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Muslim Calligraphy, Japanese Style

March 19, 2009 by  


Courtesy Tomoko Otake, Japan Times

For Kouichi Honda, writing a beautiful line is what life is about. Getting every detail right — the subtle curves, the varying thicknesses and the density of the ink — matters to him as much as life itself.

kouichi honda The 61-year-old professor of international relations at Daito Bunka University in Saitama Prefecture is Japan’s leading authority on Arabic calligraphy, a devotional art form that has evolved over the course of 1,400 years and has detailed rules determining every single facet of the practice, whether the script is executed on paper or vellum or is fired into the gorgeous ceramic tiling that can hardly fail to astonish any visitor to a mosque.

But Honda is not just a rare curio in Japan. He is known around the world as one of the best Arabic calligraphers alive today. Some of his works, including “The Face of God” — a series of Koranic scripts against blue, red and yellow pyramid-shaped backgrounds — were in 2006 accorded the tremendous honor of being included in the permanent collection of the British Museum in London.

Honda’s unique journey began when he graduated from Tokyo University of Foreign Studies with Arabic as his major. He had not chosen Arabic for any particular reason, he says, except that he was interested in foreign languages and had enjoyed English in high school, but the Arabic department was easier to get into.

While he was at university, he says, students across the nation were being thrown into chaos by the 1960s student movement. But while his classmates were busy barricading school gates, donning helmets, shouting impassioned slogans and confronting the police, Honda says he was being otherwise inspired by the works of the author Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933), and he dreamed of one day becoming a fairy-tale writer like him.

So after college, Honda spent four years cloistered in his small apartment in Kanagawa Prefecture trying to produce a masterpiece. He could not. “For days on end, I sat in front of a desk, but nothing came out because I had nothing in myself,” he says.

Then, while still yearning for life’s meaning, he got a job with a Tokyo-based surveying company that had contracts with several Middle Eastern governments to create maps. As one of the few Arabic-speaking Japanese at that time in his company, or indeed the whole of Japan, Honda soon found himself sent to Saudi Arabia, Libya and Yemen in the 1970s as an interpreter for the firm.

It was an experience that changed his life, he says.

Honda’s five-year stint in the Middle East involved camping in the desert for months, driving 20-odd-strong groups far off any beaten tracks to log landforms and record the names the nomadic Bedouin people gave to hills, rivers and mountains.

But while his Japanese co-workers (few in number as hardly any Japanese spoke Arabic) found their life on the road hard to adjust to, Honda says he wholeheartedly enjoyed the experience. He loved being close to nature and traveling to places even locals would shy away from. Eventually, he says, his body even started to “feel” directions without a compass and regardless of the weather.

It was also during this time that he discovered the art of Arabic calligraphy, which, unlike Chinese and Japanese forms that utilize brushes, uses pens made from reeds or bamboo. Honda’s introduction to the Arabic form, however, occurred one day when he was visiting the Saudi government’s aerial-survey department on business, and saw official calligraphers at work. It was standard practice back then for Saudi government agencies to use handwriting in official documents, including maps, he says, noting that the art of calligraphy had developed as people tried to copy the Koran precisely and beautifully.

kouichi honda portrait in workshop
Kouichi Honda, in his workshop.

At the aerial survey department, Honda was particularly struck, he says, by the way the calligraphers would write the names of such features as wadis (dry river courses) in such a way that the lines of Arabic characters would flow in parallel with those vital features where water was often to be found underground.

Soon he learned that, unlike in the Japanese and Chinese traditions, Arabic calligraphy involves shape design, often featuring circular or oval forms. This is because the rules for writing the Arabic alphabet are more flexible, and they allow the lengths of many lines to be extended or shrunk relatively freely to create geometrical designs.

“I fell in love with the beauty of those curves,” he recalled, admitting that, until then, he had never before been interested in any forms of calligraphic art, including Japan’s own. He immediately asked one of the calligraphers to teach him the basics, and after that he would practice alone after work in his tent.

Then, after he returned to Japan, Honda continued to study the art, but all by himself. His teachers were textbooks he had brought from Saudi Arabia, and he made the pens himself out of wooden chopsticks. It was also during this period, four or five years after his return to Japan, that he became a Muslim and adopted the Islamic name of Fuad, meaning “heart.” He said he did not have a revelation or anything, but became a Muslim because he wanted to study the words of the Koran, which only believers are allowed to touch.

Soon his self-taught skills became more widely known about, and, because there was practically no one else in Japan who was trained in Arabic calligraphy, he was swamped with requests from foreign embassies in Tokyo and Japanese corporations doing business in Arabic-speaking countries to write everything from party banners to corporate logos and advertising copy.

But with the arrival of Arabic word processors and PCs in the late 1980s — which he was partly responsible for because he helped develop various computer-friendly Arabic fonts — such requests soon dried up.

Then in 1988, in the final days of the Iran-Iraq War, the Iraqi government invited Honda to participate in a high-profile calligraphy festival in Baghdad, where hundreds of top professionals from around the world converged to display their best works. There, he became acquainted with the greatest names in the field, including Hassan Chelby, a Turkish master whom he subsequently asked for private lessons. His request was accepted and, finally in 2000, Chelby gave Honda a license to teach calligraphy.

Now, as a master in his own right, Honda has carved out a niche for himself with his unique use of colors. While he sticks to the traditional rules of Arabic calligraphy, which dictate such details as how to place punctuation marks, he says that his Japanese heritage helps him to break conventions, too. For one, he likes to use the gradation of nuanced colors in his backgrounds — unlike many other artists who contrast one vivid color against another.

“To me, blue has more than 20 different variations,” he said. “My colors reflect my sensibility as a Japanese.”

While 30 years have passed since he first visited Saudi Arabia, it is the desert life from those days that continues to inspire his works, says the slim man who now lives in the seaside town of Zushi in Kanagawa Prefecture west of Tokyo with his Japanese wife and their grown-up daughter.

But you don’t have to be a Muslim or an Arabic expert to enjoy the art, Honda insists. In fact, many in his ever-expanding group of students are not Muslims, and some do not even know the Arabic language, he said. However, his students, also include two dozen at the Saudi Embassy-affiliated Arabic Islamic Institute in Tokyo, who are doing remarkably well, he reports with obvious satisfaction.

In the latest round of the prestigious calligraphic art competition staged by the Research Center for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA) in Istanbul every three years, four Japanese — three of whom were students of Honda — won awards. And that was a record-breaking number, said Koichi Yamaoka, secretary general of the Japan Arabic Calligraphy Association, which he set up with Honda in 2006.

“This is quite an epoch-making development,” Yamaoka said. “People over there must be wondering what is going on in Japan.”

But to Honda, his students’ success comes as no surprise. “Japanese people have a background in calligraphy through their experience of learning shodo (Japanese calligraphy),” he said. “Even if you are not able to understand the Arabic language, you can appreciate the beauty of its written form.

“To me, there are various levels of beauty in the letters. One Arabic letter of the alphabet is beautiful by itself, but when it becomes part of a sentence, there is another level of beauty. And then the letters start to move as if they were living creatures.

“To me, it is almost like music with no sound,” he said, smiling serenely.

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