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Embracing a New Life through Calligraphy: an Interview with the Calligrapher Kaku

My First Encounter with Kaku

The first time I met Kaku-san was during the fall of 2018. I was working on a project regarding tourism in the town of Takahama, in Fukui prefecture. I was told I was going to participate in a calligraphy workshop. My guide told me, “The calligrapher is very talented–he’s even been invited to exhibit in other countries. He’s an artist, but he also rents a room in his house for tourists, and he does calligraphy workshops too.” When I heard that, for some reason, I was imagining a sixty-ish austere man living in a traditional house. Then I met Kaku, in his thirties, greeting us with a big smile at the entrance of his modern, well-lit house. I realized I would have to put my preconceptions aside.

There’s good energy flowing inside Kaku’s comfy living room. Probably thanks to the tall, wide windows letting a lot of sunlight in, the cleanliness, and the fact nothing useless is lying around. There, Kaku-san initiated me to the ancient technique of sumi nagashi (more on this later) and how to hold a brush correctly. He also took some time brainstorming with me about what character to put on the paper.

We had coffee, and he told us about his town, his art, and his change of career. He speaks in a calm, but relaxed demeanor (stressed by his use of regional dialect and mild accent).

My friend Chloe, Kaku and I after a workshop at his house

I appreciated his talent, his kindness and his sincerity, and we remained in contact via social media. Seeing the beautiful artworks he posted on Instagram everyday and the broad range of art he was capable of creating made me want to become a customer of his. I ended up ordering a large piece for my living room to celebrate a significant change in my life. It was completely order-made. Kaku patiently listened to the meaning I wanted to convey, and my preferences in size and colors. I even sent him pictures of my living room so he would know my decorations tastes and the general feeling of the place. We chose the characters to be written together, as I wanted to convey something deep that I didn’t know how to express in Japanese. I’m still in awe at the care and dedication he put in this creation, and how beautiful the final result is. To this day, I consider it the most valuable object in my home, and it would be the first thing I’d grab if the place caught fire.

The piece Kaku created for me. The characters are read zanshin.

I came back to Kaku’s house twice during vacations. The last time I was there, in January, we spent hours talking while having coffee in front of the stove. That’s when I realized that someday, I wanted to have a proper, professional interview with him. Due to the coronavirus situation, Kaku agreed to participate in the following interview remotely via the internet. I’m glad to finally be able to introduce him to you.

A New Life as a Calligrapher

Kaku-san, you’re a calligrapher. Can you explain to us what precisely the job of calligrapher consists of? Is it the same as being a painter?

The job of calligrapher consists of writing characters with a Japanese brush. A calligrapher can write characters realistically by using many writing styles. Or they can express themselves through a more abstract use of the ink and use the characters as a motif. So, there are some common points with what a painter does.

In Japanese, we have two words for calligrapher: shoka and shodoka (The do in shodoka is written as “way” or “path,” like in martial arts names such as judo or aikido). There may be some disagreement about the difference, but here is what it means for me:

A shoka is someone who applies the techniques he has cultivated in his experience of calligraphy and expresses himself in a broad range of ways.

A shodoka is someone who develops his knowledge and skills in calligraphy by being faithful to the teachings of talented calligraphers who have preceded us.

Some people consider that it’s the same, so in reality, the difference between the two may be blurrier.

Even though I still study and look at what masters from the past did, I consider myself a shoka because I use calligraphy in various ways to express myself.

An example of a more Kaku’s more abstract work

When did you start learning calligraphy? Did you immediately love it?

I was 4 years old when I started attending calligraphy lessons. It was my mother’s idea because she was concerned with my awful writing at the time. At first, I was just happy to go there with my friends, but when I was a high schooler, I got taught how to create and produce a piece of art. That’s when I got absorbed by the universe of calligraphy.

“The main difference now is that I am responsible for everything.”

You used to work for the Takahama city hall, for which you also taught as a nursery school teacher. What has motivated you to change jobs and become a full-time calligrapher?

I got sick with a particular disease called idiopathic osteonecrosis of the femoral head. I am still dealing with it today. A few years ago, my condition got worse. I had to have surgery and stay in the hospital for a while. Then I had to follow treatment at home. On the whole, it took about half a year. I could not move or go where I wanted for a while, and that was the trigger to change my lifestyle. At the time, I was already making creations for free for people I knew, but I decided the time had come to pursue my inner calling.

What changed the most in your life after switching jobs?

In my current career, there are many aspects for which I can use the experience I have gained before. For example, teaching or being involved in tourism and commerce. But the main difference now is that I am responsible for everything. The best thing that facing this disease has taught me is how to work at my own pace, but still staying alert.

Working with Ancestral Techniques

“This technique is heavily influenced by meteorological conditions, and it’s impossible to create the same pattern two times.”

The following video shows the general process and techniques Kaku uses to create unique calligraphies:

You’re using a unique technique to dye backgrounds, which is called sumi nagashi. Can you tell us about what this technique consists of and how you started using it?

Sumi nagashi is a Japanese traditional technique for dyeing paper. Its origins date back to the Heian period [794-1185]. The nobles of the time would drop ink in the river, and have fun looking at the different patterns it would create. Fukui prefecture, where I live, is the mecca of paper producing in Japan. It’s here,more precisely, in the city of Echizen, that they started capturing these patterns on paper, hence creating the technique known as sumi nagashi. This technique is heavily influenced by meteorological conditions, and it’s impossible to create the same pattern two times, which is why the patterns feel so precious and mysterious at the same time.

“I must create an environment in which I can be at peace.”

Do you have any preferences regarding your tools or your resources when you create?

I don’t know if this could be called a preference, but when I create, I take great care in how much I can think of the person I am writing for. To increase this state of mind, I must make myself as undisturbed as possible. To achieve this, I must create an environment in which I can be at peace. This means I have to do a lot of things like cleaning around my workspace, taking good care of my tools, and getting everything ready around me. That’s only after that that I can concentrate on what I write.

Seiryuu or Blue Dragon

Can you briefly explain your creative process?

First, I try to know as much as I can about my customer’s wishes and intentions, and I create a general image from there. Then I experiment with the characters a lot of times; this can be 100 or 200 times. Once I’m sure it fits the general image, I dye the paper using the sumi nagashi technique. I do this only once while being intensely concentrated on only one sheet of paper. Then I write the final version of the characters on this unique paper. Finally, I ask artisans to frame it or put it on a hanging scroll.

How are things in your mind when you create? Do you think about a lot of things, or are you in a meditative state?

I go along my creative process while thinking about what the customer requested. However, when I create the piece itself, I am mostly in a meditative state.

Keeping Pushing Forward

What is your best memory related to your career as a calligrapher?

The best moments for me are each time my customers receive the work I did for them. I am always reassured when I hear from them after they have seen the calligraphy with their own eyes. It’s very moving because it’s a moment when the customer and I share the same emotion.

“I’d also like to be a calligrapher who keeps exploring new fields, keeping up with the changing times.”

Did you experience any hardship so far?

There are many challenges in having to work on my own, but there is nothing I’ve experienced so far that I could call a hardship. However, I put a lot of effort every day in improving my calligraphy skills, with no regrets.

What are the next projects you would like to tackle?

Currently, my job has two aspects: the artistic one, and the one in which I provide logos for businesses. In the future, I’d like to expand the commercial side of my career as a calligrapher. Still, I’d also like to be a calligrapher who keeps exploring new fields, keeping up with the changing times we are living in.

A firm Connection with His Spiritual Roots

Zen

Can you tell us about your involvement with the city of Takahama and its traditions, especially the big festival happening once every seven years?

There is this shrine called the Sakichi shrine, which is considered quite large for a small town like Takahama. I’m a parishioner of this shrine, so the kami [Japanese Shinto religion deity] enshrined there is like a patron god for me. I’ve been actively participating in this shrine’s festival since I was young. Now I am in charge of keeping the memory of its traditional culture techniques, which have become an intangible cultural heritage of Fukui prefecture.

At the beginning of the following video, Kaku-san is playing the drums during an essential ritual of the festival. The way to play the drums and the performers’ moves have been learned by oral transmission for centuries.

What role do the Shinto religion and the kami play in your everyday life?

They are a source of support in my heart. In my house, I have a kamidana [a small Shinto altar enshrining guardian deities of the house], and I greet the kami every morning before I start my activities.

With other citizens, you’re also involved in energizing Takahama, especially regarding tourism. Do you think that Takahama is a place worth visiting?

In cities like Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto, you’ll be able to experience feelings unique to Japan. But if you’d like to get deeper, the charms or the Japan of the origins are still there in places farther in the territory. In the small town of Takahama, you can encounter a lot of different genuine Japanese charms. I really hope people will come by to visit if they have the chance.

Kaku also appears in this new promotional video showing the charms of Takahama, titled Reconnect with your Zen:

Do you have a final message for our readers?

If someday you feel the urge to refresh your body and mind with zen, please come visit us in Takahama!

What Kaku’s Story Taught Me

What resonates in me the most about Kaku, is how he managed to transform a painful event into an opportunity. Grasping the chance to do what he was really meant to do and be what he was really meant to be. Sometimes, life will just throw at you unexpected challenging events out of the blue – 2020 in itself embodies that – and you have no choice but to react and try to make the best out of it. For Kaku, his disease with an unknown origin, and the forced period of immobilization that ensued, gave him the time to think. He realized his real call was the traditional art he’d been doing since he was a child.

I have been a witness to it (and I think it can be seen in the first video embedded in this article), but when Kaku’s painting, you can feel something’s happening. During an instant of intense concentration, it’s like he’s somewhere else, just being one with the moves of the brush on paper. Seeing that, I can’t imagine him doing anything  else. I feel inspired by that boldness to decide it’s time to be what you are really meant to be, and take concrete steps towards it.

For Kaku, completely embracing the world of Japanese calligraphy opened up for a brand new lifestyle and new professional challenges. Still, it rewarded him with a different richness, new encounters with people of all ages and all nationalities, through the workshops and exhibitions he’s invited to do, orders from all over the world through his Instagram account, and his opening of part of his house to visitors.

When Kaku declares he pours feelings and intentions into his creations for the persons who order his art, it’s genuine. How else would you be able to repeat the same character 200 times on a sheet of white paper? That’s what makes his creations look so alive.

Making a living and finding peace in the ancient art of calligraphy but not being afraid to explore and modernize it; finding strength and faith in traditions while keeping the memory for future generations; cherishing the ties with his communities as well as opening up to new people without distinction… All these aspects of Kaku’s life and character may be hints for how the original Japanese spirit can perdure in the future, and how to face the new challenges to come.

Amélie Geeraert

Born in France, I've been living in Japan since 2011. I'm curious about everything, and living in Japan has allowed me to expand my vision of the world through a broad range of new activities, experiences, and encounters. As a writer, what I love most is listening to people's personal stories and share them with our readers.

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