Calligraphy Helps Students in Japanese Course Celebrate New Year

From "work hard" to "be optimistic," an auspicious start to class, term, year

January 07, 2013

Knox College Japanese class

Knox College students got off to an "auspicious" start on the first day of class, first week of the term, and the new year 2013. Students in Japanese 202 began their class on Jan 4 with an exercise in kakizome (書き初め) -- literally "first writing" -- a Japanese term for the first calligraphy written at the beginning of a year.

"Many Japanese students gather in early January to write auspicious kanji characters or phrases such as 寿 (ことぶき) 'felicitations' to set the tone for the New Year," said Orna Shaugnessy, visiting assistant professor of Asian Studies. "In pre-modern times, this first occasion to put brush to paper was very ritualized. It was almost superstitious; special water would be drawn to make the ink, with the idea that this could influence your year," Shaughnessy said.

Knox College Japanese Class"There's a personal involvement," said Jade Ivy, a sophomore from Chicago. "I still have the one I wrote last year. It was 'chikara,' the kakizome for 'strength'." And, yes, it was an auspicious kakizome for Ivy last year, as she made her mark in Knox's record books in cross country. At the 2011 Midwest Conference Cross Country Championships, she ran the 6K course in 26:35, a personal best that also placed her among Knox's Top 25 Individuals by Time.

It takes a lot of mental fortitude to push through in a sport like that," Ivy said. This year, she wrote "ganbare," meaning "try your best." Americans might wish someone "good luck," Ivy explained, but Japanese are more likely to use expressions such as "ganbare," which carries the idea of encouragement to "work hard" and "do your best."

"It's neat to have a hands-on experience that also gives you the cultural dimension," said student Bethany Larson. She wrote "nonbiri," which translates roughly to "be optimistic." The sophomore from Fairfield, Iowa, is busy completing applications for study-abroad programs.

Below, Prof. Orna Shaughnessy and students in Japanese class.