#btconf Düsseldorf, Germany 17 - 18 Apr 2023

Aoi Yamaguchi

Born and raised in Hokkaido, Japan, Aoi Yamaguchi has been trained to master the basics of calligraphy by learning under the Master Zuiho Sato since at the age of 6, while refining her knowledge and skills. She is a recipient of numerous awards including the First Place prize from the Minister of Education at 44th Asahi Calligraphy Nationwide School Exhibit, Superior First Place at 33rd National Students Calligraphy Exhibition and others that are known as the supreme prizes at competitive public exhibitions. As a noteworthy event, she was nominated to participate in the group, 4th Hokkaido Elementary and Junior High Students Visit to China in 2000, representing the country of Japan and participated in calligraphy exchange sessions at Palace of Pupils of China.

Since landed in the U.S. in 2004, she has performed and exhibited her works in many galleries, museums, universities and festivals in the United States, across Europe, and Japan. Her works show her exploration in juxtaposing the traditional Eastern classics and her contemporary artistic expressions, as well as her unique ambition of transforming two-dimensional art of Japanese Calligraphy into the art of physical expression through performances. Currently residing in Berkeley, California, Yamaguchi continues her work on her conceptual calligraphy installations, exhibitions, and performances as she continues to push the boundaries of traditional Eastern classics and contemporary artistic expression.

Want to watch this video on YouTube directly? This way, please.

瞑想と書:Meditation with Calligraphy

Probing the Depth of the Mind with Ink and Brush

From ancient times in Eastern countries, calligraphy has been described as “the reflection of the Mind”. Introduced from China in the 6th Century, calligraphy is a highly regarded form of art that combines the literary components of the language and visual elements in Japanese culture. The practice has become a discipline, way of thought and study, one’s spiritual pursuit, and is a life-long journey to find one’s own “strokes”. Master calligrapher and artist Aoi Yamaguchi goes deeper into the relationship between meditation and Japanese calligraphy. She explores how the two are intertwined as the art of mental and physical practice, leaving a visual trace of time, movement and emotion through the ink. How does a symbol, or a stroke, embody feelings, stories, and music? Exploring some examples, she will talk about what goes on inside her mind during her own calligraphy process – from daily practice in her atelier, for client projects, or in front of an audience for a live calligraphy performance.


[playful music]

[audience applause]

Aoi Yamaguchi: Thank you. Thank you. Hello, everyone. Hi. Hallo. I wrote that in German. Did I do it okay?

audience members: Yes.

Aoi: Okay. Wonderful. Fantastic. I made that for this conference, so... [laughter] I just wanted to make sure I did it okay and you can read it.

Wonderful, so my name is Aoi Yamaguchi, and I’m a Japanese calligrapher.

Is the clicker working?


Aoi: Oh... there you go. There you go. Okay.

Yeah, like I said, my name is Aoi Yamaguchi. In Japanese, Yamaguchi Aoi, so that’s how I write my name. Yama-guchi-Ao-i, in four Japanese kanji characters. And in Japanese, we read vertically from top to the bottom.

Whatever all the calligraphy you see on this screen, it’s going to be written vertically. Just so you know - to tell you that.

My name, “ao” means blue and “i” means life. Together, youthful spirit for life. That’s the life I’m trying to live, a useful spirit for life.

Hey... Stay young. [Laughter]

Okay, so today, “Meditation with Calligraphy,” that’s what my talk is about. And so, I just wanted to ask you guys a question. How many of you guys do actually meditation as your daily routine? There’s a mindfulness app out there.

Oh, I see some raised. Oh, okay.

Oh, lovely. Lovely. Wonderful. Yeah.

You know this term, mindfulness, became like a thing. We see that on the magazine covers, and I’m like, “Wow, it’s really cool,” so I hope this talk will broaden your horizon a little bit.

Let’s get to it.

Where should I aim it? To the computer, I guess. Okay. [Laughter]


Ah, okay. Got it. Okay.

Meiso. Meiso is “meditation” in Japanese, and what it means is to contemplate quietly with eyes closed. Okay. And so, when you meditate, you can take your mind off from that immediate world that you’re surrounded in, and you can just take a travel to somewhere far away from there and get into the deeper thoughts. This meiso is a crucial part of Japanese calligraphy practice, and it helps you to calm your mind and prepare yourself and also the environment to focus on the present moment.

Sho, shodo is “calligraphy” in Japanese, and it is the Eastern formative art that attempts to express the beauty of characters through writing. It is also the way of thinking.

Have you ever heard of kado, which is the ikebana flower arrangement, or sado, the tea ceremony, or judo, for example. All of these terms have “do” in it, and that means “the way,” the road, the way of writing. That’s what shodo is.

Sho or shodo is a unique artform that aims to express yourself through writing letters using brush and ink. This is how my setup looks like on the table. What you see here is, first of all, the four treasures that is the paper, the ink, the ink stone, and brush. And also, you see the ink stick on the right side and the seal, which is the stamp, your signature.

With these tools, you practice calligraphy. It is a lifelong learning.

Today’s talk, I’d like to show you how these two, the meditation and calligraphy, are intertwined in my own creative process.

I grew up in the countryside of Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. It’s known for the beautiful, beautiful nature. I grew up in the beautiful nature, so by the mountain, by the river, and I started studying calligraphy when I was six years old, like Marc just told you guys. And my mother, who also practiced calligraphy and she’s also at the master level, took me to a local Japanese calligraphy school. It was called the Zuiho Calligraphy School, which was run by the Master Zuiho Sato and Kaho Sato. They were an old married couple. They were both masters.

I didn’t know anything about Japanese calligraphy. I just loved drawing and writing and painting - just growing up. And then I got into it really quickly, so this photo right here is an adult group of this calligraphy school, one of the lessons. The man you see in the center is the Master Zuiho Sensei himself, and then surrounding are the adult students.

I wish I could show you the picture of my calligraphy class lessons that I went to, but nobody would bring a camera to this calligraphy school lessons because that’s not what you’re supposed to do. And it’s a very strict and well-respected space, so I don’t have a photo, so don’t look for me in there. I don’t look young or anything in there because I’m not there in this photo. But just wanted to give you an idea of how it looks like.

And so, I studied under Master Zuiho Sato for 13 years. When I was 14 years old, I received the title of the master student. That was a long time to study calligraphy, but they have taught me not only the fundamental skills of Japanese calligraphy but also about life, how to be persistent. It’s about patience, perseverance, and dedication, and how to become a better person - not just to become good at what you do, your calligraphy, but also how to become a better person because calligraphy reflects your personality and who you are.

I’d like to show you the meditative elements of practice of Japanese calligraphy and the simple steps to bring the mind and body together.

First, calm your mind and environment. It’s very important to find a quiet space where you can focus on your work.

You can burn your favorite incense to calm your mind. I recorded this in my studio, so you can hear some birds pretty loud chirping outside. It’s that quiet in my studio. I could watch this smoke dance in the air forever, and sometimes I just watch that forever. [Laughter]

I mean isn’t it calming? Yeah. [Laughter]

I also play my favorite music that helps me to calm my mind as well. Or even get energized by the music.

Another element is sumi suri, ink rubbing. This is sumi ink looks like. Sumi ink, sumi originally, traditionally comes in this stick form and it’s made of soot and animal glue.

Sumi suri, ink rubbing, this is how you make the sumi ink on an ink stone. You pour a tiny bit of water on the raised part of the inkwell, which is called oka. That means hail. You gently and slowly rub the ink emerged with water.

You don’t have to put any pressure in here because you don’t want the pigments to become rough. It really changes the quality of the sumi ink, so you want to do it with almost no force. You can hear the sound of the sumi rubbing.

I’m not going to show you the whole thing because it takes ten minutes. [Laughter] But yeah, this is how it looks to make sumi ink. It’s really meditating to just hear the sound and then watch the sumi ink get thicker and become shiny as it gets more richer and richer and thicker and begins to shine and eventually flows into the deeper part of the inkwell that is called umi, which means the ocean.

You create your own sumi ink in different hues and darkness by adjusting the amount of water and how you mix the two. In this example, you can see the difference between the lighter sumi ink, which is tanboku, and the darker sumi ink, which is nobuko.

The one on the right, that is an abstract interpretation of the character Shikari, which means light. This side on the left is Kage, which means shadows.

When you use tanboku, the lighter hue, which has more water, the sumi ink becomes lighter. I was envisioning the light coming through the cloud. When I write the shadows, I use a darker sumi ink, nobuko, and then use this technique to merge the lighter sumi ink and darker sumi ink to create kind of a gradation-like effect in it to create more depth in its expression.

Every calligrapher has different recipes of creating the sumi ink. Then this result comes from hundreds of thousands of experiments.

Thirdly, posture. Posture is very important when you practice calligraphy to align your mind and body in one place.

This is how I would practice calligraphy in my studio. I set up everything on a table when I work on yuan shu paper, which is the paper you see. That’s the standard, smaller size of the calligraphy paper.

Then I’m actually sitting on a wooden bench and doing seiza. I don’t know if you are familiar with seiza, but you sit on your... when your knees are like this. You can also sit on a chair like a normal person as well, [laughter] you know, so that your legs don’t get hurt. But yeah, that’s how I practice calligraphy in my studio.

Then the proper posture is you first sit. Then you know where your belly button is. Consider that the center of your body. You align that with the center of the paper.

Then you sit down. You relax your shoulders. I do a lot of... some stretches beforehand.

Then when I hold the brush on the right side, the other hand is free, so I put it on the bottom corner of the paper so that it doesn’t move. When you do this, you open your arm, open your shoulder, and then now my body is fully relaxed and all in the center.

Then I find a sensation in my body where I feel balanced, grounded, and you want to have that feeling before you start writing. Sometimes I also take a deep breath and also close my eyes a little bit before I start writing.

Another meditative aspect of calligraphy is shakyo: tracing the sutras. It’s also called sutra copying, which is the Buddhist practice for the body and mind harmonious together in a form of meditation through writing the heart sutras.

You can see me writing in this video. Shakyo has been popular in Japan since Buddhism was introduced in the 6th century. Originally, the purpose was to convey the sutras of the world. But since, the lotus sutra preaches the merit of coping sutras, it is used to pray for prosperity and peace of the world and fulfillment of various wishes and the ripples of the souls of ancestors. Sutra copying is now performed for those purposes.

Shakyo can be described as brush meditation. Once you have all the supplies ready, you can do this at home or, when you go to Japan, there are a lot of Buddhist temples that offer this shakyo experience where you will work on the shakyo sitting in a big room with others but work on your own shakyo quietly.

How to do shakyo, you first wash your hands, rinse your mouth, and then you wear clean clothes, and you make sure you feel proper to work on this. And then sit straight, and then read a sutra out loud. Then one character by one character, you put your heart in writing.

As you focus on this action of writing, your mind and body become one and whole with the time and the space you are in. You let go of your ego and worldly desires. Immediately, you feel humble and purified and also rediscover kindness and gentleness in your heart that you never thought about before. The goal is to repeat shakyo, to experience the state of void as the sutras’s form is emptiness and emptiness is form.

I want to show you my creative process starting from the meditation to making the actual work. This is my process, how it looks. I start out with a concept. I come up with a concept. I pick a word or phrase or character to work on.

Then I meditate about it. I literally close my eyes. I go take a walk in the forest. Go visit the beach. I live in Venice Beach now, so it’s nice to go take a walk by the ocean, listen to the ocean sound.

Then I work on the sketch. Then, based on the sketch, I meditate again. I would rethink about this word, phrase, or character I choose to work on for a while. I will be even thinking about it in bed before I go to sleep or when I’m putting my son to bed. I’m like, “Okay. Good night, Shio,” and then I’m still thinking about it with my hand.

Then after the meditation is done, okay, I have a solid vision of what I want to write. Then I get to work, pick up my brush, so that’s what my process looks like.

I want to show you an example. Let’s take a look at this case for “wave.” There are many ways to describe “wave” in Japanese. These are all kanji. There are five of them here.

  • The one on the far right, it’s called nami. That’s “wave,” just in general.
  • The second one from the right, that’s for more “river,” the wave for river more than the ocean.
  • The one in the center is the big wave, you know, in the ocean.
  • And the fourth one from the right is more vigorous, [explosion], you know, vigorous wave.
  • And then the last one is seikai nami. That is ripples on the water.

There are all different kinds of waves. I think about, okay, which one do I want to work on, and then I pick the one in the middle, big wave.

Then I move on to studying writing styles. I pick up my calligraphy dictionary, and then I look up historical references. There are so many ways, as you can see, to write this nami. Starting from the top, from the left side, a regular script, and then becomes semi-cursive script, then cursive script, and then clerical script (tensho and reisho), and seal script.

The seal script, far on the right side, is the oldest form of style. Historically, chronologically, it starts from this way to this way. kanjis are originally kind of a pictograph, and so it mimics the things you see in the shape of the things in the world. That’s evolved over time, over thousands of time to become how it’s written today. But these are written by Chinese masters and Japanese masters from different dynasty and different era.

I decided, okay, that style resonates the most with the vision I have for this big wave that I want to write. Then I move on to rinsho, which is model writing. You practice writing based on the classical reference.

Here I would like you to join me and watch this. Watch how I write closely and try to memorize it in your head how the brush moves from the beginning to the end. Can you try memorizing that? Okay.

[video played with no talking]

Aoi: All right. That was rinsho. Then let’s close your eyes. Close your eyes. Join me in this. Okay.

Try to rehearse (what you just saw) in your head from the first, the very first stroke, stroke one, dot, two, and three, and four, and five, and then three loops, shoop, and dot.

Okay. Yeah. This is how I do--

When you can see this in your mind without looking at the reference, you have it in you. Then you can write your own lines without looking at the reference. You’re not trying to copy anybody here. You are now going to write your own character.

Now I move on to the sketch. In this stage, I think about what I want to express using this character. I think about the composition. I think about, okay, what sumi ink to use. Do I want to create the tanboku or nobuko, the darker or lighter. You can see the test paper at the bottom corner there. This is actually a sketch of this exhibition that I have right now at the Wacom Experience Center.

If you were at the warmup event last night, you might have seen my work on the wall already. This is the actual sketch in my moleskin book for this exhibition.

For nami, the wave, it’s the second one in the square over there from the left. Sorry. From the right. Yeah.

Then I decided, okay, for this wave, I think I want to use tanboku, which is the lighter gray sumi ink, so I picked gasen-shi, the paper. This is a Japanese paper or Chinese paper made specifically for calligraphy. I chose this type that lets the ink bleed more. Then I used my paper-cutting knife to cut it in a certain dimension.

Then I pick a brush. There are so many different types of brushes that I have. This is only some of the brushes that I have, but you can see there are different sizes.

There are different types of animal hair: rabbit, monkey, weasel, sheep, horse. For this wave, I pick a sheep hair brush, which is super soft and flexible, so it allows me to create really interesting and unique lines.

Then I set up everything on the floor this time, not on the table because the paper is pretty big, so I work on the floor. Now, try to remember what you just saw, my rinsho earlier, and try to stare at this white paper right here.

Do you see it on the paper? Try to envision on this white paper. One, two, three, four, five.

This is how I do it when I put... before I start writing. I stare at my canvas that I set up on the floor, and I really look at it. I play music. I think about the ocean, and I start to see shadows kind of emerging onto this white paper.

Then, now I think about, meditate, and then think about the ocean. So, when I worked on this work, I listened to a lot of ocean sounds, so I would like you to join me for this.

[sounds of the ocean]

Aoi: Close your eyes.

[sounds of the ocean continue]

Aoi: What kind of wave do you see, a peaceful one or is it a rough one? What kind of color of the wave? There are all sorts of different types of waves that you can imagine in your head.

Then when you are ready, you go for it. And this is how my wave came out. [Laughter]

You might have seen this already at the Wacom Experience Center yesterday, but you can see it there. It’s going to be on view until “The Night of the Museum,” until this Saturday.

This piece was selected out of many pieces I’ve written. When I work on calligraphy, I work on some. I write many, many, dozens and hundreds of sheets of paper. My paper start piling up in the back. Then I only select a handful of ones that I like. Then I put everything on the wall and then decide which one looks the best.

Once the final one is picked, I put the seal to complete the work, and then we do urauchi, which is wet mounting, to make everything flat, nice and flat. And it’s ready for framing or mounting on a scroll.

You just saw all my process in my studio and how I create my artwork. Meditation really plays a big part in my calligraphy practice.

I came to the United States when it was 2004 to study abroad. Then I started to perform this outside of my studio.

Living in a foreign country, I realized the importance of keeping this tradition alive, and I wanted to share about this beautiful practice in depth from its history, language, culture, and the process itself. Then I thought, to do that, I should show everything, the whole creation process from meditating, preparing the ink, and actually writing the whole thing using my brush and ink as part of the art. I would do it just how I would do it in my studio. Then people can really experience the energy and all the physicality that goes into writing that stroke.

I started to do it in the galleries, in the clubs, in many different places. I’d like to show you some of my recent works I’ve done.

How do I do this for clients? I need to make a living as an artist. This is a performance I did for a Capsule shoot for Canada Goose spring collection in 2019. This campaign featured another sound artist, Kouichi Okamoto, and myself.

Together, we worked in the theme of spring rain. Here I am in the picture meditating and thinking about shun rin, the spring rain, which I was about to write. Then I pick up a brush and dance with the brush and put the image that I have in my head onto the paper in front of a big camera. [Laughter]

This is the result. I’ll let you watch.

[video played]

[sounds of spring rain]

Kouichi Okamoto: [Speaking in Japanese - translated to English on the screen]

Rain is one of the familiar phenomena that is felt by all the body’s senses. I am attracted to the irregular rhythms of rain and the way it emulates Noise music.

Aoi: [Speaking in Japanese - translated to English on the screen]

To me, spring is the season when new life blooms. Spring rain falls from the heavenly skies like divine drops of rebirth.

[sounds of spring rain]

Aoi: [Speaking in Japanese - translated to English on the screen]

The cycle of nature restores colour to the mountains and our lives.

[video stops playing]

[audience applause]

Aoi: The whole shoot took place in Tokyo. I flew over to Tokyo and they shot everything in one week. They literally made rainfall in a big studio, and I was barefoot walking in this cold water, and it was quite an experience but very, very exciting. In fact, I was pregnant at that time. Just found out that I was pregnant, and so I had a baby in side of me, and I can’t wait to tell my own son, “Mama shot this when you were in my belly.”

[audience laughter]

Aoi: [Laughter] Okay, so I want to show you another example of my recent work.

Last year, I was asked to work on a calligraphy title logo for “ONI: Thunder God’s Tale,” which is the limited series on Netflix right now. They just released it last year in November, October-November. It’s produced by Tonko House.

Oni means evil spirit or ogre or demon, and also outsiders that people feared. And so, I was asked to write this title, and the story is based in Japanese mythology, and it’s inspired by the Japanese gods and spirits. And also, a journey of self-discovery of the protagonist.

I meditated to think about this Oni. How can I write this? Reflecting on the wonderful conversation that I had with the director, “Dice” Tsutsumi. They let me watch the whole animatics, so I was thinking about certain scenes from what I watched.

I listened a lot of taiko drums [drum sounds]. I listened to a lot of taiko drums in my studio to really think about this.

This is how the actual sketches looked like in my moleskin book. I pick up a dictionary, of course, and look up the definition of Oni because sometimes he surprises me there are different definitions that I never thought of.

Then I sketched things out. Okay, how can I really convey this in different imagery or feeling of ONI by writing, essentially?

I listened to a lot of taiko drums in my studio and worked on it. There’s a lot of back and forth with the Tonko House and I. And I will show you how it went.

[video played]

[“The Oni, They’re Coming!,” by Pep Magic played]

Aoi: I tried to think about the way... how can I write this Oni that is essentially Japanese but it’s universal at the same time, even if it was just individually it’s got the impact strokes.

I really thought about what is Oni, and I thought about how Oni lives within us. We all have Oni. It’s not something foreign, like a mysterious creature that lives in the mountains somewhere, but it’s actually about us. Fear and these dark emotions and burning feeling that we all have inside of us, that’s the thing of Oni I want to capture.

[video stopped playing]

[audience applause]

Aoi: Please watch ONI.

[audience laughter]

Aoi: It’s amazing. “ONI: Thunder God’s Tale” received two Annie Awards. I was so, so excited. I cried so many times watching it.

Also, my son loved it. I made a costume for my son and my husband and me. So, last Halloween, we were all Oni characters. Yeah, so hopefully you enjoy it. Let me know how you like it.

Okay, so another work. From here, I want to show only a couple of my more creative performances, not for clients.

Last year in May, I was invited to perform at one of the events for Kaunas 2022, where it was one of the European capital, one of the chosen cities of the European Capitals of Culture in 2022. The program was titled “Japan Days in Kaunas WA.”

For this performance, I collaborated with two dancers from Lithuania from the dance theater called AURA. Here I am in the photo meditating in the center, and then the dancers represent the two individuals... two individuals that represents just basically any one of us.

The concept that I wanted to explore was Ma, the space in our lives that has challenged us in recent years due to the novel corona virus - this idea of space.

This is me meditating in the center, and I wanted to explore this concept. Well, this performance was actually the first performance after the whole lockdown, you know, the pandemic. I was able to finally travel abroad to perform, and also after I became a mother to our own son. So, I was very emotional for this performance and very honored to be a part of the Kaunas 2022.

Here I am in the photo meditating in the center, and dancers are holding this pully sheet fabric that’s affixed to this pole. They are slowly unraveling this canvas going closer and far away. Their physical movement representing basically any one of us who were in fear of the virus but at the same time, we were trying to figure out what the safe space is between you and another person, and even with a family member. We want to love each other, but we also need to take care of each other, care for each other, and for survival.

I set this pully sheet canvas at the width of 133 centimeters, which is 6 feet, which was the distance that we needed to take as a precaution during the pandemic. Six feet was how it was set in the United States.

There I am awakened from the meditation. I’m writing a poem that I composed on my own to basically symbolize these unspoken words between the two individuals. And the two souls were finally able to touch each other.

Another performance I did last September in Portugal at this conference called THU. I prepared 12 paper sheets on the floor, and I picked 12 panel classics that I hold dear since I was little.

I started to study piano as well when I was at the age of five, so calligraphy and piano are the two artforms that I grew up practicing. Then that basically makes me who I am and what I do now: music and calligraphy.

The music was from Chopin, Debussy, and Franz Liszt. So, I chose characters to write to each song and following the emotion I felt inside of me when I listen to those music tracks.

Here I am meditating. In this space, once the music plays, I close my eyes and meditate and think about the word that I want to write inspired by the song.

I just put that on the paper.

[video played]

[“Clair de Lune,” by Debussy is played]

[video stops playing]

[audience applause]

Aoi: Thank you.

Meiso, meditation is often a private practice that might be usually done in a private space behind closed doors. But I find meaning in doing it in public, just conquering the fear of putting myself out there, even showing the vulnerable self when I am meditating, getting deeper inside of myself, and just being surrounded by all these people.

I find just sharing the moment together with all these people just in one space and then creating, you know, just putting all the energy inside of me and making a mark onto this paper, there’s definitely powerful and meaningful and special about that moment we physically share. Calligraphy lets me see that as a trace of time in memory.

To me, if meiso is the meditation with eyes closed, sho calligraphy is like a meditation with eyes open. Meiso and calligraphy are intertwined, and they are both, together, a journey of self-discovery. I continue this journey for my lifetime and on.

Thank you.

[audience applause]