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My understanding is that Japanese was traditionally written in a top-to-bottom, right-to-left order (縦書き{たてがき}), and that modern Japanese is sometimes written in a horizontal left-to-right, top-to-bottom order (横書き{よこがき}) 1. But in the following painting by 白隠慧鶴{はくいんえかく}, the calligraphy appears to be in a top-to-bottom, left-to-right order. According to the caption on the Wikipedia page, the calligraphy reads 直指人心見性成佛{じきしにんしんけんしょうじょうぶつ}.

daruma-scroll

Is top-to-bottom, left-to-right writing order common in Japanese calligraphy? Are there rules governing when you would write in this order, or is it just based on the artist's preference? Or maybe it's a Zen koan, and I'm supposed to empty my mind and realize that the order doesn't matter?

Please enlighten me!

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This text is written left-to-right because the person in the picture is facing to the left. There was a rule that when you put some text (chinese poem, haiku, etc.) in a portrait, the first line must be determined by the orientation of the face. When the person was facing to the left, the text had to be written from left to right. Some sources say this rule was most prevalent in the Muromachi period.

先史時代の右・左 (PDF)

日本では,基本的に右上から始まる縦書きであったが,肖像画の画賛については描かれた人物の顔の向いているほうが先頭行になる,つまり書かれた人物の顔が左向きであれば左から右へ書いていくという規則が存在していた(屋名池,2006)。

書字方向― 縦書き・横書き

左図は,第四代「足利義持像」(右,1414 年賛),第六代「足利義教像」(左,15 世紀後半)の肖像がであるが,違いは人物の向きだけではなく,上部に禅僧の賛があるが,これが逆方向に行移りしてゆくのである。 賛の行の進行方向は,実は人物の顔の向きによって決まっている。この当時,「画賛は描かれた人物の顔の向いている方が先頭行になる」( 顔が左向き:左から右へ読んでゆく,顔が右向き:右から左へ読んで行く)という規則が存在していた。

Most of Ekaku's works available online seem to follow this rule, although there are exceptions.

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    This answer is spot on! I just wanted to add that the fact of containing a portrait might be a sufficient but not a necessary condition for the writing to go from left to right. Being calligraphy an art after all, these rules are quite flexible and you can see several "text-only" works written from left to right as well. In my experience it all depends on the type/shape of the paper, how it might be displayed/used (think of fans that unfolds counter-clockwise: you will see the left part first), and of course the calligrapher's feelings. – Tommy Oct 4 '17 at 5:53
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    流石です。ピッタリの論文発見ですね。Tommyさんもたぶん書道をすると言っていましたので、扇子に書くときに左からが都合が良いとの話がでました。私は、書くスピードに対して墨が乾くスピードの方が遅いで紙を汚したくないことを考えて本音を言うと左から右へ行を進める方が好きです。肖像画の顔の向きに関しては、図鑑の魚の顔の向きと同じで昔の作品も大半が左向きですので、画賛が顔の向きと一致しているというのは事例から見ると必ずしも正解でないような気もしますがこれ以上は問題にはしません。「朝顔につるべとられてもらひ水」で有名な加賀千代女の画賛のように画賛と絵との調和を優先して行の配置に自由度が高いのは俳人や歌人の世界では絵と文字との美的調和から比較的あるような気がします。kanazawa-sakurada.cocolog-nifty.com/blog/2009/07/… – mackygoo Oct 4 '17 at 6:44
  • Brilliant, even complete with historical explanation. You really learn something everyday. – keithmaxx Oct 4 '17 at 9:08
  • Thank you Tommy and mackygoo. So looks like the line order is more flexible than I thought in calligraphy. – naruto Oct 4 '17 at 13:15
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My understanding is that Japanese was traditionally written in a top-to-bottom, right-to-left order (縦書{たてがき}).

Your understanding is perfectly correct.

It seems to be based on the preference of the author aimed at aesthetic effect. However, this work of 掛{か}け軸{じく} a hanging scroll is made of not only the characters of 直指人心見性成佛 but also the portrait of 達磨{だるま} Dharma at the same time, so it should be understood as the aesthetic effect of the author who considered the balance between the portrait and the arrangement of the characters as a whole.

As for the order of reading the characters, it seems that no mistake would happen because of the amount/density of black ink and the location of the author's 落款{らっかん}印{いん} the author's seal corresponding to his autograph.

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East Asian languages were traditionally written in the top-bottom, right-left order as explained here and here. The reason it's so common in calligraphy is because it allowed them to write the characters with their brush in the right hand and unroll scrolls with their left as they proceeded.

The current horizontal system only came into being during the Meiji Era when Western influences started coming into common usage. By then more people wrote on pieces of paper rather than scrolls.

As for rules, there really aren't any. Its usage usually depends on the medium, genre, and subject and practicality... many aesthetic scrolls are hanged vertically and thus their characters are written accordingly. Other than that, you can commonly find vertical writing in artistic media (essays, novels, poetry), or reading material (newspapers, comics, and Japanese dictionaries) where space can be at a premium.

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    I think the question is about why there are instances of top-bottom, left-right. The OP already stated in the question that he/she knows top-bottom, right-left is common. – yushi Oct 4 '17 at 3:38

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