In the West, calligraphy is the genteel art of refined penmanship, the setting of letters onto the page with a pleasing and elegant hand. In the East, calligraphy is pure art. At one time, the three disciplines of calligraphy, poetry and painting were regarded as the essential attainments for every aspiring cultured man or woman. And in the execution of all these forms of Japan’s traditional arts, the vital guiding instrument is the brush.
The Japanese began using brushes in around the fifth century, which was when the Chinese writing system was introduced to their country along with the implements necessary to perform that writing. As might be supposed, the first brushes used in Japan and long the most prestigious were those that originated from China. Among the oldest existing examples of Chinese writing implements to find their way to Japan are the seventeen brushes known as the Tempyo brushes, which form part of the collection of the Shosoin, an imperial storehouse dating from the Nara period (710–794) and located in the city that, as the nation’s capital, gave its name to the era.
Though some brushes can be fashioned from a single stick of bamboo, whereby the end is slit into fine hair-like slivers to form the brush head, for the most part brushes use a mixture of different kinds of animal hair. The hair of most animals can be used to make brushes, though that of lambs, horses, tanuki (raccoon dogs) and cats is most common, and the hair of as many as ten species may be employed in a single brush.
The fashioning of fine brushes begins with removing the oil in the hairs by rolling and kneading them in a deerskin hide with ash made from burned rice stalks. Then follows the careful sorting, whereby the brush-maker selects suitable hairs with unbroken tips. The artisan combines different types of hair to give the different parts of the brush the desired qualities: stiffer hair, such as that from pigs and horses, is mixed with soft, absorbent hair like that from the bellies of lambs and goats along with soft, resilient hair with fine tips, such as that of tanuki and Japanese sables. In this demanding work, the artisan has to form a well-shaped brush without trimming the hair ends. This involves repeatedly combining the mixture of hairs into a worktable bundle and discarding the poorer-quality hairs or ones that do not fit properly into the mix.
Once the hairs have been painstakingly worked into a well-proportioned mix of single-brush size and wrapped with a thin outer layer of soft lamb or goat hair, it is coated in starch to maintain its shape as it dries. The final process involves tying strong linen thread around the hair bundles. The bound end is then singed with a hot iron, which fuses the hairs to prevent them from coming apart in the finished brush once the head is glued into the brush stick.
Over the years, the brushes of Japan have come to enjoy a considerable reputation. Such great twentieth-century artists as Picasso, Chagall and Miro selected Japanese brushes as the tools with which they wished to work. And more recently Japan’s traditional brushes have achieved quite some popularity. Along with Nara and the Aichi Prefecture city of Toyohashi, Kumano, near Hiroshima in western Japan, is one of the three centers of brush-making in the country. Kumano is by far the largest, accounting for around 80 percent of Japan’s handcrafted brushes, and its biggest brush-maker is Hakuhodo, which, largely under the brand name MAC, is sought out by makeup artists and celebrities the world over. Among the cognoscenti, Hakuhodo really is the Rolls-Royce of cosmetics brushes.
So the mainstay product of Japan’s biggest maker of handcrafted brushes may be rather different in purpose to when in ancient times the brush along with paper, the ink stick and inkstone were declared the “four treasures,” without which the poet and the scholar could not carry out their work. But it is heartening in an age when most of us write by hammering fingers onto keyboards that people still reach out for the craftsmanship of Japanese brushes.
David Capel is a journalist living in Tokyo.