July 10, 2017

Artist, Creative Process, Culture

Aoi Yamaguchi: Breaking From Tradition


Japan has five main islands, and Hokkaido is the northernmost island. It’s known for its distinctive four seasons, beautiful landscapes, snow-covered mountains, rolling hills, and huge farms boasting fine dairy and cheese. In comparison to Tokyo, Kyoto, and more central areas of Japan, Hokkaido has a slower pace of life. Japanese calligrapher Aoi Yamaguchi was born and raised in Hokkaido, and trained under renowned Master Zuiho Sato from age six to age 19. Her mother holds the Shihan level of mastery in calligraphy, which certifies her to teach, and was eager to expose Yamaguchi and her younger sister to the craft from an early age.

Yamaguchi’s father was a high school teacher, which required the family to move every two to three years for new teaching assignments. In all, Yamaguchi attended three elementary schools and two high schools. Regardless of how far Yamaguchi’s family moved from Master Sato, they consistently made time to continue advancing her calligraphy skills. And when Yamaguchi attended four universities in California before graduating, her calligraphy practice was the one constant in her life.

Since she moved to California in 2004, Yamaguchi’s work has blended traditional art forms with modern aesthetics. She merges calligraphy with live visuals for music festivals and down runways at New York Fashion Week. Yamaguchi also teaches calligraphy workshops, creates conceptual calligraphy installations and exhibitions, mounts live performances, and takes on custom logo design and commissioned art works.

Yamaguchi launched her studio in San Francisco in 2010, thanks in part to receiving an O-1 visa, which is given to people who possess extraordinary ability: typically actors, athletes, and musicians – not calligraphers. In 2015, she moved to Berkeley where she currently lives and works. Here, she discusses what it took to become a master calligrapher, how she collaborates in the live performances, and the ways in which calligraphy bridges languages and cultures.

What activities did you enjoy as a child? And, how did you begin studying calligraphy under Master Zuiho Sato at age six?

My parents didn’t allow us to play video games, so my sister and I spent a lot of time outdoors. Growing up, I enjoyed hiking in the mountains and wearing tall boots to walk in the river. I started skiing when I was three, and was an active child. I also enjoyed listening to music, dancing, drawing, writing short stories, and took piano lessons after school. When I was six years old, my mother enrolled me in Master Zuiho Sato’s calligraphy school. She had been practicing calligraphy since junior high school, as Japanese calligraphy is a mandatory class in the public school system. I didn’t know anything about calligraphy until then, but it was fun, and I picked up the skill quickly.

“Calligraphy is like karate – until you get the black belt, you have so many ranks to move through.”

Walk me through a typical day studying calligraphy with Master Sato. And how many times a week did you attend class?

I would attend elementary school until 3 p.m., then I’d go to calligraphy school on Wednesdays. Master Sato converted part of his home into a calligraphy school that could house 30 students. Class was held from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., depending on the student. Each week, you were given one assignment. The textbook, which is provided by the International Calligraphy Association based in Sapporo, gives you a set of words, like spring or cat, and you write them in Japanese calligraphy. Master Sato would also write other words for you.

All of the kids would gather around the teacher to watch how he moved the brush. Then you’d go back to your seat at the long, wooden table to practice. When you felt confident about your work, you’d take it to the teacher for review. Based on Master Sato’s feedback, you’d go back to your seat and practice further. You would stay until you completed it correctly.

At the month’s end, you would choose your best work with Master Sato and submit it to the International Calligraphy Association. There are 30 or more master calligraphers, like jurors, and they review your work and decide if the student passes or not. In the calligraphy world, there’s a ranking system, and you go through a total of 14 levels throughout the year to see how far you can rise. If you achieve the highest rank six years in a row, you will be become a master student or student master. I received this title when I was 14. Calligraphy is like karate. Until you get the black belt, you have so many ranks to move through.

Thinking back to your six-year-old self, what did you enjoy most about studying calligraphy?

Studying calligraphy is really physical, and I was a perfectionist. I would look at my master’s work and try to write it exactly the same, following his brushstroke. My work wouldn’t come out the same, so I’d get frustrated. However, I’m really persistent, so I would strain my back over a sheet of paper, practicing for hours until I could write something nearly identical to my master. I found this process very meditative. To this day, I love the smell of the sumi ink.

Was there ever a moment when you wanted to quit pursuing calligraphy?

Never. I envision myself being really old, listening to the birds chirping, feeling the sun and wind on my face, and I’m quietly writing calligraphy. I know masters who are age 90, while others start in their 60s or 70s. It’s never too late to start, and you can always quit anytime.

What sacrifices have you made for the craft?

School and life could get busy, but my mother always tried to make time for me and my sister to practice calligraphy together. Although we moved frequently, I continued studying with the same teacher for 14 years. When we moved three hours away from Master Sato, we continued our studies remotely. This was definitely a special case. My mother would teach me how to write a word, and then I’d practice the word and send my work in an envelope to my master. He would correct my work, and send it back to me. Sometimes, my mom would drive me three hours for a private session, and then we’d drive home. Every month, I continued turning in my work to  the International Calligraphy Association for review.

Of calligraphy, it’s been said that, “the brushstrokes cannot be corrected, and even a lack of confidence shows up in the work.” Can you talk about the art of trying to achieve perfection in calligraphy?

The calligraphy you work on is the mirror of the self, and your mental state or emotion appears in your work. First, you have to know the movement and remember what comes next. Where is the start? What comes next? And where does the character end? You have to practice until you don’t even think about it. But if you are thinking about other things, like, “Oh, I have to go to the grocery store” while you are writing calligraphy, that unstable mind state shows in your work. It’s hard work to make yourself fully present.

My process is to take a deep breath, meditate, and really focus on the present moment. I’ll just sit there and the only thing I’m doing is thinking about the meaning of the character, and envisioning what kind of strokes I need to write. If I’m writing the character for “ocean,” then I have to become the ocean. Then I see a gray shadowy line appear on the paper, and I trace this in the moment. My mind and body become a conductor of that vision.

How did it feel when you represented Japan at the Fourth Hokkaido Elementary and Junior High Students calligraphy exchange sessions at the Palace of Pupils in China?

I was 14 years old when I went to China as one of 30 master student calligraphers with the chairman of the International Calligraphy Association leading the troupe. It was a weeklong trip where we participated in a calligraphy session with local Chinese students. The session opened my eyes because I didn’t speak Mandarin, and I was paired with a Chinese student to exchange calligraphy work. I realized that beyond our language barrier, art could connect people, because just watching the way he wrote taught me a lot about his culture, his upbringing, how he perceived art, and how he perceived calligraphy.

After the trip, we kept in touch and tried to communicate, but didn’t have the language skills. This was a pivotal experience, and made me think, Wow! This is beautiful and what I want to do when I grow up–be a bridge between cultures, through the arts and through Japanese calligraphy, to transcend language and cultural barriers.

“The calligraphy you work on is the mirror of the self, and your mental state or emotion appears in your work.”

What brought you to California in 2004?

After I graduated from high school, I applied to universities in the United States with my parents’ blessings. I wanted to step outside of Japan to see my country from an outsider’s view, and experience a multicultural environment. I actually attended four different schools in California as I explored majors. I eventually graduated from San Francisco State University in 2009 with a Humanities degree with an emphasis on cross-cultural studies.

Beyond adjusting to university, what was your experience like getting used to life in the United States?

I definitely experienced culture shock. Japanese culture is very reserved and mindful toward others. We are community-oriented and try to harmonize with others. In contrast, America is really individualistic, so if you want something, you have to speak up. In Japan, I was a naive girl who didn’t know how to say no to things. And saying something really straightforward could be perceived as rude in Japan. However, in America you have to be straightforward; otherwise, people won’t understand you or they’ll think they can take advantage of you. I had to learn how to be vocal about my own thoughts and ideas.

Even though my English was strong before I came to America, deciphering California slang and body language was tricky, so it took a few years before I understood it. Thankfully, I love meeting people and pushed myself to make friends.

Throughout university, did you continue practicing calligraphy?

Yes! I always practiced calligraphy on my own and started doing Japanese calligraphy performance. I even organized a Japanese art collective in San Francisco, and we’d have 20 to 30 Japanese artists, designers, calligraphers, and filmmakers hold themed art shows at a gallery four times a year, in the spring, summer, fall, and winter.

Why are the seasons an important theme in calligraphy?

Japanese traditional art has always been inspired by the four seasons. Haikus often describe the beauty of seasonal changes. In springtime, the cherry blossoms are everywhere. In summertime, there will be lush greens, bright greens, and forest greens around. In fall, everything will be covered in yellow, orange, and red colors. And in winter, especially in Hokkaido, everything will be covered in white. As seasonal food changes, so does our lifestyle. There are many visual inspirations in nature that can be expressed in the arts. This is something that I strongly miss living in California, and I seek to share the core of Japanese spirituality and aesthetics with people here.

In recent years, you’ve merged your calligraphy with contemporary dancers, models, Japanese taiko drummers, and contemporary music producers. What has this process been like artistically?

Doing these shows with other people is a collaboration of different spirits and energies versus me sitting alone in my studio. When I’m alone, it’s all about listening to my internal voice. On the other hand, when I do shows with musicians and models, I’m taking different expressions and energies from my surroundings, and I connect that energy and use it as inspiration in my own work. For example, when I started putting calligraphy performance to music, it came naturally to me because when I write a character, I hear a rhythm with each stroke.

Starting from a harsh stroke to stroke one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, it is very musical to me. This breaks the very traditional, two-dimensional discipline of Japanese calligraphy, which is to write using the ink, and then write on paper. However, I wanted to go beyond that by collaborating with musicians, live music, taiko drums, or writing with models.

How would your performance calligraphy be viewed in Japan?

Any practitioner from a traditional art sphere wouldn’t call it blasphemy, but it’s kind of like you’re doing something that you’re not supposed to do in a traditional sense. For example, using colors or acrylic ink instead of using sumi ink when writing calligraphy could be seen as taboo. Or writing on a wooden panel instead of writing on paper. I questioned myself many times, and essentially came to the conclusion that I am who I am, and I’m here to express who I am and what I want to see. Also, living abroad gave me freedom to explore without thinking about how those traditional masters would view these collaborations.

Do you feel like audiences in the U.S. and around the world appreciate calligraphy?

I let audiences interpret calligraphy in their own way. Creating artwork is typically done behind the curtain, alone in the studio. You don’t get to see an artist’s process, and then when you go to museums and exhibitions, you see the finished work on the wall. Therefore, one of my intentions of doing performance calligraphy is to show the beauty and the art of the process itself. Japanese calligraphy is so connected to spirituality as well as how you prepare the ink, and even the moment you dip the brush into the ink. And the meditative moment that takes place before those five expressive seconds writing one character is the art itself, too, because everything contributes to the final work.

When you graduated from college in 2009, did you immediately start running your studio?

No. After graduation, I worked for an art gallery in San Francisco for a year while awaiting approval of my 0-1 visa [Individuals with Extraordinary Ability or Achievement visa]. It’s common for actors, photographers, musicians, professional athletes, and graphic designers to receive this, but less common for independent calligraphers. Americans are unfamiliar evaluating the value of calligraphy on society. However, I received many recommendation letters from Master Sato, teachers, and the chairman of the International Calligraphy Association.

With this amazing support, I was granted my 0-1 Artist’s visa, and launched my studio in 2010. The chairman of the International Calligraphy Association told me, “I’ve written recommendation letters for one of my students before who wanted to move to Europe to be an independent calligrapher, and they came back after a year. I see this glow around you, and you might be different.” His words of encouragement further fueled my fire.

“Americans are unfamiliar evaluating the value of calligraphy on society.”

How do you make your calligraphy business work?

It really varies from month to month. I’m a calligraphy artist who does calligraphy in various formats to make a living from teaching, doing logo work for clients and businesses, and commissioned work for personal collections. I also develop my own performances and am commissioned for performances at corporate events and conferences.

How does it feel to share your culture through calligraphy and pass along the tradition? Will you ever take on a calligraphy apprentice?

I feel like this is my life’s mission. I have no doubt about that now because I’m so committed to it. I want to be known as a person who’s going to keep Japanese calligraphy alive. I feel very responsible for what I do and what I share and teach to people. But at the same time, I also remain true to myself. This resonates with people like a ripple effect. A few people have approached me to become my apprentice, but it’s hard to dedicate the time right now because I’m busy touring the world. However, the chairman of the International Calligraphy Association told me, “Everything has an expiration date, and you cannot do performance calligraphy forever because one day you’ll become old, and your body won’t let you do it.” When that time comes, I will pass the torch to someone else.