The Differences in the Role of Calligraphy in Modern and Premodern Japanese Art Systems

The Bokujinkai, or “People of the Ink”, were a post-war avant-garde calligraphy group that challenged the classical constraints on calligraphy. By highlighting, and arguably emphasising, the similarities between Japanese calligraphic pieces and Euro-American abstract paintings, they aimed to bring international appreciation to the discipline of calligraphy. However, to what extent did this aim change the role of calligraphy in the Japanese art system?

The role of calligraphy in premodern Japan was predominantly Sino-centric, as it originated from the culture of the Chinese elite and became a central component of Japanese elite culture too. Many of the earliest examples of Japanese calligraphy are related to the Lotus Sutra – exemplified by neat, clear characters. With Buddhism having entered Japan in 538, copying out the Lotus Sutra was a religious act and thus the words should be written clearly in order to accurately convey their religious significance. Calligraphy was also important in poetry, an understanding of which was vital to demonstrate education and required knowledge for a member of court. Calligraphic poems can be found as part of folding screens and ink landscapes. Over time a more cursive style developed, where brush flow and pressure were central, this allowed individuals to develop distinct, identifiable styles. Specific techniques were also used to achieve certain effects, such as “flying white” which created a sense of speed and intensity by allowing the brush to dry during the writing process. Though variation and distinct styles existed, they were confined within specific conventions. Calligraphy’s function was intrinsically linked to the meaning of the characters, this notion was challenged in modern Japan. In 1948, Morita Shiryū (1912-1998), one of the leaders of Bokujinkai published an article called “Like a Rainbow”. The rainbow metaphor within this article became the driving philosophy of the group – at one end was Western abstract painting, at the other Japanese calligraphy and they should rise to form a rainbow. For universal appeal, the visual alone (without the character meaning) must be sufficient for admiration. The calligraphic character therefore no longer had to be readable.

The Bokujinkai utilised their journals, especially Bokubi, to rapidly disseminate their works and ideas regarding calligraphic theory globally. The format of Bokubi, itself, was a break from convention being read from left to right rather than right to left. In Bokubi calligraphy and abstract paintings, e.g. Inoue Yūichi’s Alpha No.12 and Franz Kline’s Chief, were directly compared and their similarities highlighted. This was a departure from the premodern art system, where the different disciplines were distinct and part of a strict hierarchy (with calligraphy at the top). The carefully selected pieces were functioning to promote interaction and collaboration between Japanese calligraphers and Euro-American abstract artists. Interestingly, however, there were also instances of the Bokujinkai judging abstract painting by traditional calligraphic standards – praising deeper lines and valuing works done in one fluid movement. From this, perhaps, can be deduced that calligraphic tradition provided a basis which the artists both appreciated and defied.


Bogdanova-Kummer, Eugenia. “Morita’s Rainbow: Line and Space in Calligraphy and Abstract Painting.” In Bokujinkai: Japanese Calligraphy and the Postwar Avant-Garde, pp. 55-76. Brill, 2020.

Carpenter, John T. “Poetry in Ink: Japanese Calligraphy and Decorative Writing Paper.” In Sunday at the Met: Brush Writing in the Art of Japan event recording. September 29, 2013.

Sakomura, Tomoko. “Brushing Waka: Japanese Court Poetry in Text and Image.” In Sunday at the Met: Brush Writing in the Art of Japan event recording. September 29, 2013.

Tsuji, Nobuo. History of Art in Japan. Columbia University Press, 2019.

3 Replies to “The Differences in the Role of Calligraphy in Modern and Premodern Japanese Art Systems

  1. Hi Zoe-san, Thank you for your excellent analytical blog on Japanese calligraphy and Euro-American abstract art. There was another art movement by the Gutai Art Group around the same time. Was this a coincidence or were they related? Also, what was the background of such movements?

    1. Dear Natsue,

      Thank you for your generous words. The questions you ask about the Gutai group are fascinating. However, they open up a huge area of research which I feel need someone with much more knowledge and expertise than me to address. As a Japanese person, you will undoubtedly know more about this than I do, so I’d love to know what you think.

  2. Hi Zoe, you mention the postwar idea of calligraphy resembling abstract painting, do you think that Japanese calligraphy evolved this way to become more like western art?

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