I get asked a lot about what books to buy when learning Japanese Calligraphy. While there are some great books out there, the selection is quite limited since Shodo is a very small niche in the art world. There isn’t a singular book that has it all. Each book focuses on a particular element of calligraphy. It’s up to you as a practitioner to compile together everything you learn from each author.
Learning strictly from books is really hard. I know, I’ve tried. Before I met my teacher, I bought pretty much every Japanese calligraphy book out there and tried to teach myself. Somehow my calligraphy failed to look like the samples in the books, and this frustrated me to no end. I realized I needed instruction that was more in depth and with someone correcting my lines. After I understood that I wasn’t going to learn from books, I started using them as references instead. Even today, I go back to them to find new Kanji or be inspired by the author’s calligraphic style.
Having said this the following are my five favorite Shodo books.
These are all available on Amazon and I’ve provided a (affiliate) link in case you’re interested in acquiring them.
This was the very first book on Japanese kanji I bought. I remember buying it at a Japanese store near Tenshinkan Dojo in Chicago. This is not a calligraphy book; it is a limited Kanji dictionary. It is really useful for learning new Kanji with readings and meanings as well as word combinations. This book may not be as relevant as it used to be because most of this information can be found online, however I still find myself picking this one up from time to time.
This was the first book I bought on Japanese calligraphy and still use it to this day. It has clear explanations on materials, and how to hold the brush as well as some historical background. It also explains the basic strokes and provide examples of basic Kanji brushed in Kaisho. Photos are black and white and the language is simple to read. I’m not particularly fond of the author’s calligraphic style per se, but I really like the words and phrases used as samples.
This one is probably the most well-known book on Japanese Zen calligraphy. I really like this book. It offers calligraphy examples from different Zen masters giving you appreciation for the different styles of each master. The author explains in detail the meaning behind the Zen phrases providing insight and understanding of the Kanji and the Zen interpretation behind it. While it serves as a great reference book, it is not suitable for beginners. The book does explains some basic concepts, but since it focuses on Zen calligraphy, the samples used are fairly complex and confusing at times. I think the book was made more as an inspiration and reference piece than a learning material, but nonetheless is a great book to have on the shelf.
This is my favorite book on Zen Calligraphy. Because my lineage of Zen training is connected to Tesshu, I look up to his calligraphy as major source of inspiration. This book collects some of Tesshu’s best work and offer translations and explanations of Tesshu’s calligraphy. This is great because Tesshu’s calligraphy is really hard to read, so it’s nice to have translations included. The book has a wonderful chapter that explains Tesshu’s training style known as KEN ZEN SHO (Sword, Zen and Brush). This style of training was further developed by Omori Roshi, a successor in the Zen and calligraphy lineage of Tesshu.
Like the title suggests, this book is heavy. I was always intimidated by this book. It offers little pictures and tons of text. This is the book I’d use if I were teaching an academic course on Japanese Calligraphy. It has history, samples, interviews, and offers a practical guide to begin practice. Most of the book’s images are drawings instead of pictures, so I find it a bit hard to understand. The language is heavy and very detailed, therefore, it reads like a textbook more than a casual book. So far, this is the only book I’ve ever read that explains carved calligraphy, and it was extremely helpful for me when I began experimenting with carving and wood calligraphy. I’m not sure how much one can learn from this book alone without the company of a teacher that can explain in simpler terms the concepts brought in this book, however it serves as an excellent reference material and a great source for those interested in the history elements of Japanese calligraphy.
I’ve always been a fan of books. I really like having a physical book in front of me when studying calligraphy. Of course, I have more books on my shelf, but these ones are my favorites and the ones I keep finding myself going back to again and again. If you have a favorite book not included in this list, please let me know! Maybe I don’t have it and would love to check it out.