The 11th-century Japanese writer Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book was written using kana, a Japanese script mainly used by women for nearly a millennium to write literature, arrange secret assignations and express themselves freely within the confines of court life. Women in medieval Japan were discouraged from studying kanji, so they began using kana instead, which transcribe words phonetically.
A standardisation programme at the beginning of the 20th century saw 90% of the 550 characters used in kana die out. But these forgotten characters are now being kept alive by the artist and master of Japanese calligraphy Kaoru Akagawa, who became fascinated with them after deciphering letters from her grandmother.
Akagawa uses the forgotten kana in a style of calligraphy called kana shodo. “When people talk about Japanese calligraphy, they normally mean kanji shodo,” Akagawa explains, “a style imported from China, practiced by samurais and monks.” Kana shodo, on the other hand, uses a script which was known by the 10th century as onnade, or “woman hand”, which became “the backbone of a female-dominated literary culture”. Sei Shōnagon’s contemporary, Murasaki Shikibu, wrote her masterpiece, The Tale of Genji—often called the world’s first novel—using kana.