Calligrapher Ransui Yakata Interview
A life in ink: an Interview with Calligrapher Ransui Yakata
December 7, 2008
Satoshi Ransui Yakata is a Japanese calligraphy and watercolor master active in Tokyo, Japan, and with a broad international portfolio. The watercolor painting he specializes in is known as suiboku: a traditional style that, like calligraphy itself, originated in China.
Ransui and his art
I got to know Ransui (his professional name) in 2006 when, eager to try calligraphy, I was introduced to him through a friend. Ever cheerful, and with a maturity beyond his years, he inspired me both with his buoyancy of spirit and consummate skill with the brush.
Ransui wields the brush with a polished intensity, sizing up the next stroke, executing it, and finishing it off with an almost electric flourish. The result is elegant, forceful and beautifully balanced lines and forms.
His suiboku paintings transcend any language barrier, and in sparse strokes and minimum shading express mystique, delicacy, and grandeur, whether of bamboo forests, flowers, rocky mountains, or even urban skyscrapers.
From elementary school
Ransui first came into contact with Japanese calligraphy, known in Japanese as shodo (or shuji), at the age of six his first year at elementary school in Tokushima on the island of Shikoku. I have always liked writing, and shodo has therefore always been a very natural form of expression for me. And of course, my teacher has a lot to do with my attachment to the art. He is warm hearted and with a distinct, unique view of life. I respect him enormously. Teachers of arts and crafts in Japan are traditionally one's teacher for life, and over twenty years later he remains Ransui's teacher.
"I was supposed to go to him once a week for lessons, but studying under him was so much fun that I soon found myself going there virtually every day. He didn't mind, though, and, luckily for my mother's purse, I got lessons every day for the price of just the usual four-times-monthly fee." At the outset, the young pupil would be sent home when the teacher's dinnertime came around, but, he continues, "he would finally even let me stay for dinner! I became like a family member" - which is still attested to by their continuing relationship over two decades later.
Ransui meets suiboku watercolors
Ten years after taking up calligraphy, Ransui began studying suiboku watercolor painting, at age 16. "It really helped having first learned calligraphy. I studied under my teacher for three years until, tragically, he died of cancer. My suiboku teacher made the learning experience a very enjoyable one, which is why I now carry on with both calligraphy and suiboku. Also, much of the enjoyment of calligraphy and suiboku is in the sense of calm they impart. Painting with charcoal ink [sumi, in Japanese] is a very soothing experience."
Ransui goes international
Ransui's international experience grew out of his love of the brush. "The Japanese Ministry of Education ran a campaign of 'citizen ambassadors' based on essay solicitation. I wrote an essay during my second year at high school about how I taught calligraphy to several expatriate friends who lived in my town. I was fortunate to be one of 10 people chosen nationwide as citizen ambassadors. In that role, I got to go to Vancouver for two weeks - my first time overseas."
Kochi University years
Ransui's skills in calligraphy and suiboku were recognized at Kochi University, where he was an undergraduate, and he was assigned dedicated space within the university where he ran a calligraphy and suiboku workshop. In his last year at university he began entering calligraphy and suiboku contests, and upon his first attempt won second prize in an international suiboku contest. To date, Ransui has won over 20 prizes, both within Japan and internationally for both suiboku and calligraphy. But, he says, more important than achieving a name this way is the opportunity his art has given him to forge contact with people. "My art opens doors to other people."
A career in ink
Upon graduation, Ransui shunned convention by not embarking on a job hunt. Rather, he sought out people overseas who were interested in calligraphy. He got a response from the head of the Japanese Study Institute in the United Kingdom who came all the way to Kochi University to meet Ransui. As a result of their meeting, he was invited to the UK under the auspices of the Society in order to "spread the word" about calligraphy by demonstrating calligraphy and suiboku in action, and exhibiting his works.
Ransui in London
Ransui's two years in London were a mixed bag of trials and rewards. "Language was the most difficult thing for me when I went to London," he says with a fluency that, if you didn't know, would suggest that he had spoken English since childhood. "Also, having been brought up in the countryside, living in the big city certainly had its challenges in a number of different ways. One of the most valuable things my time in London gave me was the opportunity to come into contact with things of great beauty, and to talk about them with other people.
The atmosphere of London also suited me. The weather in Japan is usually quite clear, so I really appreciated the grayness and mistiness of London, and the rainy scenes that you don't get to see in Japan. They really inspired me to paint. The only problem was the cold - sometimes so cold that the ink wouldn't flow and my fingers wouldn't move!"
Ransui tours Europe
Ransui also toured Europe several times from his base in London, especially France and Italy. "It was interesting to me how artists in each different European country generally got something different out of my paintings. The numerous oil color artists I met were particularly interested in talking to me about watercolors, because the approach and techniques are so different."
An interesting sideline to his art was the regular requests he got for tattoo designs. "Japanese characters are quite popular in the UK and Europe as tattoo designs, but I saw an awful lot of wrongly executed characters in tattoos!"
Ransui was 23 when he returned to Japan from London. While Tokyo was not his first choice as a place to settle, Ransui sees it as fate that circumstances led to him settling here. Through the contacts he made in Tokyo he was able to achieve his long-held dream of opening his own calligraphy/suiboku studio in Tokyo's Omotesando district in August 2008.
"Writing and painting show you the elements that have gone into your day. They are a personal record of so many things." And his inspiration? "Inspiration has to come from within. It has to come from inside me else I can't draw anything. Listening to the the sound of waves, for example, or the wind, is enough to bring up the voice inside me. Having a few drinks often helps too!"
On that note, Ransui is also a die-hard fan of karaoke, and - as this writer can attest to - has a phenomenal singing voice!