Japan had a rough 2018. In July, torrential rains caused widespread flooding and landslides throughout south-central Japan. In September, a powerful earthquake struck the northern island of Hokkaido. And virtually the entire archipelago was racked by a series of powerful, zig-zagging typhoons that continued far beyond the usual summer season.
The year was so bad that the Kiyomizudera Temple in Kyoto, which every year puts on a kanji (Chinese character) writing performance in which the monks of the temple choose one Chinese character to stand for the previous 12 months, chose the inauspicious ideograph wazawai (“disaster”).
And the disasters of 2018 were not limited to the natural variety. Japan continues to face a threat to its west as China seeks to eliminate the Japan-US alliance, a South Korean court ruled in October that Japanese companies are liable for the use of wartime laborers from the Korean Peninsula, Nissan chief executive officer Carlos Ghosn was arrested by Japanese authorities for tax evasion, and in December the Nikkei stock index took a beating after the Federal Reserve in the United States announced an increase in interest rates.
A kanji for 2019
But not everyone is so downbeat. One of the most famous calligraphers in the world chose to write her own Chinese character to mark the close of 2018 and the opening of 2019.
As she did last year, Shoko Kanazawa, 33, created the New Year’s kanji in her family studio-home in Kugahara, a Tokyo suburb outside the Yamanote subway line. Most days, Shoko is busy at the studio giving calligraphy lessons and perfecting her art. But on the day Asia Times and a group of Japanese reporters met her, she was ready to do something special.
She was dressed in a formal kimono and attended by a small team of assistants – including her mother – who help her blot the paper and move accoutrements and giant brushes around the workspace.
After our arrival, Shoko plunged into a deep concentration with an intensity of purpose that contrasts with the broad smiles that normally light up her face. Then she soaked her brush into a bucket of thick black ink and applied it to the paper.
Eight strokes – punctuated by sharp breathing, pregnant pauses, and nimble stances astride the enormous piece of paper – and she is done.
On the paper before her, in bold, austere calligraphy, is Shoko Kanazawa’s kanji for 2019: inori – “prayer.”
Asked what she herself prayed for during her moments of pre-calligraphic introspection, Kanazawa answered, “I ask my father to help me write a good Chinese character.”
It’s a poignant prayer: Shoko’s father passed away when she was a teenager.
A prayer is answered
Kanazawa may just be the world’s most well-known calligrapher, but the artist herself – who has exhibited her original works at the most exclusive and discerning of the upper-crust museums, temples, and galleries throughout Japan – is indifferent to fame.
She was born with Down syndrome. Her mother, Yasuko, explains that “prayer” – far from being just another New Year’s resolution – has been the bedrock of her and her daughter’s life from the moment Shoko was born. “For 30 years,” Yasuko says, “my job has been to pray.”
Yasuko was plunged into a dark depression when she learned that her only child had been diagnosed with Down syndrome. She asked God why such a thing had happened; considered suicide; then asked for a miracle, requesting that Shoko be cured so that she, Shoko, and Yasuko’s husband and Shoko’s father could live a normal life.
That particular prayer was not answered, but Yasuko’s prayers have changed in the years since. “Now when I pray, I thank God for Shoko, that she is exactly the way she is,” she says.
Yasuko has been studying calligraphy for 60 years; those around her address her as sensei (“teacher” or “master”). It was she who decided to teach the art to her daughter – and it was the art that would help mother and daughter overcome tragedy. When her husband died suddenly when Shoko was still a teenager, the two took refuge in the rhythmic isolation and contemplative cadence of calligraphy – a practice that some consider meditative.
“We would sit at the table and write kanji together,” Yasuko says. “Character after character….”
A father’s wish; a sublime talent
It was soon clear that Shoko had a talent. Without expecting much in the way of attendance, Yasuko decided to exhibit some of Shoko’s pieces locally as a way to fulfill a long-held wish of her late husband. The response was extraordinary. She expected perhaps a hundred people to show up, but word spread. The visitors to that exhibition would eventually number in the tens of thousands. A star had been born.
Commentators and critics, along with the general public, frequently use the word “genius” to describe Shoko. Her calligraphic rendition of the Fujin Raijin painted screens, a National Treasure exhibited at the Kenninji Temple in Kyoto, astounded art experts. Shoko somehow captured the essence of the original and translated it into bold, penetrating brushstrokes. Her calligraphy was displayed alongside the originals – an unheard-of honor.
But while art critics in Japan and around the world, are often left dumbstruck by Shoko’s talent, she herself is decidedly unimpressed. After creating the 2019 kanji, Shoko quickly changed into a pair of jeans and a pink jacket – eager to show the news crew a new pink bicycle she had bought.
“I raised her away from the world,” Yasuko says. “Shoko doesn’t know about the world around. She is untouched, pure.”
The world continues to misunderstand Shoko. In December of 2018, the Liberal Democratic Party, the political bloc that has ruled Japan almost without interruption since the country’s rebirth after the Pacific War, commissioned Shoko to perform her calligraphy in front of an audience of more than a thousand in downtown Tokyo.
The character the LDP chose for Shoko to write was katsu (“victory”). But after the performance was over, Yasuko says, Shoko began crying.
“She doesn’t understand competition,” her mother explained. “People with Down syndrome don’t think in terms of winners and losers. They don’t make distinctions along those lines. Shoko is good at finding out who is sad, who is lonely, who is hurting,…”
Asked what her own prayer is for 2019, Shoko responds simply. “I want everyone to be happy.”