The trick to creating the flowing strokes of Japanese calligraphy is to realize it’s less about writing and more about art.

Start small, says Kazuko Kano, a master calligrapher and director of Japanese calligraphic arts at Seichou Karate. “First I teach basic strokes, simple Chinese characters,” says Kano, who also does calligraphy by request as a freelancer. “Later, four or five years later, people can start to learn cursive style, which is more artistic, maybe like a penmanship.”

To become a master calligrapher like her, you’ll have to get a license from the Japan Calligraphy Education Foundation. “It took almost 10 years to get that license. You have to be very, very patient,” says Kano, 34, who started doing calligraphy at age 6.

Through her weekly Japanese Calligraphy classes, she can help you get started down that long path.

The Basics
During the class — open to four or five students at a time — Kano teaches the three Japanese alphabets: Chinese characters (or kanji), hiragana and katagana. The latter two are more rounded in appearance.

“I teach Chinese characters first because I think it’s more common and popular in this country,” she says. “My class is very flexible and also depends on the students, what they want to learn.”

“For example, a high school student wants to learn Chinese characters more than drawing calligraphy. So, I focus on teaching him the language and give him a mastery test, a quiz. But another student is more interested in art, so I’m going to give her more advanced work. I’m going to introduce more artistic styles, more cursive styles. Some people want to take the class as a kind of meditation. You’re just enjoying class, just getting relaxed.”

She provides all the materials — rice paper, ink, inkwells and brushes — but a take-home kit is available for $42.

No experience is necessary, although students with a background in art often have an easier time with the strokes, Kano says. “Some people have experience with art and it’s easy for them to draw strokes. Some people have no idea and need to take time to get used to the ink and brush.”

What You’ll Learn
Kano goes over how to hold the paintbrush. “Holding a brush is very different from holding a pen,” she says. Hold it in the middle between the thumb and pointer and middle fingers with space in your palm. “The brush has to always be straight when you write and lift your elbow, but your shoulder has to be relaxed.”

She distributes cards with a character on them for students to use as a guide. “First, I teach a simple stroke with vertical lines and horizontal lines,” such as the character for mountain or river,” she says. “They can practice, and when they’re finished, I can introduce another character that’s more advanced, with five or six strokes. After that, you can get more and more complicated.”

Students work up to being able to copy a short poem, but at the end of a class, they can expect to have learned the meanings and strokes for six characters.

What’s the Deal?
Kano’s next Japanese Calligraphy class is Jan. 8 from 11:30 a.m. to
12:30 p.m. at Seichou Karate, located at 807 N. Royal St. in Alexandria. The class is free for people enrolled in the core karate and $200 for 10 lessons for those who are not. Register at

Written by Express contributor Stephanie Kanowitz
Photo by Kris Tripplaar for Express