Shodō: The Art of Calligraphy

A Life of Prayer: Kanazawa Shōko (Video)


Kanazawa Shōko is a woman with Down syndrome. She is also an acclaimed calligraphy artist and held a major solo exhibition at the Ueno Royal Museum from September 23 to 30. Her works have been shown at over 280 locations since her professional debut 12 years ago at age 20, and they have attracted over a million visitors.

Kanazawa Shōko

Shoka (calligraphy artist), also known professionally as Shōran. Born in Tokyo in 1985. Began studying calligraphy with her mother at age 5 and held her first solo exhibition, “The World of Calligraphy,” in 2005. Has since exhibited her works at such renowned temples throughout Japan as Kenchōji in Kamakura, Kenninji in Kyoto, and Tōdaiji in Nara. Held her first overseas show in 2015 in New York and had solo exhibitions in the Czech cities of Plzeň and Prague later that year. Is the co-author, with her mother, of several books, including Tamashii no sho (Calligraphy of the Soul) and Umi no uta, yama no koe (Songs of the Sea, Voices of the Mountain).

Kanazawa Shōko was born with Down syndrome, but her disability has not stopped her from becoming one of Japan’s top calligraphers. She has brought hope, encouragement, and good cheer to countless people, not only in Japan but around the world. A retrospective of her artwork, centering on 60 major pieces created since her professional debut a dozen years ago, was held at the Ueno Royal Museum from September 23 to 30, 2017, during which she twice created large new works in front of visitors. The exhibition attracted 40,000 people over just seven days and was the culmination of the collaborative artistic endeavor between Shōko and her mother, Yasuko.

The highlight of the show was the showcasing of the calligrapher’s rendition of 風神雷神 (fūjin raijin)—the gods of wind and thunder—alongside the folding screen painting of the deities by Tawaraya Sōtatsu (1558–1637), a National Treasure held by the temple Kenninji of Kyoto. “Shōko had never seen Sōtatsu’s renowned work,” her mother recounts in her book, Kanazawa Shōko: Namida no Hannya Shingyō (Kanazawa Shōko: Tears Heart Sutra). “And her first attempt at depicting the four characters was rather banal. It wasn’t bad, but then again, it wasn’t that special either. Her second attempt was markedly better. “Good enough,” I thought, and I told her that she could now write as she pleased. When she finished the third piece, I was astonished to see what she had done. The placement of the characters was a near perfect replication of the original painting. It was as if Sōtatsu’s spirit had descended on Shōko and guided her on the positioning of the letters.

Kanazawa Shōko moved out of her parent’s house and began living on her own two years ago, when she turned 30. Her mother considers Shōko’s latest exhibition in Ueno to be the last for the foreseeable future. “For me, the show is a way of saying ‘thank you’ to everyone who’s supported us over the years,” Yasuko says. “My days have been filled with prayer ever since Shōko was born. The things I’ve prayed for have changed with time, and today I no longer pray to have my wishes fulfilled but rather to express gratitude for all the wonderful things that have happened in our lives. Prayer, for both me and Shōko, has been a constant companion in our lives.”

Production and copyright:
Direction: Sugiyama Sachiko
Filming: Yoshida Hideo
Technical support: Nakata Ryōhei
Video editing: Mochizuki Hirofumi
Sound editing: Tanaka Keiko

(Originally published in Japanese on October 16, 2017. Banner Photo: Kanazawa Shōko, center, and her mother Yasuko, holding a microphone, just after Shōko finished writing the letter 翔 (shō) for visitors in the gallery displaying both Tawaraya Sōtatsu’s and Shōko’s renditions of the wind and thunder gods.)

calligraphy disability Kanazawa Shōko Down Syndrome calligrapher