'Everyone should have a pen that was made in Japan'

With her work featured in galleries, ads and international collections (M Night Shyamalan is reportedly a fan), Sisyu is Japan's calligrapher to the world. Matt Schley chatted to her ahead of her recent show in Paris
Portrait: Manabu Morooka Sisyu
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When we met up with Sisyu in her Tokyo atelier, it was just a week after the November terrorist attack in Paris. Sisyu was in the throes of preparing for a December exhibition in the French capital, and she was determined to follow through on the show. 'It's going ahead just as planned,' she told us. 'I think people do want to get on with their day-to-day lives.' She showed us one of her new pieces – an animated wall-to-wall screen where touching a certain kanji (Chinese character) causes it to transform into its corresponding meaning – and then sat down with us to chat more about the Paris exhibition, the power of Japanese culture, and how ¥100 pens can make your writing more beautiful. 

The kanji characters that make up ‘Sisyu’ mean ‘purple’ and ‘boat’. Why did you choose those characters?

In Japan, purple is thought of as a very noble colour. It also refers to the character Murasaki in ‘The Tale of Genji’. Murasaki was exceptionally beautiful and beloved by her suitors. As for boat, it’s a character that’s been used in the names of many calligraphers and sumi-e (Japanese ink painting) artists throughout Japanese art history, so I adopted it as a part of that tradition. 

Your work mixes traditional calligraphy with modern technology...

When we were young, it was basically still an analogue world, right? But since then, digital has spread all over. One argument for why is that it’s just ones and zeros: Like kanji written on paper, its components or brushstrokes are hidden, allowing for expression that’s free from conventions. Things like age, origin and nationality don’t matter. In that same way, if I incorporate calligraphy into digital art, it makes it easy to approach and it might affect young people, or those from abroad, in a way traditional calligraphy doesn’t. Plus, more than anything, Japan is a country of culture and technology. I think combining those two elements is the best way to transmit Japan to the world.

Why is transmitting Japanese culture to the world important to you?

Until recently, Japan was very strong in terms of economics. But that’s no longer the case. In our age, in order to get people to take interest in Japan, we can use cultural power rather than economic power. That’s what my generation can do.

There was a great story on your blog recently about a child who was entranced by one of your pieces.

Before we open an exhibition officially, we always have a kind of pre-opening, where nurseries around the neighbourhood bring children to see the show. Recently, a four-year-old boy from one of the nurseries squatted in front of one of my pieces and just stared at it for a good 30 minutes. I was really taken aback. Whenever we have kids at the exhibitions, I always get a lot of motivation from their pure reactions, so if this time around, I was able to give something back to this little boy, as an artist, I’m very happy.

You’re exhibiting at the Salon des Beaux Arts at the Carrousel du Louvre in Paris. What will you be showing?

One of the pieces is a combination of a seven-metre folding screen and iron sculptures. The kanji sculptures are placed in front of the screen and their shadows fuse into it, displaying the text. Japanese art often combines images and text. Manga and anime are current examples of that tradition, but even ancient Japanese paintings have stories written on them. This piece is an extension of that tradition.

How can we Japanese learners make our writing more beautiful?

First off, you should get a pen that was made in Japan. Japanese pens are designed so you can write kanji, hiragana and katakana – all three writing systems – very well. You can get good ones for ¥100 or ¥200. Made in Japan. It’s true!

For more info and upcoming exhibitions, visit www.e-sisyu.com.

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