The Written World

On kanji and the physicality of writing

lives in Nara Prefecture in Japan. The author of an unpublishable novel about a man being stalked by insects in Tokyo, he has been a regular contributor to Dark Mountain since 2015.


激 解 明 男 字 扇

Water-white-direction-strike. Horn-knife-ox. Sun-moon. Field-strength. Roof-child. Door-wings.


Language as a fine net that entangles us in our own claustrophobic heads, our cannibalistic thought-streams. Or language as a membrane of exchange between inside and out. Words depart the mouth, gain distance from it, acquire independence, their waves bouncing off surfaces both into other listening things and back to the source that spoke them. Reading and writing as a further embodiment of that two-way process. Reading an interiorising act through the eyes (or the fingers, in the case of Braille). Writing an exteriorising act through the hands (or the flex of a cheek muscle, in the case of Stephen Hawking).

I was not a particularly active child. Despite annual six-week-long camping trips, despite attempts at kayaking, rock climbing and jūdō, I remained too timid, too cerebral, too neurotic about dirt. My energies found their most fruitful outlet in academia, and eventually I took a university degree in Japanese, a notoriously difficult language to acquire.

The perceived difficulty of Japanese, however, lies not in its grammar (blissfully simple compared to the pluperfect pickiness of English), nor its pronunciation (which has none of the tonal twistings of Chinese). Nor is the problem its penchant for ellipsis – for missing subjects, implied contexts, pregnant pauses and freighted subtexts (Pinter, eat your heart out). No, the main obstacle to acquisition is the written language, which consists of three distinct scripts: hiragana, katakana and kanji. The first two of these are purely phonetic syllabaries of about 50 characters each, relatively simple shapes that are not difficult to learn (e.g. あ, さ, コ, ネ). The chief function of hiragana is to do the slog-work of a text, representing particles and the tenses of verbs and adjectives, while katakana are commonly used to write loanwords (typically originating in English). It is only with the ideographs called kanji – the vehicles for noun, verb and adjective meanings with which this essay opened – that the sweating really starts. Despite post-war trends towards limiting the frequency of their use, knowledge of at least two thousand is still required for everyday discourse.

For Japan is, to borrow Roland Barthes’s phrase, an empire of signs. The streets crawl and hum with them, the shelves of shops seethe – expressive, elegant, animate shapes that appeal to the eye with the force of exotic flowers. But don’t mistake this plethora of messages solely for the symptom of some marketing-drenched consumerist society. When the author Lafcadio Hearn first arrived in Japan in 1890, he noted the ‘…characters in white, black, blue, or gold, decorating everything – even surfaces of doorposts and paper screens.’1 Appropriately enough for a country whose native religion, Shintō, is highly localised and animist, this is a place where things speak – albeit in a visual language taken from China.

Nowadays, in this age of fraught regional relations, the main exports to Japan from the Middle Kingdom seem to be windborne sand (from ever-expanding deserts such as the Gobi) and the urban air pollution called PM2.5, named after its extremely small size of less than 2.5 micrometres. It is easy to forget that, around the 1st century CE, a nourishing and radical cultural transfer took place. Kanji (literally meaning ‘Han’ or ‘Chinese’ characters) first entered Japan and, over the course of many hundreds of years, began slowly to be used to write Japanese, which had hitherto lacked a written script of its own. These graphs had themselves taken many thousands of years to evolve on the Chinese mainland, the first fully systematic script having appeared in the second millennium BCE in the form of so-called oracle-bone characters – writing inscribed on ox shoulder blades and tortoise shells used for divination. Simple pictographs set out a question for the gods regarding such matters as the likelihood of rain on a particular day or the potential success of a hunt. A hot iron or burning wood was then applied to the bone surface, the resultant cracks interpreted, and, in some cases, the results recorded in those same pictographs on the bone itself. Over time these characters became more stylised, but even now many bear a close resemblance to their ancestral forms; it is still possible to discern the pictorial origins of modern kanji:


(mountain)     (field)     (tree)     (moon)     (mother)


The penultimate character above depicts a half-moon, while the last shows a naked kneeling woman, the two dashes in its centre representing nipples – an appropriate symbol for the breastfeeding mother. As these rudimentary signs gradually became more abstracted and complex, some worked not as diagrammatic representations but as ideographs, combining different elements to achieve new meanings. Adding ‘sun’ (日) to ‘moon’ (月) results in 明 or ‘bright’. The character 解 consists of 角 (‘horn’), 刀 (‘knife’) and 牛 (‘ox’), or ‘cutting off the horns of an ox with a knife’, and so, by extension, ‘solving a problem’.

Kanji are jewels of compacted poetry, and, for me, their birth in oracle bones – in magic – is fundamental to their power. They are distillations of the world of phenomena, of mountains, water and trees. They bring the outside in and are radiant with the non-human, with what the eminent translator of classical Chinese poetry, David Hinton, has called the ‘linguistically silent’. (How about that – a linguistic system of signs infused with linguistic silence!)2 In Becoming Animal, David Abram contrasts alphabetic scripts that tend to lock human language into a solipsistic discourse with itself to ideographs such as Chinese that ‘…function as windows opening onto a living landscape that still speaks, onto a sensorial cosmos that still bears a kind of primary meaning.’3

Before we slip into a reverie about the wisdom of the ancients, it is worth noting that the society that produced oracle-bone characters, the Shang Dynasty, also indulged in slavery and human sacrifice. I have to remind myself of this when I gaze enthralled at some of their artefacts on display at my local museum in Tenri City, Japan. The inscriptions on ox scapulae and tortoise carapaces are more delicate than you might imagine, neither ‘primitive’ nor crude, as beautiful in their way as finely balanced tattoos. The products of a society of blood and power, to be sure, but also one that did not push away the fluctuating, animate world that surrounds us, that did not (to extend David Abram’s metaphor) shutter all the windows and double-bolt the door. That membrane of exchange between inside and out remained pervious, persisting through the millennia to survive in modern-day kanji.

An exchange at the heart of language. Writing as an exteriorising act, its technologies diverse: knife-point on bone, stylus on wax, chisel, brush, pen, printing press, typewriter, computer. Although the final processes of editing and proofreading will happen on a laptop screen, I am writing the initial draft of this essay with black ink and a fountain pen on pale yellow paper, in brazen emulation of one of my literary heroes, Russell Hoban. He understood that the process of verbalising the inchoate phantoms in one’s head necessitated a form of alchemy – ‘I always use 80-gram yellow A4; it’s the kind of yellow the paper manufacturers call gold, and gold is what one is trying to refine the base metal of one’s thoughts into…’4 For me, the experience of using a computer – surely now the dominant means of writing for many people in industrialised societies – is too mediated, a disembodiment too far, especially in the early, precarious stages of teasing intuitions into letters. The keyboard distances; the muscle movements in my hands – so subtle when manipulating a pen – atrophy into the uniform peck and press of robotic arms on an assembly line. Put quite simply, I can no longer feel the shape of the words. And shape, particularly when writing kanji, is everything.

Some graphs are not difficult to memorise. Take, for example, those for the numbers one, two and three: 一 二 三 . Hardly troublesome. But how about the following?


専 博 薄 縛 簿 搏


You will notice they all share recurring elements, and this is one of the features of kanji that make them not impossible to learn – they are permutations and combinations of fundamental shapes, some of which indicate the pronunciation of a graph, which itself aids the memory by linking the written form closely to the spoken word. However, it is no easy task to remember such complex configurations simply by looking and willing them into the brain, especially as each character has a prescribed stroke order (the general rule being to start at the top left and end at the bottom right). You don’t just learn the shape but also the order of its unfolding, and this is vital in maintaining the spatial balance of a graph. In Japan, good penmanship – in both the high art of calligraphy and everyday scribing – is considered an indicator of character, and to some degree, rectitude. Sloppily written kanji bespeak a disordered mind.

Praise the Heavens then for computers! They’ve certainly wrung much of the sweat out of the whole arduous business. Choose your font and the screen will blossom forth perfectly balanced graphs for you, thus preserving your moral integrity. The only snag is – and this is something widely bemoaned in Japan – people are beginning to forget how to write ideographs. A forgetting not only of the brain, but also of the body. For the hand too has a memory.

The default method of education in Japan is rote learning, which tends to foster uncritical thinking in subjects such as modern history, but is ideally suited to acquiring the written language. You learn kanji by writing them out, again and again. And again. This is exactly what I did as an undergraduate, usually late at night, accompanied by a bottle of Guinness. Normally a scrupulous scholar who would never countenance studying under the influence, I found a spot of booze loosened up my muscles, allowing my body to absorb the complicated shapes in an intuitive way that almost bypassed my intellectual mind. It is common to see Japanese people, when struggling to recall a kanji, ‘writing’ it out with a forefinger on the palm of their hand. I’ve often had the experience, after failing to visualise a character in my mind’s eye, of finding it appear in perfect order at the tip of my pen as if by magic.

‘Embodied memory’ is present in many Japanese arts as the concept of kata or ideal ‘form’. In martial arts such as iaidō, and the jūdō I failed at so abjectly as a child, this means perfecting set throws or strikes through repetition until they can be produced without the retarding influence of thought. In kyūdō, traditional archery, just as much importance is placed on acquiring correct posture and an aesthetically perfect pull of the bowstring as it is on hitting the actual target. Movement and poses are also minutely stipulated and endlessly rehearsed in the theatres of and kabuki. Is it merely idle fancy on my part that, when I see a kabuki actor stand on one leg, contorting and grimacing into a stylised pose, I think of nothing other than a living kanji? Of dance as drawing. Drawing as dance.

After all, perhaps ‘draw’ is a more appropriate verb than ‘write’ when discussing kanji, and not only because of their pictographic origins.5 Coming from an alphabetic culture where writing is a simple affair of basic lines and curves, the practice of inking out a gracefully intricate ideograph, calling up movements instilled in my hand muscles through long hours of practice, can feel more like the expressive gestures of drawing than of writing. For drawing, particularly drawing from life, is not a closed-circuit, in-brain activity, but involves multiple bodily senses, is a fully synaesthetic experience.

I often take walks to my local Shintō shrine, Isonokami Jingū, to sketch the many sacred cockerels that roam freely through its leafy precincts. They rarely oblige by keeping still for very long, but I persevere. The eyes see the wattle and comb, the ears hear the metallic rending of their cries, and the hand zigzags out the contour of a chicken head like the autonomous twitchings of a seismograph. No conscious thought. Sight, sound and muscle response.

Synaesthesia, that mingling of senses where sounds may be experienced as colours or shapes as tastes, could have triggered the evolution of language itself, due to cross-wiring between different sensory circuits of the brain. In their 2001 paper, Synaesthesia – A Window into Perception, Thought and Language, V.S. Ramachandran and E.M. Hubbard describe an experiment in which people were asked to link the made-up words ‘kiki’ and ‘bouba’ to two distinct visual shapes.6 Some 95% of subjects labelled a rounded, curvy blob ‘bouba’, while assigning the word ‘kiki’ to a sharply angular figure (which looks, to my eye, rather like a cockscomb). You only have to consider the contrasting sound textures of the two words ‘kiki’ and ‘bouba’ to grasp the intuitive logic of this. The scientists give a further example, involving the way the lips and vocal tracts constrict to produce the /I/ sound in words like ‘little’, ‘diminutive’ and ‘petite’, pointing out that this ‘…might be synkinetic mimicry of the pincer-like opposition of thumb and forefinger to denote small size.’7 All of this makes sense to me: that language evolved not as the construct of a boxed-up, isolated brain, but of a fully-embodied animal, tool-wielding and fire-starting, in constant sensory dialogue with the surrounding environment.

So I do my best to avoid the distancing technology of computers, as useful and labour-saving as they undoubtedly are. I continue to write by hand in both English and Japanese, a gesture as quietly radical in our Age of Speed as slowly chewing and carefully savouring every mouthful of a meal. Late at night, I still often draw out the same kanji again and again, though now usually with no stronger stimulus than a nice cup of tea (another gift from China). This repetitive, almost meditative, act reminds me of the Buddhist tradition of copying out sutras as a way of accruing karmic merit. It is also a rejection of the ‘outsourcing’ of knowledge that technology encourages (why bother remembering anything if you can access it in a second?); the technology of a capitalist system that would keep us ignorant and hungry for cheap shiny shit, ideas as well as products, that we simply don’t need.

Most importantly of all, the physical act of writing kanji refreshes my ‘linguistically silent’ somatic memory and reconnects me with the enveloping cosmos, with the wellspring of language itself. When I write 川 (river), my hand flows like a current. When I write 山 (mountain), my body crests peaks – the same lines, in the same order, that millions of hands have followed for hundreds of years. I may still not have the most physically-robust frame and would be squashed in an instant at jūdō. But I get out more than I used to and am rather proud of the calloused writer’s bump on my finger.


  1.  Hearn, Lafcadio, Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, Tuttle Publishing, North Clarendon, 2009, p. 3
  2. See Hinton, David, Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape, Shambhala, Boston, 2012. A book of staggering brilliance. In fact, stop reading this puny essay right now and get your hands on a copy. Buy, borrow or steal, if necessary.
  3. Abram, David, Becoming Animal, Pantheon Books, New York, 2010, p.176
  4. From the essay ‘Blighter’s Rock’ in Hoban, Russell, The Moment Under the Moment, Jonathan Cape, London, 1992, pp.178-179. Incidentally, all his books are well worth stealing.
  5. Although privileging ‘draw’ over ‘write’ entirely would deny me the chance of using the punning title that adorns this essay, which would be a shame.
  6. Ramachandran, V.S. and E.M. Hubbard, Synaesthesia – A Window into Perception, Thought and Language in Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8, No.12, 2001, pp.3-34. There is no need to steal it. It is available online:
  7. Ibid., pp.20-21



Dark Mountain: Issue 14 TERRA

The Autumn 2018 issue is a collection of prose, photography and printwork about journeys, place and belonging

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