Monday, December 03, 2012

Campaigning, “Calligraphy”, and the 21st Century

My good friend Michael Cucek has posted images of the handwriting of the eleven party leaders taking part in a joint press conference at the National Press Club on Saturday. He has a brief description of the role of the handwriting exercise at events featuring celebrities and other public figures, so read it first if you haven’t done so already.

Okay? Now…

The first thing that strikes one’s eyes is the enormous variance in style and the sheer awfulness in terms of proficiency. Mind you, with “sheer awfulness,” I am averaging out skill levels that range from passable to permanent retinal damage-bad. Shintaro Ishihara’s handwriting does appear to show vestiges of oriental calligraphy—it’s hard to make out with the small lettering and the low resolution—but still little sign that any training that he received as a child ever took. I assure you that had a similar event taken place forty years ago, most of the participants would have been writing fluidly and capably in the formal version of traditional calligraphy…and doing it with ink and brush, not felt pen. In fact, a party leader with poor handwriting might have called in sick and sent in a stand-in, except perhaps a progressive or a Kakuei Tanaka-type, who could/would have worn the lack of skill as a badge of their humble beginnings. In fact, it is telling that none of the party leaders are embarrassed at their poor (felt-)penmanship. Martial arts and the ethnic wardrobe are not the only traditions that the post-WW II world has confined to the realm of the aficionado.

It is ironic that Shinzo Abe, the values conservative, does the worst job of them all with his angular, uneven, formless scrawling. Indeed, it is enough to make one wonder if he does any writing at all. There is clearly a need here for real action in the interests of traditional values; in the meantime, I will assume that he wrote his book on his personal computer. Ah, yes, the keyboard. That, of course, is why people can’t “write” anymore. Why I can barely sign my name, and it’s a little early for you-know-what.

The second thing to note is that the cardboards are sidelong rectangles, not the standard square types that are sold in the stationary sections of retail establishments. The sidelong rectangle must be a relatively recent media confection, almost surely to better employ the TV screen in close-up mode. But the square remains the mainstay of the demand for graduation and other farewell occasions, as well as for celebrity autographs that are prominently displayed in modest eateries.

This, incidentally, provides the jumping-off point for a plausible explanation for why Ishihara wrote vertically, instead of left-to-right like the other ten, on a sidelong piece of cardboard. He became the first true celebrity author of the post-WW II era, long before he formally entered politics.* He and, perhaps more so, his actor brother were superstars of contemporary pop culture. As such, he must have written one line or other from his best-selling novels on hundreds upon hundreds of square cardboards and affixed his name to them over the years. And of course, novels—and the standard printed format for novels and many other manuscripts—remain for the most part stubbornly vertical, as do regular newspapers and their weekly magazine counterparts. Ishihara almost surely has rarely written anything from left to right. Moreover, he most likely was personally unfamiliar with the variety/talk show routine, where noisome hosts whip out oblong cardboard pieces for the celebrity participants or party leaders to write on. As a larger-than-life governor of Tokyo he could dictate his own terms of appearance on the small screen, whereas he now has to endure the peer-to-peer ignominies that national party leaders experience, even thrive on, on an everyday basis.

* The après-guerre and third-wave novelists generally received much or all of their education during the long war (1931-1945) and were old enough to be conscripted or imprisoned during that period.

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