I’m taking a break from writing about vintage pencils and turning to some currently available ones. I first saw the Mitsubishi Uni Penmanship (Kouhitsu Shosha-yo 硬筆書写用) pencil on Lexikaliker and have left comments on other blogs about it since then, but maybe this is a good time to organize the information scattered here and there in one place.
Calligraphy in Japan consists of the writing of Chinese characters and Japanese kana, and have traditionally been taught using ink and brush. However, with time other instruments have been introduced into the classroom for convenience’s sake, pulling traditional calligraphy in the direction of everyday “penmanship”: felt-tipped pens, ballpoint pens, and pencils, categorically called “hard pens (kouhitsu)” as opposed to the soft brush. Of all the Asian nations that teach Chinese calligraphy, I think Japan stands out for the emphasis it places on everyday hard-pen penmanship, and its use of pencils in practicing this art. There is a Kouhitsu competition held each year, separately from the usual brush calligraphy competitions (you can see some writing samples here). The pencils seem to be used mostly in elementary schools (and no doubt demand is driven by teachers who designate exactly which kind to use); older students move on to more sophisticated instruments.
These penmanship pencils are intended to mimic the feel and effect of the brush as much as possible: to clearly indicate the movement of the stroke as it starts, stops, strengthens or weakens, widens or fades out altogether. In doing this, it channels two seemingly contradictory demands: the need for the lead to be very dark and soft, but resistant to the pressure exerted on it. The legend “Pressure-Proofed Lead” indicates that while the lead may be as dark and smooth as any art pencil, it is strong enough to withstand any child’s sweaty effort. This is actually quite a feat! Let’s see what else Mitsubishi says about this pencil:
- The lead breaks down evenly when it comes into contact with the paper, resulting in very dark, bold, and distinct lines.
- The lead is imbued with a special oil that reduces friction when writing.
- The thicker lead allows you to make both fine and bold lines, depending on the way you sharpen it. It is also capable of producing the effects characteristic of a brush (stops, sweeps, etc.)
- High-quality clay makes the lead stronger, saving you the trouble of frequent sharpening.
The interesting thing about these pencils is that there are specific variants available only in certain parts of the country (and, needless to say, seldom exported abroad). The prefecture of Saitama, northeast of Tokyo, is said to be a strong supporter of penmanship instruction; accordingly, Mitsubishi manufactures two deluxe versions of the Penmanship pencil, the Super DX 8B and the Fude-Enpitsu (Brush Pencil) 10B, for distribution in Saitama only. Even Tombow seems to have made some sort of special edition for Fukuoka. (These special editions don’t show up on official product pages.) I haven’t managed to figure out why these particular prefectures should be so enthusiastic about penmanship or how they got the pencil companies to cooperate, but in any case you really have to marvel at the kind of market that generates such specific demands and the manufacturers that oblige them.
The rest of the country makes do with regular Penmanship Pencils in 4B and 6B, hexagonal and triangular. The writing experience is enhanced with a plush writing mat that provides a sort of cushion underneath the paper. Specially ruled penmanship practice pads are also available. In other words, this is a highly specialized pencil dedicated to a very specific purpose, and I really don’t understand the reasoning behind the decision to bring this pencil to North America. Yes, it is a very well-made pencil, dark, smooth and break-resistant, but the culture or the script system that gave birth to it doesn’t travel. Here, it’s probably too dark for everyday writing and needlessly strong for drawing or sketching. If you happen to have this pencil, I recommend that you get hold of a Chinese-character primer and practice a few strokes. Then you’ll see what this guy can really do.