Edo writing

I just stumbled across the sci.lang.japan FAQ site's neat summary article on shotai (書体), a word which, as they say, can refer to anything from a broadly defined calligraphic style to a specific typeface.

I like the Edo moji (江戸文字, "Edo characters") best, and though I have a soft spot for the sheer perversity of kakuji* (角字, "square characters"), my favorite kind of Edo moji is Kantei-ryū (勘亭流, "Kantei school").

According to kanteiryu.com, the Kantei school as we know it began in early 1779, when actor NAKAMURA Kanzaburō IX (九代目中村勘三郎) asked OKAZAKIYA Kanroku (岡崎屋勘六), brush name Kantei (勘亭), to write the sign for that spring's kyōgen production.** The process by which Kantei's brushmanship proceeded to conquer the meta-world of Japanese theater administration is still unclear to me, but it probably had something to do with courtesans. Certainly everything else in Edo did.

Today, you can study it among like-minded nerd-calligraphers or just admire their works (thumbnail links broken, remove the superfluous ".html" or just view the images on that page full-size). And, of course, since there are still a few kabuki theaters that haven't closed down and that signage don't just write itself, some people make a living Kantei-style.

To get you started, here are three sympathetic-magical principles which are often invoked in discussions of the Kantei mystique:

  • Fat characters = Less negative space = Fewer empty seats
  • Rounded characters = No pointiness (togari) = No (unscripted) drama (togari)
  • Characters that "turn" (haneru) inwards = Patrons that are drawn into the theater

Kantei's grave is in Asakusa and has an inscription reading:

ありがたや 心の雲の晴れ渡り 只一筋に向かう極楽
Arigataya / kokoro no kumo no harewatari / tada hitosuji mukau gokuraku
Hallelujah! / Soul clear and unclouded / Paradise goes on forever

... carved, of course, in a cheerful Kantei-school hand.

* Kakuji are to the Japanese writing system what corsets are to clothing: ridiculously exaggerated, haughtily impractical, and often painful, but some people really get off on them. (The extension of this analogy to standard East Asian orthography, and thence to romanization, is left as an exercise for the reader.)

** Kanteiryu.com claim that the title of the play in question was "御贔屓年々曽我", pronounced On-hibiki nen-nen soga, but I don't understand how that could work. I could understand on-bi(i)ki, or even on-bihiki, hypercorrection though it'd be. Anyway, setting the pronunciation aside, my best guess is that it means something like "Support waning by the year". (Oh... unless 贔屓 here is some confusing alternate spelling for 響き, in which case the pronunciation /onhibiki/ would be more plausible and it'd mean "Reputation/rumor waning by the year", I guess.)

UPDATE: See comments for discussion leading to TNH's more accurate translation of the title, The Soga Brothers Across the Years: the Supportening.

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That pdf won't display for me, but looking at things like this, kakuji remind me of Tibetan style Phags-pa.


Where are you getting "waning" from? Wouldn't it be something more like "The Long-time Favor of/for the Soga Brothers" or maybe "The Soga Brothers Across the Years: the Supportening"?


okay I love the blocky-brain font. Are there more characters in it?
BTW, the link to Drama is... I don't see the relationship to the post.


Tim: They are kind of similar, aren't they? I suppose "characters that are made entirely of orthogonal lines and fit inside squares exactly" is an idea that could be reinvented many times, like the wing in biology. (Phags-pa look at least a little more sensible.)

TNH: Oh, I was assuming that "soga" was being used metaphorically, for "poor", but it could be the actual Soga brothers, for sure. (I don't even know if "soga" can be used meta-metaphorically for a general lack of something rather than financial poverty...) Without context I don't have the skills to guess. If you have extra information, please share!

Clayton: I just wanted to distinguish between the good kind of drama, performed on-stage according to the script, and the bad, non-performance kind, where people could get themselves cut up pretty bad in those days.


Well, considering that it was customary for major theaters to do at least one new Soga Brothers play a year (one around New Years, more if the theater was in light-to-medium financial distress), any given play has about a one in ten chance of being about the Soga brothers. Given that (and the consequent unliklihood of the theater using 曾我 to mean anything but the ever-popular brothers), I'd bet on this play being about the Soga brothers, too.


TNH for the win! It was apparently a 新春 production, so that must have been the yearly one right on time. Adjusting post...

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