When I had been a few months in Japan and had learnt a few hundred of the most frequently occurring Chinese characters, and became able to read a sentence here and there which was written in those common characters, I felt quite pleased with my progress. But then I found that for anything beyond simple sentences, one would need to know not a couple of hundred more, but a couple of thousand more.
I set to work, but began to get bored with the drudgery of it. Like most foreigners at this stage, I experienced a sort of oceanic weariness. Each new character had to be written out twenty times in order to learn it, but for each hundred new characters one learnt, it seemed that one forgot some old ones. ‘You cram them into your head in the day,’ complained one student, ‘but you find that in the night they have leaked away out of your heels.’ One seemed to be swimming through a sea of weird shapes without any glimpse of a far shore.
Many of us gave up. I was determined to go on, but looked about for something that would lighten the task, or at least make it more interesting. Finally I got the idea of studying shuji (calligraphy). I heard that one of the Embassy teachers was an expert, and took a weekly lesson with him.
He quickly understood that I was taking up calligraphy to help myself to learn the characters, and he co-operated very well. He told me many interesting and unusual mnemonics: uri wa tsume ari; tsume wa tsume nashi – the Chinese character for Claw has no claw; the character for Melon is very like it but has a claw. After 55 years I still remember this, and many other such, which shows how effective they are in supporting memory. I also remember clearly some of the interesting methods of instruction in calligraphy.
In the Grass Hand style, the characters are written in a very abbreviated and flowing form. Some of the elements of the characters come again and again, and have the same Grass Hand form. One of them is a particular element which comes on the right side, and is generally the last big stroke of the Grass Hand. Ideally, the teacher said, this vertical stroke should have a very slight curve in it. When I was told this, I wrote it with a curve, but he always said that the curve was too pronounced. cIt must be very, very slight,’ he said, and demonstrated. I could not manage it. Either I wrote it with a perfectly straight vertical stroke, or else, when I tried to make it a curve, that was said to be too much. When my efforts were put side by side with one of his, I could see what he meant, but I could not do it. I think my efforts amused him just a little.
Finally he told me: ‘Write it, large, with a curve, a hundred times, till you have filled two sheets of paper.’ I did this getting more and more facility with it as I wrote it again and again. Then he put a blank sheet of paper in front of me. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘write that character with a perfeccty vertical stroke – no curve at all.’ I dashed it off. There was the very slight curve which I had been unable to make. When I had done it once or twice, I got the knack of it.
The teacher said: ‘Now forget all about straight lines and curves. It will be natural to you now.’
I found this concrete experience useful in appreciating Japanese culture. For instance, I heard this about some traditional Japanese black and white paintings. We foreigners used to expect paintings to be representational, even if they were very simple sketches. The Japanese method of painting, which seems to depend on suggestion, is strange to us.
For instance, I heard the criticism of Miyamoto Musashi’s famous painting of a bird sitting alertly on a twig: ‘I feel uneasy when I look at this picture. That slender twig could not support the weight of the bird. It is simply impossible. Why did he not make the twig thicker?’ Again, sometimes we see a Japanese picture of a mountain, which is not Mount Fuji, reflected in a lake. But the reflection in the water has the shape of Mount Fuji.
Westerners feel uneasy when they see this. I remember hearing a Japanese trying to explain that all mountains remind Japanese of Mount Fuji, and the reflection is intended to convey that inner thought. But his litde audience did not understand.
On another occasion, a foreigner at an art exhibition at Ueno said to a Japanese critic: ‘I cannot understand these pictures. I want to understand them. I feel that there is some great beauty hidden in them. But I cannot do it. I keep noticing some detail which seems to me quite unreal.’ The Japanese answered him: If you really want to understand, you can. Stand in front of a picture for ten minutes, and look at it in detail. Now continue standing and looking, but forget the ink-strokes, forget what you think it represents, forget the paper, forget the art gallery and that you are in it. When you have forgotten all that, what remains is the beauty.’ The foreigner looked a bit bewildered, but he did what he had been told, and he said later that he had begun to appreciate Japanese painting.
I had a somewhat different instruction about calligraphy. After a couple of years, I could execute a reasonable copy of the kanji (Japanese characters) brushed by my teacher, or in the book. But I could not understand the basis of some of his criticisms. He would say: ‘this one you have done well, but that one is rather lifeless.’ When I looked at them, I could not see any particular difference between them. I could see that they were not exacdy the same, but I could not see that one was better than the other. I said this to the teacher, and he pondered for a bit, but said nothing.
The next time he came he gave me quite a surprise. He got me to write a few kanji which I knew well. Then he picked out two, and put them alongside each other. ‘Look at those two,’ he said. I dutifully stared at them. ‘You say that you do not see that one is better than the other? You cannot see that one is well balanced and full of life, and the other is sagging?’ ‘I don’t see any special difference,’ I admitted. Then he said: ‘You are a judo man. Now forget about calligraphy, forget about the brush and the paper. Look at that character on the left as if it were a judo opponent. Can’t you see that it is well balanced, full of spring and life? And this one on the right – if that were a judo man, what would you think of his posture? Forget the strokes, forget all you have learnt about calligraphy, forget that this is a written character: look at them as if they were living judo men on the tatami.” I found this a bit bewildering at first, but after a little time I did indeed begin to feel the life in one, and the lack of life in the other.
Somehow it caused a reaction in me: looking at the lively one, I felt my body becoming alert as it did when facing a judo opponent poised for attack. When I looked at the other one, I felt my body saying to me: ‘Slack, he’s slack.
There is nothing there to worry about.’ After that striking experience I became a much better judge of the written kanji. The teacher said some time later: ‘You are getting a good feeling for the characters.’
Some years later, I read in one of the traditional kendo scrolls (manuals of Japanese fencing) that kendo could be practised mentally. ‘Sit in seiza and go into meditation. Visualise an opponent striking at you, and your own sword meeting his, and countering. The movements should be fast but smooth, as if brushing kanji. ’ When I read this, I understood what it meant. I realised my experience had been only half of the Budo principle: I had used my judo skill to help me with the brush. But this was using visualisation of brush strokes to help with kendo technique, and it must also apply to judo technique.
I have never heard a judo teacher give definite instruction on these lines. But perhaps there are hints in our tradition that to practise shuji will help with judo.
I do not know of any comparable tradition in the Western cultures. There have been a few geniuses who have hinted at such things, but they could not pass anything on to their pupils. There was no background of tradition to support them.
In Japan, there was.