Here is a quick quiz for you. Question: Please answer the stroke number of the strokes in red.
Before I give you the correct answer, let me talk about an often overlooked aspect of kanji learning, that is, stroke order. Please look at the table below:
Row A (Mincho Style): The horizontal lines in all the four kanji look identical and the slanted strokes toward the left are also identical in length and angle, except in kanji (2) 有. Mincho style is a printer’s typeface for the maximum use of an imaginary square for each kanji. Strokes are elongated to fill every corner. The lines are straight and a thin horizontal line has serifs on the right end. It is used in books, magazines, computer screens, etc. where available space is more import consideration than esthetics.
Row B (Kyokasho style): The characteristics of the first two strokes in the four kanji are essentially the same as those of Row A. The Japanese government requires this style to be used for textbooks in elementary education. It is designed so that an elementary school pupil can emulate good handwriting. It is for writing purposes but it is also a type face or font that is designed to be used in print.
Row C (Kai Style): It is in brush writing from the kai style, which is the formal writing style. Now we begin to see something different among the four kanji: (1) The horizontal lines are long in 右and 有 and shorter in左and 友; and (2) The slanted strokes in右 and 有 are shorter whereas those in 左 and 友 are long, to the extent that they touch the baseline.
Row D: The stroke orders are shown. We see that the two different ways coincide with the characteristics of the length of strokes we see in Row C. Even though the kyokasho style does not show it in its length, we can imagine that in 右 and 左, in blue, we write the short slanted stroke first and the horizontal line long and in a paced way. On the other hand, in 左and 友, we can write a short horizontal stroke quickly, and in the slanted stroke toward left we bring our stroke down to the baseline carefully.
Row E is a grass style, which is a fast fluid movement of a brush, resulting in many strokes coalescing into one continuous stroke. In these, we can clearly see how a calligrapher carries his brush between the first and second strokes because the first and second stroke are continuous.
So, the answer to the quiz in the beginning: (1) 1; (2) 1; (3) 2; and (4) 2. How did you do?
Row F is the ten-style writing from Akai (2010). The first strokes of these kanji are all hands.
In 2007 when I was finalizing the manuscripts for the kanji book “The Key to Kanji,” I asked my illustrator to draw the image as a left hand and a right hand for 友. Because 左 and 友 were written in the same manner and I expected that the top left of 友 had come from a left hand. Since then, the Akai books (1985 and 2010) came to my attention, and now I changed my view that both hands were right hands. Stroke order is really the product of brush writing and may have little relevance to its original meaning in some cases. After all, by the time of brush writing how writing came about mattered little. [May 16, 2014]
1) This article was prompted by the comment from Antoniomarco from Italy on my earlier post “which Han d helps? A Right Hand or Left Hand?” and subsequent information from him. Thank you very much, Dr. Gennaro.
2) The brush writing font in the row C and E was from s freeware attributed to Aoyagi Shozan. http://opentype.jp/freemouhitufont.htm.武蔵システム
3) A hiragana さcame from the grass style of the kanji 左.