Arabic Calligrapher Honda Kōichi Has “Only Just Begun” (Video)Art Culture
Spreading Arabic Calligraphy in Japan
In a room in a building in Tokyo’s Suidōbashi district, a group of students, mostly Japanese women, attend a calligraphy class. The characters they are writing are Arabic, and rather than brushes they use bamboo or reed pens they carve themselves. The paper they decorate with ink is also thick and lustrous, unlike delicate washi paper used for Japanese calligraphy.
Most of the students have never studied Arabic, and some of them have had no experience with Japanese calligraphy since their school days. Even so, they take up their pens with serious faces and try writing a line from the Quran. They are simply swept away by the beauty of the writing and the enjoyment of Arabic calligraphy, beyond all national, linguistic, or religious borders.
Their teacher is Honda Kōichi, head of the Japan Arabic Calligraphy Association. When he sees a student struggling, he takes up the pen himself to demonstrate and improvises an exquisite design using the layout of the characters.
The Japan Arabic Calligraphy Association currently has classrooms in 11 locations, including Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, and Osaka, with around 300 students nationwide. Even in the Arab nations where this calligraphy was born, there are few classrooms where people can easily take lessons. Most students there take up apprenticeships with a master and learning by watching and imitating. One Japanese student explains, “I tried studying Arabic calligraphy when I was living in the United Arab Emirates, but there wasn’t any textbook or anything. We just kept writing over and over, and I never made progress. It was only when I met Honda-sensei that I truly fell in love with Arabic calligraphy.”
Honda says, “Since calligraphy is part of the school curriculum for Japanese people, they have an easy time getting used to Arabic calligraphy.” He has developed his own teaching methods by adopting the best elements of Japanese calligraphy education and has even made his own materials for each of the eight styles of writing Arabic. As a result, students say, they become able to write beautiful characters even without understanding the meaning of the words, which makes the learning fun.
His unique teaching methods and theories have also drawn attention overseas. In 2016, Honda was invited to teach a short intensive course on Arabic calligraphy at the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in Britain, which was founded by King Charles III when he was still crown prince, and he gave a lecture at a book fair in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Preserving Tradition amid Unique and Innovative Ideas
Honda himself first encountered Arabic calligraphy in the late 1970s. He spent about five years in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern nations as an interpreter for Japanese companies after graduating from the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies with a degree in Arabic. His heart was stolen by the beauty of Arabic writing he saw there, and he began taking lessons from a Saudi business colleague who was also a calligrapher.
He continued studying on his own after returning to Japan. His reputation as a calligrapher gradually grew and, in 1988, he began studying under the Turkish calligrapher Hasan Çelebi to retrain in a more orthodox calligraphy style. For over 10 years they corresponded by international mail, until in 2000 Honda finally earned his certificate as an ijaza, or master calligrapher. During those years, he also won numerous awards at international Arabic calligraphy contests. He has had solo exhibitions not only in Japan, but also internationally in countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Malaysia, and he has been invited to show pieces in art exhibitions around the world.
Even as he approaches traditional methods with sincerity, he specializes in bold, innovative ideas. As he works out a design idea in his studio, he holds a strip of aluminum in his hands, shaping it into a letter through a process of trial and error.
“Letters are two-dimensional, but if you think of Arabic letters as three-dimensional, like a Möbius strip, you can depict the connections between the thin and thick parts of the writing beautifully. Going further, considering how time passes as you write, I think of Arabic calligraphy as a four-dimensional artform.”
Tolerance for Stylistic Freedom
Naturally, his style is unique. While traditional works of Arabic calligraphy fill the spaces between letters with arabesques and marbled patterns, Honda paints the surface with images of the desert, night skies, and outer space to serve as backgrounds before he begins writing across them.
At first glance, the works give an impression of paintings rather than calligraphy, but he still preserves the traditions of calligraphic writing. As the compositions avoid excessive ornamentation, they demonstrate an aesthetic like that of Japanese calligraphy, which values the blank spaces and margins around letters.
“Arab people can be quite sharp-tongued, but thankfully everyone has been quite tolerant of my writing, style, and teaching methods. For example, it’s common in Arabic calligraphy to re-ink your pen in the middle of a character, but I insist on using the same ‘one stroke’ technique as in Japanese traditions. When that was reported in a local newspaper, some people reacted by saying ‘Honda’s amazing!’“
Looking around his studio, the eye is particularly caught by a huge piece inspired by tenmoku pottery, a style of tea bowl inspired by Jian Zhan ware from southern Song-dynasty (1127–1279) China that is said to offer glimpses of outer space. Around the letters spelling out Allah in the center, he has pasted pieces of paper bearing the 99 names of God, like planets floating in space.
“This is called The Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of Allah,” he explains. “Ninety-nine is not merely a number, it is a way of representing many—as in the Thousand and One Nights. In other words, it’s the same as saying yaoyorozu no kami in Japanese,” he says, referring to the classical Japanese term for all the countless kami of Japan. In this way, Honda beautifully fuses Arabic calligraphy with Japanese myth and Chinese art.
Honda has taught as a professor at Daitō Bunka University, and his studio is lined with books he has written on Arabic language and calligraphy, as well as piles of works still in progress. When I say, “You truly are a bridge to Arab nations,” he laughs. “Who needs a bridge? Without a solid foundation, bridges fall apart!”
He goes on: “The Arabic language, Islamic culture, and the Quran are truly profound. I am barely starting to understand them. My creative work as an Arabic calligrapher has only just begun.”
(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo, studio photography, and video © Kawamoto Seiya. Interview, article, and classroom photographs by Hashino Yukinori.)