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Books on handwriting and letter writing
Reviewed by Gary Harper
harper@ii-okinawa.ne.jp

A Reader of Handwritten Japanese
by P.G. O'Neill
Kodansha
Hardback ¥5000

The blurb on the dust cover notes (quite correctly) that while the number of foreigners who can read printed Japanese has increased markedly, the number who can decipher handwritten Japanese is limited, making the reading of a letter a chore of the first magnitude. This book includes a number of samples, in both printed and handwritten form, with each letter in different handwriting. Notes are provided for the various forms typically used in letter writing and generally nowhere else. The author assumes the reader can handle elementary school kanji. A really helpful book for the advanced student, but Amazon.co.jp lists it as out of stock and Amazon.com lists used copies from $110.00 (U.S.), so a reasonably priced copy for sale may not be easy to find.

Writing Letters in Japanese
by the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies
Published by The Japan Times
¥1800

Go to any Japanese bookstore and you will find a large number of books devoted to writing letters, which indicates that writing letters is considerably more complex than writing letters in English. This book is the only book in English for ordinary letters that I have found. Not a book of penmanship, but of letter composition. Explanations are clear and concise and there are numerous examples of different types of letters. For the advanced student who must deal with or anticipates dealing with Japanese through the written word, an excellent book.

たちまち字がうまくなる本
by 山下晴雨
Published by 土屋書店
¥1000

Go into any Japanese bookstore and you will find lots of books, (often hundreds) on ペン習字 (handwriting with a pen) and 書道 (shodo, Japanese calligraphy). ペン習字 and 書道 are art forms requiring a lifetime of effort, make no mistake. But books with titles like 「字がうまくなる」 are designed to improve penmanship - Japanese penmanship is no better than American or European, but (1) clearly written and comprehensible characters are essential in the workplace, and (2) good penmanship (which does not necessarily include legibility) is greatly admired in Japan. It is an unfortunate fact that we foreigners do not generally write Japanese well. And while word processors and computers are wonderful, there always comes a time when dashing off a note by hand must be done. This book concentrates on 楷書 (かいしょ), the writing style closest to printed Japanese and easiest to read. Bad examples (which usually resemble my handwriting) also abound. The book also covers the easier (more legible) versions of 行書(ぎょうしょ), a more cursive style of writing, and even goes a bit into 連綿(れんめん), the connected kana. Bottom line - this book can help your penmanship markedly, and improve your reading skills to some extent. The advanced student must learn, at a minimum, to write a legible hand and to read most common handwriting. This book (and a number of others) will help!!

これだけ知れば字は必ずうまくなる by 山下晴雨 from ロング・ラーズのムックの本 (¥920)  
字がうまくなる5分間マジック by 時光華 from Playbooks(¥830) 
みるみる字が上手くなる本 by 田中鳴舟 from PHP Business Library (¥857)

Most foreigners have atrocious Japanese handwriting.  Now, I don’t believe that people with good handwriting are anymore common in Japan than elsewhere in the world, but foreigners write differently and it shows. For example, all vertical and most horizontal and oblique strokes strokes start with a very short, almost unoticeable stroke at an angle of about 45 degrees to the main stroke. Japanese learn this when learning to write, so it’s automatic for them, but not for the foreigner, and ALMOST unoticeable is not the same as unoticable.  And good handwriting is important in Japan, even with the advent of word processors. The three books listed above are not designed to make anyone a calligrapher - just to aid people in providing clear, legible and pleasant appearing writing, on the job and elsewhere.  They are not designed for the foreigner, but the are written in Japanese not much above grade school level and have copious illustrations.  All the books emphasize non-cursive writing (clear, legible),  but do have a small section toward the back on semi-cursive styles.  If you learn to write  this non-cursive (楷書) style, the semi-cursive (行書) will look much better and come much easier (and the abbreviations used will make more sense.)  Which one is best?  Each book is about the same length and covers mostly the same ground, but each is also different.  Take your time and look through to see which appeals to you. Any of the four will aid in imporving penmanship, though,  and new books on this subject are coming out all the time, so there may well be others just as good when you check the bookstore. IMPORTANT!!  YOUR PENMANSHIP DOES NOT IMPROVE WITHOUT PRACTICE!!