Seikou Kaneko, a calligraphy teacher living in New York, was born in Fukuoka, Japan. She taught music at both elementary and middle schools in Japan for over twenty five years. In addition, she has been learning calligraphy for more than fifty years. In 1981, she moved to the United States with her husband upon his retirement, and since then she has been teaching calligraphy in New York as an instructor of Nihon Shuji and Kyoiku Shuji Zaidan where she holds the highest rank of the 8th degree. We interviewed her about her unique experience as a calligraphy teacher outside of Japan.
Interview with Seikou Kaneko
– Please tell us your background before coming to America.
92 years ago, I was born in Fukuoka in the Kyushu area, a south part of Japan. My father was a teacher and taught at different schools, so my family lived in various places. Just before World War II, I started to work as an elementary school teacher at a public school in Fukuoka. At that time, I saw the explosion of the atomic bomb dropped in Nagasaki.
4 or 5 years later, I moved to Tokyo and worked for public elementary schools and junior high schools as a teacher over 25 years. Due to my marriage, I had to hold off on applying for a music college, but once my sons became old enough to attend elementary school, I studied at a music university for 5 years under the new education system that was implemented by the GHQ after the World War II. It may not have been common in Japan at that time to be a full time worker during day time and a student at night time.
– It must have been rare even to go on a trip to outside of Japan in your generation. What made you decide to move to the USA
after your husband’s retirement?
33 years ago, my second son had a baby in Boston where he was studying jazz music at a music college. Coincidentally, it was a year that my husband retired, and my husband and I decided to come to the USA for a while. Our initial plan was to stay here for a year but we were so fascinated by America that we decided not to go back to Japan.
Since my son’s family was living in Boston, we moved there with me holding a student visa. We originally planned to go back to Japan after a year at an English language school. I like English, and while I was in college I read English literature written by Charles Dickens, Guy de Maupassant, and Ernest Hemingway with my teacher’s assistance under the old Japanese educational system. However, taking classes with English learning non-native young kids of 15 or 16 years old at the English language school was boring. I was sure learning English this way wouldn’t help me to improve my English skill. So my husband and I decided to move to New York where we happened to meet an interesting old gentleman working at a job agency. We soon agreed with him to take action to get a green card (permanent residential status in the USA). Establishing a stable legal visa status to live in New York came first for us than anything else. One and a half years later, we were able to get green cards.
At that time, we had already decided not to go back to Japan, and I launched my Kumon school and calligraphy school at the same time. Since we were living in Scarsdale, which had the most Japanese population at that time around New York area, I was easily able to have as many as 30 students for my calligraphy school. In addition to my calligraphy students, 40 to 50 students came to my Kumon school which was appointed as the first Kumon school on the East coast.
– When did you start learning calligraphy?
Also, what do you think would be the most interesting aspect of learning calligraphy?
I don’t know why but I started to have an interest in calligraphy when I was around 24 or 25 years old during World War II. When I became a teacher, I was very intrigued by the writing style of a calligraphy master in a textbook used at my school. I clearly remember that I simply kept practicing one single line instead of writing anything else. There was another coworker who was also interested in calligraphy, and we stayed late at school to practice.
It was later in my life that I deeply got into the world of calligraphy. However, at Japanese schools, students in 3rd grade or higher take calligraphy classes, and I had a chance to look at a copy written by Keisui Suzuki and Keien Inoue. It surprised me that these teachers’ writing styles were completely different although they were both prestigious Japanese calligraphy masters. I wondered if these two different writing styles can be accepted, which I’m still not sure to this day. Calligraphy is quite interesting because it gives me a chance to reflect upon time 5000 years ago in China when people studied with calligraphy masters.
My favorite calligraphy style is gyosho (cursive style of writing Chinese characters) written by Wang Xizhi. I also like writing by Son Katei, who is known for “Shofu” in Sosho (very cursive style of writing Chinese characters). Kaisho (block script), the most standard style of writing, is the most difficult one for me. That’s why I’m into Kana writing, which led me to learn “hyakunin isshu”, which is an anthology of 100 poems by 100 different poets.
– New York have brought you students from different background from different ages.
How do you teach calligraphy especially to students who are not familiar with Japanese and Japanese cultures?
The ultimate goal of calligraphy is indeed writing. However, when you focus on teaching just writing, these non-Japanese students sometimes take Japanese letters as pictures and they don’t follow the writing order of each letter. I’m afraid that they don’t understand basic writing rules, which is a part of the beauty of Eastern cultures, such as writing from left to right and from top to bottom. My students are all adults and they can more or less understand what I want to teach. So first of all I teach pronunciation of each letter, words made up of the letter and their meanings, and its writing order before my students start writing by brush. This method seems to help students with no experience in Japanese to have a sense of Japanese letters in two to three months.
– Please share some impressive experience and unforgettable episodes
from your 30-year career as a calligraphy teacher.
The most unforgettable experience is getting to know people who get along with me beyond the teacher-student relationship and also meet people who have strong passion for learning calligraphy even in tough situations. My most impressive memory is meeting a Russian student, who is currently the owner of Kumon school in Brooklyn. He has a license of Reiki healing instructor, and had as many as 50 students in Minsk in Belarus. It was around 2002 when I went with him to teach calligraphy to 20 of his students for a week. It was a quite impressive experience.
I was amazed by a difference in size between Japan, US and Russia. In addition, Belarus wasn’t economically in good situation and only cabbages and onions were sold at markets. It was shocking to me. At the same time, I embraced life I had.
This Russian student later got married, and I got to know his wife when I went to Germany. They have two kids now. Having connection with him and his family is something my calligraphy experience brought to me.
– You may have realized some Japanese virtues once you go outside of Japan.
What do you think they are?
I have recently realized Japan has many great foods that fit my taste. I enjoy ordering Japanese foods such as broth and various kinds of rice cookies online. Aside from a materialistic aspect, I think being modest is a Japanese virtue. Among 50 or 60 of my students, there are some non-Japanese people who really look like Japanese in their characters, ways of behaviors and tastes. So I cannot say being modest is exclusive to Japanese. But I feel uncomfortable to see American people who kick things out of their ways on the streets. Although I don’t care seeing people coming inside a room with wearing shoes, it sometimes makes me feel uncomfortable. There are certainly big cultural differences between Japanese and American.
The most grateful thing of being Japanese is that Japan is a country that provides very stable lifestyles to its nationals. However, I have led a balanced life by myself by pursuing a better lifestyle here in the US. I have now reached a point where I feel life in America is also good. So I’m not inclined to either Japanese lifestyle or American lifestyle. Taking in good things that both Japan and America bring to one’s life has allowed me to enjoy my life the most.
Another good thing about America is freedom. Also, some Americans are really kind and nice. I’m not familiar with politics and I cannot say anything about America as a country. But I heard many people have got benefits from the Obama’s politics whose decision making seems to directly affect people’s lives such as the Obamacare. This is perhaps the same in Japan but I’m not sure about it.
– What would you like to do in the future?
I have taught calligraphy in New York for 30 years. Although students are on and off, my current students are working to get better grades. In addition, some students are interested in teaching calligraphy to kids or having their own kids learning calligraphy in the future. I would like to share my know-how of teaching calligraphy and pass along my experience to spread the joys of learning calligraphy. I think it would be my last role in my life, and I have been thinking about how to make it happen.
Seikou Kaneko, a calligraphy teacher living in New York, was born in Fukuoka, Japan. She taught music at both elementary and middle schools in Japan over twenty five years. In addition, she has been learning calligraphy for more than fifty years. In 1981, she moved to the United States with her husband upon his retirement, and since then she has been teaching calligraphy in New York as an instructor of Nihon Shuji and Kyoiku Shuji Zaidan where she holds the highest rank of the 8th degree. Her teaching method includes not only techniques of calligraphy but also the appreciation of Japanese culture. She has taught calligraphy to several hundred people in the past, and currently has tens of calligraphy students in New York.