THE BEAUTY OF BRUSHSTROKES: Akie Karahashi and the art of shodo


THE PERFECT STROKE — Akie Karahashi demonstrates the art of shodo (Japanese calligraphy). photo by Daisuek Tagawa

THE PERFECT STROKE — Akie Karahashi demonstrates the art of shodo (Japanese calligraphy). photo by Daisuek Tagawa
THE PERFECT STROKE — Akie Karahashi demonstrates the art of shodo (Japanese calligraphy). photo by Daisuke Tagawa

Akie Karahashi, a Bay Area Japanese language and shodo teacher, organizes a display of select works of calligraphy at the festival. Karahashi talks about her passion for the art and the beauty that she sees in the characters.

Nichi Bei Weekly: What do you find beautiful about calligraphy?
Akie Karahashi: We write on white paper with black ink; it’s the balance of the white and black. And it’s not just lines — it has meaning. And then there is also the stroke, the strength or weakness of the line. The color of the ink, even though it is always black, there are many kinds of black: dark black, diluted black, reddish black. The kind of power you put into the stroke and the way you finish it … I was drawn to that beauty.

When I write, I always write with feeling, and I tell my students to put their feelings into it. I always teach them the meaning of the characters first, and when they understand the meaning, then they write.

NBW: What do you enjoy about teaching calligraphy?
AK: Becoming a Japanese teacher was a big change for me. Until then, I was focused on my own family and my own life, but after I became a teacher, I started thinking about my community. At the beginning when I came to this country, I was expecting to stay for a short time. But when I became a teacher, I started to think more about my community. … I work with seniors teaching this aspect of Japanese culture and also with children born here. There is a connection between them, as Japanese Americans. The heritage. After I taught calligraphy for awhile, I realized the importance of this heritage. At the same time, just looking at the characters and thinking they are beautiful is something I want to help my students be able to do.

NBW: How did you become involved with the Cherry Blossom Festival?
AK: I thought it was important for the works to be admired. So, for that reason I applied to have a display at the Cherry Blossom Festival. I formed a group to work on the project, a group of people who love calligraphy — anybody can join. It’s not a group that gathers to do calligraphy; we all practice on our own. Just for the Cherry Blossom Festival, we want to display our work to the public. That was just last year, this will be the second.

Tools of the trade. photo by Daisuke Tagawa
The tools.   photo by Daisuke Tagawa

NBW: What’s the most difficult thing about writing calligraphy?
AK: Sometimes American people who don’t know any Japanese will come and study with me. Of course they think it’s pretty and interesting, but when they try to draw the character, they just draw the shape without feeling. Another thing is that if you’re not calm, you can’t write well. If you’re thinking, “I only have 10 minutes left, I need to finish,” or you aren’t feeling well, there’s no way you can write well. Your feelings show up in the characters. Concentration is important.

NBW: What makes a good piece of calligraphy?
AK: For my students, it’s characters that they put a lot of heart into and work hard to write well. Basically, they have to write the lines strong and write the characters correctly. For professionals, it’scalligraphy that stirs my emotions. What’s written is words that have meaning, right? For example, to take a simple word, “gekko” (moonlight). When someone writes the characters very tightly, I feel a cold winter night, with a full moon. Or if someone writes it with thin ink, with a warm feeling, this time, I feel a spring night with cherry blossoms against the moon. I think it’s wonderful that there are all these varieties.

NBW: Do you think you can understand something about a person’s personality based on the characters that they write?
AK: Yes. Some people have a very distinctive way of writing. Some people, even when you tell them to try to write slowly, they still write it really fast or skip strokes. And then some people write very carefully. So naturally you can tell something about their personality.

NBW: Do you think that’s a good thing about calligraphy? Or is it better for students to first try to write as properly as possible?
AK: That’s something I wonder about very frequently. Fundamentally, when you first start studying, you are supposed to sit very straight and hold the pen a certain way on the paper. However, Americans are used to doing creative things in their own way, especially when drawing. So when they are told to hold the brush at a certain angle, it’s difficult for them and so they just draw the line, which turns out very fat — and, in terms of calligraphy, that’s a problem. I want to tell them that, but I just let them write, and sometimes something beautiful can come from that, an expression of their personality. There’s something wonderful about that creativity. So I always wonder how much I should correct my students.

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