30 Artists, 30 Years – Master Koichi Honda
Interviewed by Alessandra Cianetti, Project Manager at Bagri Foundation in May 2020
Alessandra Cianetti: Master Koichi Honda, it has been a real privilege to be able to bring your award-winning expertise to London back in 2016 when you held a calligraphy course at The Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts. Would you be able to describe your unique approach for example your special calligraphy pen and how your stroke techniques are different from traditional calligraphy?
Koichi Honda: I have always thought of the strokes of Arabic calligraphy as living beings.
Even in a single stroke of one letter there is life, for at first a thin hair－like the stroke is born as a black small point which is dropped by using the tip of the pen on the white paper. It starts to move, gradually widening until it reaches the broadest angle of the pen and then slowly narrowing down again, finally ending in a width of no more than one tenth of a millimeter.
All the letters which are usually composed of a variety of vertical and horizontal lines, arcs, and so on, follow this basic stream regardless of their lengths. Short stroke, like the tips of fingernails, and long ones like Japanese swords, all follow the same flow.
It is my firm belief that this is equivalent to the stream of life itself. Life, for example, which begins when a spermatozoid unites with an ovum, causing cells to multiply and create a certain form. The form develops and once it has reached the peak of its growth, it gradually begins to diminish, finally ceasing to exist altogether.
The forms of letters in Arabic calligraphy all coincide with those of phenomena found in nature. Their movement is similar to that seen, for example, in the flow of a river, the soar of a bird, the ridgeline of desert dunes, or the curves of a human body and animals and twigs of plants. In this respect, there is no perfectly straight line in the realm of nature, because what may appear as a straight line is a curve in the true sense of the word. Similarly, every stroke of Arabic calligraphy is also a curve. There is no absolute straight line. In other words the stroke is a combination of parts of lines of circles having different radiuses.
I think of letterforms of Arabic calligraphy as living beings not only because of their apparent shapes but also because of their process of reproduction. After one stroke comes to its end, another one is born and follows－just like our life is handed over to the next through reproduction. The strokes follow one another, repeating the same process, wherein the beginning letters are connected to form a word, which in turn, gathers with other words to make a sentence. A plural of sentences is assembled to compose a passage which delivers a message, complete with meaning. The passage is formed as an independent mass, which then begins to move as if it has a life of its own. This is compared to a mass consisting of numerous cells gathering together and composing a life form systematically.
When I draw the strokes of Arabic letterforms, I always tell myself that I am handling a living being. No matter whether the stroke I write is exceedingly short or long, I must give every stroke of the letter an entire process of life. When it comes to an end-– in other words, when it is going to die－I must give it a proper ending. When it does not end but continues to the next stroke, I must make suitable preparations for the birth of the next stroke which will be connected with the previous one. No exact-same or constant widths can be found in the strokes of Arabic calligraphy of the highest artistic calibre regardless of the kind of calligraphy, for if the same width continues for too long, the flow of life stops. The calligrapher must be very careful so as not to extend the strokes without varying the width, because if he does, the life of the stroke is terminated. For this reason the calligrapher must control the pen constantly with his fingertips.
Upon careful examination of the strokes of Arabic calligraphy, I found that they have three-dimensional depth. Early in my career as an Arabic calligrapher and researcher, I conducted a series of experiments to analyze the various forms of Arabic calligraphy according to its styles graphically. Through those experiments, I discovered that the shape of every letter of Arabic calligraphy is nothing but a collection of reflected silhouettes, which can be reproduced by casting lights from various angles on an object made by imitating the shape of an alphabet with bendable cardboard tapes. It became clear that the interaction of the different widths and depth of a stroke could be seen in the shape of a letter–form. It also became evident that the thin section of a stroke which appears weak at first glance, actually possesses certain depth, while a wider line which appears strong in the two-dimensions image, remains shallow.
Based on these findings, I tried to give each part of a stroke a three-dimensional aspect as distinctly as possible when writing. It can be said that technically this is possibly done by controlling the pen with fingertips. I twist the pen using the tips of my thumb and forefinger, forecasting the movement of the stroke. One could not draw a beautiful stroke in Arabic calligraphy simply by holding the pen and following the shape of the letter only. It is necessary to follow the movement of the line by turning the pen delicately all the time with utmost carefulness.
Now I should like to shed light on the pen for Arabic calligraphy. It is needless to say that the pen plays an important role in the art of Arabic calligraphy. By the way in Islam the pen (al Qalam) is regarded as a sacred instrument with which the holy words of the Qur’an are written. There are some Quranic verses in which al Qalam is mentioned; in the chapter of Al-Alaq(The Clot), it says:” In the name of Lord who created man from a clot. Read. And your Lord is the most generous, who has taught the Pen (al-Qalam). He taught man that which he knew not.” Also in the chapter of Al-Qalam(The Pen), it says;
“Nun. by the Pen and by what they write.” Thus according to Qur’an we can understand that in Islam the pen is not a mere instrument for writing, but is regarded as a symbol of wisdom or intelligence.
I am particular about the quality of the pen. I have been entertaining a desire to be able to write beautiful lines of Arabic calligraphy having natural flow and a movement. I have been practicing the techniques of writing by training my hand for more than thirty years. However, I can’t say that I could overcome the difficulty and at the same time I feel it necessary to continue to improve the quality of the pen further.
In the tradition of Arabic calligraphy, the calligrapher has to make his pen by himself, unlike the tradition of Japanese or Chinese calligraphy. This means that the beauty of Arabic calligraphy depends largely upon how well the calligrapher can make his pens.
I have been conducting various trials and innovations to make an ideal pen. The condition of being a good pen could be summarized in the following two points;
1, the nib of the pen should retain enough ink to enable the calligrapher to write a longer line smoothly in one stroke without stopping to refill the ink. This is because if we stop writing halfway down a long line to refill the ink, the smooth and vivid movement of the line would be spoiled. It is needless to say that reed or bamboo pens could not hold more ink in comparison with the brushes of Japanese / Chinese calligraphy which retains a considerable quantity of ink at one time. To make up for this demerit of the pen, I invented several devices; For example I engraved small grooves on one side of the nib so that ink could be kept inside the grooves to some extent because of the “surface tension” of the liquid of ink. As another device, a thin blade of metal was fixed on one side of the nib by keeping the space between the blade and the surface of the nib, open a little bit so that ink could be retained in the space. I could say that such devices are successful, for by using the pen reinforced with their devices I became able to write a long stroke without stopping to refill the ink.
2, the movement of the stroke should be natural from its beginning to the end as far as possible. To achieve this, the nib of the pen should be solid and sharp so that the calligrapher could write the thinnest line like hair. The calligrapher must write the various widths of strokes by one pen. The various width of the strokes could be obtained by changing the inclination of the nib according to the line of the letter. The broadest stroke could be drawn by letting the inclination of the edge of the nib against the line 90 degree (=perpendicular to the line), while the thinnest stroke could be obtained by letting the inclination of the edge, parallel to the line completely. The calligrapher needs to make the variation in the line－width visible as clearly as possible. This is achieved only by turning and twisting the edge of the nib according to the required angle. In addition to this, sometimes a calligrapher must write the line lifting the lower edge of the nib slightly. The degree of lifting depends on the width of the line. This part is very unstable and delicate. The technique for obtaining the required widths is difficult for the beginner. I think it would take about 10 years for the student to become able to master this technique.
In October 2016, upon the invitation of the Bagri Foundation, I had an intensive course for Arabic calligraphy at The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in London, which lasted a week and about ten students attended. In the course, I had an opportunity to make a demonstration on the use of a special pen which I produced by taking into account the two points mentioned above. The demonstration was successful enough to evoke the admiration of the students. I believe that the innovative pen would contribute to the development of Arabic calligraphy art.
AC: Coming from a deep artistic and spiritual heritage in Japan, why did you feel you needed to convert to Islam to master Arabic calligraphy?
KH: About a half-century ago, after graduation from the university where I studied Arabic and Arab-Islamic culture, I continued to study at my house in the hope of becoming an artist instead of working for a company. Then I went through a period when I was quite troubled by existential questions such as ” what is the meaning of life?” , “for what was I born in this world?” groping for what path I should pursue in life. I read many books from classical books about religion and the philosophy of modern novels. I practiced by way of experimenting with various arts like painting, sculpture, and poetry. But I could not find a concrete answer for the existential questions, and also could not discover the proper means for expressing the feelings I had bottled up inside. After about four years had passed, and I almost gave up artistic trials, I happened upon an opportunity to get a job with a Japanese company that had contracts with several Middle Eastern countries to do the surveying work there for making maps.
I was sent to Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Yemen in the middle of the 1970s as an interpreter of Arabic / Japanese for the firm. I participated in a surveying field－a work team that was organized by the firm. The team was about 20 people altogether, surveyors and interpreters from Japan, supervising officials from the Saudi government, local drivers, and cooks. We were camping out in the desert every day, collecting information on the locations of an oasis, wells, and so on, and the names of wadis (dry river courses), dunes, and hills. We made field investigations by riding four-wheeled vehicles. The average distance which we covered in one day was approximately 500km. I enjoyed the experience wholeheartedly. It was the experience that changed my life. I loved being close to nature in the desert area despite its hot environments, traveling to remote places in the middle of the desert which even local people would shy away from and communicating with nomadic Bedouin people who live there, by using local Arabic. It was during that time that I discovered the art of Arabic calligraphy. Fortunately one of the members of the fieldwork team was a Saudi Arabian calligrapher. I immediately asked him to teach me the basics of Arabic calligraphy. He welcomed my request and the teaching was started. I practiced after work under the light of a lamp in my tent. He also taught me the Arabic language and Islam. I had not been so interested in Islam before because it seemed very far and difficult to understand for me. Thanks to his kindness I became interested in Islam little by little.
I was in Saudi Arabia for about five years altogether. After I returned to Japan I continued to study by myself the art of Arabic calligraphy together with Islam.
It was during this period, four or five years after my return to Japan that I became a Muslim and adopted the Islamic name of Fuad meaning “heart”. I do not know why I selected the name. I did not have what we call a revelation or anything, but I wanted to study the words of the Qur’an, which only believers are allowed to touch and wanted to write the holy words, the meaning of which attracts me, in my Arabic calligraphy.
AC: As one of the world’s best Arabic Calligraphers, and the first in Japan, you’ve seen it grow in popularity throughout Japan and the Western World for decades. How have you seen it change over the years and are there new paths you can see being paved in Arabic calligraphy today? Lastly, what are you working on now?
KH: Arabic calligraphy is an art that developed out of the desire to copy the words of Qur’an, the holy book of Islam, as precisely and beautifully as possible in an age before the development of printing technology. Subsequently as Islam spread, it was refined over a millennium in all the nations of the Islamic world and those which use the Arabic script in Asia and Africa, being influenced largely by their different aesthetics.
Arabic calligraphy has been passed down through generations from masters to students. They have practiced the art, spending all their lives to be able to write even a single line of Arabic letter named Alif (A), with an ardent intention of giving the words of God beautiful forms together with a sacred quality to draw closer to the divine. I believe that there is not such another art form in the world. At the same time, I am fortunate that I can share with many people in the world nowadays, the artistic and aesthetic values that Arabic calligraphy possesses as a precious cultural heritage left to human beings.
I am pleased to know that the number of students who are interested in Arabic calligraphy increased recently, not only in Japan but also in many parts of the world including Europe. As far as Japan is concerned, I set up the Japan Arabic Calligraphy Association (JACA) with my business partner, Mr. Yamaoka 2006. JACA has over 300 members now and more than 20 classrooms nationwide. It is worth mentioning that recently several Japanese members, most of whom were my students, won prizes in an international Arabic calligraphy competition held every three years in Istanbul, which is said to be a rite of passage for those who want to become professionals. I was not so surprised at the students’ success, for I noticed recently their skill of calligraphy attained a high level. Japanese people have a background in calligraphy through their experience of learning Japanese calligraphy (Shodo) and even if they are not able to understand the Arabic or the Persian languages, they can appreciate the beauty of its written form no matter what kind it is, to digest and foster it as if it were their own.
Finally, as for my activities in the future, what I have to do is that I continue to produce Arabic calligraphic works – as many as possible throughout my life.
For the last twenty years, I have been searching for new potentials and dimensions in Arabic calligraphic art. I wish to enhance the beauty of Arabic calligraphy more vividly by placing it in the most suitable context possible, to create a synthetic art of Arabic calligraphy by integrating color, form, and design under an image aroused by the writings which I intend to create. I hope to share with many people all over the world, the beauty of Arabic calligraphic art, in sha’a Allah.
Artist and calligrapher, Kouichi Honda was born Tokyo, Japan, 1946 and graduated from the Arabic department of Tokyo University for Foreign Studies, 1969. He travelled to Saudi Arabia in 1973 as an interpreter and was introduced to Arabic calligraphy. He studied with Ustadh Hasan Çelebi in Istanbul and received his diploma (ijaza) in 2000. As well as an instructor of Arabic calligraphy, he has participated in calligraphy festivals and competitions in the Middle East; has had numerous exhibitions in Japan, the Middle East and Europe; and is a key artist behind the growing popularity of Arabic calligraphy in Japan.