For a first post, what better theme than hiragana?
When I learned kana, I didn’t learn the different ways the strokes end. In regular brush calligraphy, there are three fundamental ways to finish a hiragana stroke:
- To stop （止める） the brush for a moment, making for a blunt, rounded terminator;
- To sweep （払う） or “release” the brush, lifting it progressively, making a sharp point; and
- To return （かえる） or jump （はねる）, a combination of both movements, first pausing and then lifting firmly, changing the direction to the next stroke. This movement produces a “hook” or “barb” （はね）。
The thing is, these differences become very subtle, or even unnoticeable, when writing with pencil or ballpoint pens—the most common instruments when learning to write kana. In Japan children are taught to press and release a (non-mechanical) pencil as appropriate, but foreign Japanese schools (and websites) often omit that step.
This is a bad thing if you ever decide to try a brush—or a rollerball, gel or fountain pen, or even blackboard chalk. The wrong stroke ends will show, and will make the character feel weird (that’s part of what produces the typical “gajin’s hand” look). There’s some degree of acceptable variation, especially between stops and hooks; but more or less everyone always release the same strokes. This is not just a matter of æsthetics; the proper strokes are part of the identity of hiragana characters. (Hiragana is funny because it’s a fossilized set of symbols coming originally from the very free cursive script.)
Calligraphy is not just about images, it’s about manual gestures (this is true of European calligraphy too, if you go back far enough; cf. Latin ductus). The range of variation allowed is not determined by the appearance of the finished figure, but rather by whether it follows the appropriate gestures. Anthropologist Tim Ingold has compared it to dancing. And unlearning the wrong dance moves is harder than simply learning the proper ones from the start.
Fortunately, fixing your stroke ends is not that difficult. I like using gel-based rollerball pens, as a compromise between inkiness and convenience, or fudepen when feeling fancy. After choosing a writing implement that allows you to feel a difference between stops and sweeps, just find any reliable hiragana model and practice paying attention to the endpoints. For convenience, here’s a color-coded chart, made with the Epson Kyōkasho-tai M font (Kyōkasho fonts, though typographic, are designed for school use and are appropriate as models for handwriting).
Disclaimer: This post wasn’t fact-checked by a shodō teacher or anything. Caveat emptor. Corrections welcomed.