is to me.

Japan hasn’t always been a literate culture. Originally only the spoken word existed until the introduction of characters by the Chinese around the 6th Century AD. Upon receiving the means to use written words the Japanese were very keen to use this new discovery as much as possible. Centuries later they had become arguably the most literate culture on the planet, recording births, deaths, incomes etc wherever possible. Over the evolution of the written Japanese language numerous different scripts were created for women, scholars, foreign words etc showing just how important writing was to the Japanese as a people.

The same phenomenon existed in Western Europe, China and the Middle East, however the Japanese Martial Arts more than others made excellent use of written media in order to keep their arts alive. By the Edo Period, arguably the Golden Age of Martial Arts, it had become common practice upon entering a Dōjō for one to sign a contract upon entering the school. Your name was then added to the school’s record books, or a small wooden plaque, a Nafudakake (名札掛け) added to the roster. After years of practice you may have been lucky enough to receive a Makimono containing some of the techniques. Various Mokuroku syllabus scrolls and levels of Menkyo, certificates enabling you to teach certain aspects of the art yourself, were handed down from Sensei to Deshi, and were handwritten reproductions of the scrolls the Sensei themselves had received from their teachers. There is more often than not a traceable paper trail showing record of a Ryūha’s evolution from creation to succession.

It is natural then for the Japanese Martial Arts to gain such synonymy with the brush. Not only due to practitioners being so literate, but also the similarities in the physical structures of both Budō and Shodō. I would like to stress that this article so far and especially the content below is drawn from my own (very limited) experiences in Calligraphy and the Sword Arts, and by no means ultimate fact.

The majority of Japanese Sword Arts are broken down into sections, whether Shoden, Chūden, Okuden and Hiden, or Omote, Ura, Gokui etc. The same can be said for Shodō.
In Shodō, the first things one must attain are the tools. A brush, the ink, the paper, the stamp etc are all required tools of the chosen art. The same of Swordsmanship. Without a sword, the attire, the correct instruction etc there is nothing but someone waving a stick. One must then learn to hold the brush, and hold correct posture and technique when practicing, just as with Iai. One must be able to manoeuvre the brush freely to attain the various strokes required in any individual character, as one is required to hold the sword correctly in order to cut efficiently and in the manner required of said technique.

In Shodō, one is first required to study the Kihontenkaku, a collection of basic strokes: Tate, Yoko, Harai etc which build up every Kanji in existence. Just as in Iai one is required to learn the basic Kamae of the school, the various cuts from different angles: Shōmen, Shamen, Kiriage… We then put these individual strokes together to form one Kanji, or one Kata in Swordsmanship.

The basis of calligraphy is Kaisho, the block characters. This is the standard, basic way of writing a character where each individual stroke will look the same in each Kanji. Each individual stroke is performed smoothly and crisply until it becomes a natural movement, slowly allowing an increase in speed of the strokes as they become second nature. This is the Style which one has to perfect first. In other words the Shoden techniques.

Once perfection of the basics is achieved one can move onto Gyōsho, the running script. In Gyōsho the individual strokes begin to flow together. Three strokes may become two, or two can become one long stroke. Although more connected and a more rounded Kanji than Kaisho, the basic Character still forms the heart, and can clearly be seen within it. This is where the Chūden of our sword work is visible. Our techniques should hopefully roll together more smoothly, although seemingly more complex, a firm grasp of the Shoden means that simple adjustments of the individual aspects, go on to form the Chūdengata. In Musō Jikiden Eishin Ryū for example, there is a practice known as Hayanuki, where all Chūdengata are performed as one long smooth Kata, where controlled deceleration and acceleration connect separate movements into one. This is our Gyōsho, where even the gaps between strokes are connected by invisible lines.

Upon perfection of the Gyōsho we’re able to break down the characters, and learn the correct Kuzushikata to write Sōsho, grass style. The Kuzushikata, or how to break down Kanji can be easily learned from just watching. The shape maybe similar, but the essence will be different, however. Only through vast knowledge of strokes and individual Kanji can one start to appreciate Sōsho. This is also where the individual’s roots can be seen. Each character has numerous ways of being broken down for the cursive form, depending on the School, teacher and individual experience of the practitioner. This would be our Okuden. Often with numerous techniques existing, but again each being broken down to the bare essentials. The Okuden techniques tend to appear the most simple, but contain vast amounts of hidden workings gained from years of experience. They flow together into one long, continuous movement, just as Sōsho allows a Kanji to become one long, continuous brush stroke. You can also tend to see who someone’s teacher is or lineage by which version of a technique they perform, just as a Kanji can be recognised as being a certain style of writing.

There are also other ways to write characters such as the Imperial script, Oracle Script or Ancient Scripts (among others). These are not often considered the basic three forms of Shodō. They are supplementary, often more traditional or former arts/ additional styles to aid and deepen understanding of the current standard. This can be seen again in Iai. In Musō Shinden Shigenobu Ryū, there are a vast amount of supplementary arts such as Shin Tamiya Ryū, Itabashi Ryū which aid the understanding of the art as it stands today. Along with a plethora of older or different versions of individual Kata, which now exist as Kaewaza or Henkawaza.

Many famous sword masters such as Nukata Hisashi, Nakayama Hakudō and Yamaoka Tesshu were all very skilled penman, with Yamaoka Tesshu having numerous works published. Perhaps most famous of all is Miyamoto Musashi, writer of the Gorin no Sho, and also a very skilled painter.

I hope this very short analysis is of interest to fellow Budōka and Shodōka alike, and I hope you may even try your hand at one or the other yourself someday.

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One thought on “Kenpitsu Issho: The Pen and Sword as One

  1. I am a kenshi/iaidoka self study (5years) in Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu & Yagyu Shinkage-ryu Iaido, previously kendoka since 1986 Singapore+Malaysia; am particularly interested where spiritual teachings go hand in hand with Iai/kenjutsu.
    Your article gives me another insight in Japanese swordmanship.
    I practice “kenzen ichi-nyo & kenshin ichi-nyo.

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