A few weeks ago, I attended the world premier of “Tomo ni Ikiru: Shoka Kanazawa Shoko,” a documentary about the life and work of Kanazawa Shoko, the world’s greatest living calligrapher. The title means “Living Side by Side.” During opening remarks, the film’s director Miyazawa Masaaki, who was there along with Kanazawa Shoko and her mother Yasuko, told the audience that originally “Tomo ni Ikiru” was the subtitle, but as filming and editing went on, he decided that “Living Side by Side” should come first. For Kanazawa Shoko is not only an artist, she is also an extraordinarily generous soul.
As an artist, Shoko is highly regarded. The documentary is filled with accolades from the most discerning artists and critics in Japan. Yanagida Taizan, for example, is a fourth-generation member of the famed Yanagida family of calligraphic masters, which stretches back to the Edo Period. People are moved to tears when they see Shoko’s work, he says. Then Taizan’s face bends up ever so slightly into a wry smile as he confesses with remarkable frankness, “Nobody cries when they look at my calligraphy.”
This is where generosity of soul kicks in. Because, boy, do people cry when they see the works of Kanazawa Shoko. I am not ashamed to admit that I do, too. I defy anyone not to. Shoko’s calligraphy is, in a word, extraordinary. I have never seen its like or its equal, not in any of the museums I have visited in East Asia or elsewhere, or in any of the books I have looked through in any library.
To watch Shoko work is to see the art of calligraphy being transformed before one’s eyes. She can use the biggest brushes and fill vast expanses of white with characters that are almost sentient. They dance as they convey the meaning of what they represent in a stylized way. Shoko’s uma, “horse,” gallops. Her yama, “mountains,” undulates like a moonlit range. Her raku, “joy,” does a funny boogie-woogie out of glee. Her kami, “divine,” quivers with a power that is alien to this world. Her hikari, “light,” bursts forth with luminescence rendered in the midnight-black of sumi ink.
Senju Hiroshi, a famous artist in his own right, acknowledges Shoko’s prodigious talent. Former president of Tokyo University of the Arts Miyata Ryohei adds his critical acclaim. A Zen monk lets perhaps a sliver of envy peek through his detachment to exclaim, “Now, that is no-mind—that is Zen!” Those who see Kanazawa Shoko in action or view her pieces are often awe-struck. Even the coolest critics are won over.
In one scene in the film, Yanagida Taizan, the calligraphic master, standing beside Shoko in front of a piece that features a particularly complex character, asks her whether she had found it hard to draw.
“It was easy!” she replies.
“Are there any hard characters?” Yanagida continues.
“Nope,” Shoko answers, as gamely as you please.
And it’s true. Kanazawa Shoko does calligraphy with an effortlessness that comes as naturally as her breathing. Watch for yourself and see. She has complete freedom as she works. Intense concentration, yes. Hard work, absolutely. She is light years ahead of the rest of the field.
And yet there are some who might be tempted to say that Kanazawa Shoko lags far behind the world. At one point in the documentary, a man named Tamai Hiroshi notes that people have long tended to consider people like Kanazawa Shoko “slow.” Mr. Tamai is the head of the Japan Down Syndrome Society. He wishes to emphasize that there is much, much more to people with Down syndrome than many at first assume. Kanazawa Shoko, he argues, is a splendid case in point.
That’s right. Kanazawa Shoko, the greatest living calligrapher, was born with Down syndrome. And that’s not the only curveball life threw at the Kanazawa family. Shoko’s mother, Yasuko, raised Shoko alone after her husband died suddenly at age fifty-two. Shoko was just fourteen years old. Her father had adored Shoko, calling her a “miracle.” Yasuko was not so sure. I interviewed Yasuko and Shoko a few years ago for JAPAN Forward. Yasuko told me that she had thought, often, of committing suicide and taking Shoko with her.
She also prayed that Shoko would be cured of Down syndrome. “I saw her only in a negative way,” Yasuko says in the documentary. But the more Shoko interacted with people, the more Yasuko began to realize what a gift she had been given. Shoko is infectiously happy. When I went to the Kanazawa home for our interview, Shoko showed me her Michael Jackson dance moves. She loves to ham it up for the camera. She loves to make people smile.
During the premiere of the documentary in Shinjuku, the director, Miyazawa, looked a bit nervous. It was the first time the public would see his work, after all. Shoko, perhaps sensing this, reached out and gave him a fist bump. Twice. The director smiled sheepishly each time and the audience laughed with the warmth of the moment.
The ability to make the world a better place right where she is standing—I have come to call this the “Shoko Effect.” She has brightened, no, revitalized her neighborhood in suburban Tokyo. She visits nearby cafes and shops. She says hello to people—to everyone, really. She gives spontaneous hugs. She has her own gallery in that neighborhood, a world-famous artist whose pieces have been collected by the Vatican and the former Emperor and Empress of Japan. Unlike many famous artists, however, Shoko doesn’t have a pretentious bone in her body. Everything is about other people. Nothing is about her. In the documentary, she welcomes visitors to her gallery—that place of pure aesthetics—by squeezing them and saying how happy she is that they—total strangers—have stopped by.
“What is your dream, Shoko?” an off-camera voice asks as Shoko stands in her gallery among her many creations.
“To live. My dream is to be alive,” she replies.
Indeed. One of her most renowned calligraphic works is Inochi, “life-force.” The character itself seems to be struggling to be born and move around in three-dimensional space. It is positively crowded, super-charged, with life.
Life. For Shoko, life is “tomo ni ikiru,” living side by side with others. That is what Kanazawa Shoko teaches us. She and her mother Yasuko are inseparable. And before beginning a work, Shoko says a silent prayer asking her father to help her do well. Yasuko, who once thought of ending her own and Shoko’s life, is now a supporter of a pro-life group in Japan called Seimei Soncho Center, the Respect Life Center. Every life has value, she stresses. Every life is worth living.
Mothers and fathers with babies who have Down syndrome go to Kanazawa Shoko exhibitions at temples and civic centers across Japan. Shoko and Yasuko have given them hope, they say. It is hard to raise special-needs children, they confess, but seeing Shoko and Yasuko helps them to remember that there is joy in what can often be so hard.
In what was, for me, an unforgettable scene in the documentary, Shoko sits on the tatami mat floor of a Buddhist temple where some of her artworks are on display. She caresses a baby with Down syndrome, the child of someone who has come to admire her calligraphy. A few other small children with Down syndrome crawl nearby. Shoko’s face radiates love for these children. I think to myself as I watch this scene that we have been given so many blessings in people, like Shoko, who have Down syndrome. And most of us would just throw these children away. In Japan and the United States, and in so many other countries, the vast majority of children with Down syndrome are aborted. They are treated like burdens before they have even had the chance to draw breath.
Noda Seiko, a high-powered politician in the Diet, stops by the premier in Shinjuku to take the stage. “I came to say thank you to Yasuko,” Noda says. Noda also has a special-needs child and says that she learned from Yasuko how to live each day to the fullest. How much better the world would be if everyone knew a Kanazawa Shoko. How much happier we all would be if we could learn from people who have Down syndrome how to give love first instead of waiting to receive it.
Ever since the premier of “Tomo ni Ikiru,” I have been thinking about that word, “slow.” It and other unkind words meaning the same thing have often been used to talk about people with Down syndrome. But how completely wrong this now seems to me. How utterly backwards. The conclusion I now find inescapable is that I am the slow one. If I work my fingers to the bone for the rest of my days I will never, ever achieve what Kanazawa Shoko has achieved. Her artistic genius is beyond me, beyond everyone. It is something between her and God. But if I try, and try again, and run as fast as I can to catch up, then, maybe, someday, I might be able to love as the great artist—and even greater human being—Kanazawa Shoko does.