Kaisho, Gyosho and Sosho

Thinking about my recent amateurish wall painting made me remember what a wonderful connection there exists between painting and Karate.

Or just between the fine arts and the martial arts.

As I recently read:

“[…] people who have mastered the secrets of martial arts are said to have mastered the common points of paintings and calligraphic works. It is not rare that famous martial artists of Japan and China are well-known painters and calligraphers.”

– M. Nakamoto, “Bujutsu to Geijutsu” p. 40

The examples of warriors mastering the finer arts are many.

Now, as we know, there are several philosophical and theoretical (yet tactical and practical) concepts in Karate, like Shin-Gi-Tai, Bun-Bu-Ryo-Do, On-Ko-Chi-Shin and many more. And the interesting part here is that similar concepts have naturally evolved Shodô calligraphy (lit. “The Way of Writing”) too, but under different names and labels.

The underlying principles remain.

So, today I thought I would teach you one such concept and see if you can connect it to Karate. It is actually very easy to draw the parallel on this one, but nevertheless it’s an interesting one.

Let’s see if I remember what my calligraphy class taught me in Okinawa:

The three styles of Shodô

(In calligraphy there are actually very many styles of writing, but we’ll be focusing on the three main ones  in this article.)

1. Kaisho – the first style

The first style a beginner learns when starting to practise the art of calligraphy is kaisho (the “formal”, or “square” type).

It is of utmost importance that a student always begins by learning kaisho, since this script is the most basic style and is required to get a proper ‘feeling’ before advancing to the other styles. The character kai (in kaisho) means “correctness,” which is quite logical, since each of the strokes in each character written in kaisho is drawn and placed “correctly”.

Here’s an example:

When writing kaisho, the the brush is lifted from the page for each stroke. All the strokes are written distinctly, and the characters appear basically as if they would have been printed by a word processor. As you can see in the example above, the characters of the kaisho style are perfectly square and angular, with regular spacing.

But beware – Kaisho doesn’t teach just the basics.

Kaisho teaches the students how to apply the basics (which go by names such as ‘the vertical stroke’, ‘the horizontal stroke’, ‘dot’, ‘spatula’, ‘claw’ etc.).

Kaisho gives the students a feel for correct placement and balance (between white and black, left and right, up and down etc.).

Characters written in kaisho are easy to copy, and instantly recognizable.

2. Gyosho – the second style

Gyosho is the more cursive script, roughly approximating normal, everyday handwriting. It is often referred to as the semi-cursive script.

Here’s what it looks like:

As you can see, it’s the exact same characters that we saw in kaisho, but this time it’s in gyosho.

In gyosho the strokes are allowed to run into one another, and characters appear less angular and more round and fluid (as you can see).

This is because when writing in gyosho style the brush leaves the paper less often than in kaisho. The mind is already thinking about the next technique, sorry I mean stroke (you’re supposed to do the connection yourself, remember?) and this gives gyosho its distinctive look.

The average person in China or Japan can read characters written in gyosho style with relative ease, but foreigners or people who are learning Japanese may have difficulties understanding exactly what they’re seeing.

That’s right.

Think about that one.

3. Sosho – the third style

The last category, or style, that Shodô is commonly split into is called sosho. It would be something of a humongous understatement to call it a style easy to read.

Here’s what the exact same charactes (which we earlier saw) looks like when written in sosho:

(No, it’s not a self portrait by Picasso.)

Sosho is the most cursive script of them all, and it is frequently impossible to read characters written in sosho style without having nearly mastered the style yourself.

This is also because a character written by one master might look completely different when written by another master.

In kaisho they would look identical.

Actually, the apparent anarchism that ‘governs’ sosho states that entire characters may be written without lifting the brush from the paper at all, and characters frequently flow into one another, forming a sort of hypnotic blur.

Strokes are often modified (or eliminated completely!) to facilitate smooth writing and to manifest the feeling and meaning of the kata (whoops!), technique (whoops again!) character.

This often creates a simple and abstract appearance.

The paradox, of course, is that most laymen think that sosho is the style beginners write (judging by its wabi-sabi look), and kaisho is the one masters write (judging by its heavy, angular and correct look).


Try to make the connection to Karate (and especially to one certain philosophical concept) and things become much more interesting.

I promise.

Oh, and one last thing:

In calligraphy there is a famous proverb that has been around since old times (originally from China), which goes something like:

“There are five colors in black ink”

Five colors meaning unlimited colors (it’s a Chinese thing, don’t ask why).

In other words, when you can express every color (read: emotion) simply by using one color (black ink) alone, you are said to be a true master of painting.

How about Karate?

Let’s try with:

“There are five techniques in the straight punch.”

(Five meaning unlimited.)

Let this be our aim.

Because, in the end, finding the equality between the fine arts and the martial arts inevitably means finding ourself.

Like everything else.

“Bullfighting” by M. Nakamoto, hanshi 10th dan Okinawa Kobudo and Kobayashi-ryu Karate


  • Tommy
    Very interesting article! But I really feel I have to ask; five equals unlimited? Please do explain, I'm intrigued :)
    • Well, the Chinese regard red, yellow, blue, white and black as the "original" five colors. All other colors are just a mix of these. So, in this way, these five colors represent an unlimited spectrum of colors.
      • Rui Paulo Sanguinheira Diogo
        Old post, I know, and what you write is what I thought when I read your article – but: Wouldn't it be better to translate it to "all colors", instead of "unlimited". That way there are both cases covered: Being the five initial colors and the whole spectrum of colours. I hope you don't mind to steal this color thing on an occoasion! ;)
  • Szilard
    Five star article! (Five meaning unlimited.) One more classic, thank you Jesse San!
  • Nice observations Jesse. I often explain to my students the parallels between learning to write and learning self-defense (tangsoodo, karatedo). In the beginning you learn to write letters, words and sentences careful to dot every "i" and cross every "t". Usually you even start with your own name. All in block letters. Easy to teach, read and decipher. Then you are taught cursive (from the Latin "to run, hasten). Even this style has rules but the letters are connected. The rules make it legible for all to read. As you master this form you tend to develop your own style of cursive. Unique. Especially your name (signature). Some may have difficulty reading and deciphering but it works. For you. Even or especially when hurried, rushed or under duress. I trust you see my parallel to teaching self-defense... Tang Soo! (spoken ala "Osu"!)
  • Ian
    An oldie but a goodie. This makes me think of kata (obviously) ... and more specifically *how* we practice kata in our Dojo & Style. You see, the more senior students are supposed to "shrink" their techniques as they advance in skill ... "do more with less", as it were. (Of course, one has to master the broad, crisp movements first, and then try to start to "compress" the effectiveness into a smaller movement eventually.) So, even a basic kata performed at, for example, a nidan grading should look *different* (not just faster, sharper, cleaner ... but actually different) from the same kata performed at an orange-belt grading. What really struck me was the comment: "Sosho is the most cursive script of them all, and it is frequently impossible to read characters written in sosho style without having nearly mastered the style yourself. This is also because a character written by one master might look completely different when written by another master." Well, when we prepare for tournaments, we often find ourselves changing how we perform the kata ... making the movements "bigger", changing the odd "obscure" stance to a similar and well-known stance, and so forth ... taking out the stylistic details that (our Senseis and coaches assume ... probably with some good reason) the kata judges won't "understand. Oddly enough, I once was visiting another dojo (of a different style) in town, in preparation for a regional tournament, and the Sensei there basically told his student competitors the same thing ... "don't do our kata ''our' way because the judges won't understand" and proceeded to encourage the same sort of shift toward a "generic WKF" kata style that we worked on leading up to a tournament. So I wonder how many other dojos from how many other styles out there, when they have students who like to compete in kata, have to train those students to turn their "sosho" kata into something more "gyosho"... or even "kaisho"in order to find favour with kata judges who might not be able to "read" the "sosho" of a different style. (I suspect you meant this post to be more about "two students learn the same kata from the same master, and eventually both master the kata themselves in their own ways, and perform it in ways that vastly differ from each other", but I thought this was worth mentioning too.)
  • Ramón Fernández-Cid
    You are right Jesse. The teaching theory of calligraphy, and also of painting, is composed of two Concepts: Shitsuga and Gakuga, which indicate the difference between innate abilities due to natural talent and abilities acquired through technique, practice and diligent training. The same thing happens in Karate, and that determines the Kurai, or level of understanding or ability, which we translate into the color of the belts and the Dan levels in them.

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