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Conveying the Heart: KATSUIE SHIBATA

November 12, 2015

Education in 2036, imagined by sci-fi author Katsuie Shibata, is introduced in seven segments, four from a short story written exclusively for this site and three from an interview with him. This is the third of the story. Typically boring classes are now enjoyable. The reason is because a student creates an application that’s a completely new type of font. She conveys words and thoughts in a way that changes her everyday life.

By my own characters

That class was more fun than I had expected.

I had worried that taking the time to write kanji characters by hand would be a futile exercise, but as I actually did it, I was moved by (and sometimes I cringed at) my creations.

"Hey, show me next week's assignment."

My words were instantly translated into Russian and communicated to him by the liquid-state computer.

"My writing is terrible. I don't understand the meaning of the characters yet."

The words were spoken by the projection of the student on the pop-up hologram, and the images of his writing were sent over.


The assignment was to make a three-character compound. However, the point was not the meaning but to write each character neatly in the formal, square kaisho style. The teacher would likely offer friendly advice such as, "You're pressing a little too hard," but I was not on that level.

"Show me yours," he said.

At his request, I wrote it out, made an image of the file, and sent it over.


The sample was unimpressive and inconsistent, with some parts jutting out too far and some parts too thin. I was surprised at how much written characters could betray one's personality!

The Russian student quizzed me on the meaning of each character I'd written. I turned off the external memory that had been handling the explanations and used my own words to patiently explain, one by one, the reasons for choosing each character and what they meant.

But maybe there were other words that I actually wanted to explain to him alone.

In the classroom, schoolwork often feels boring.

Adults have the option of just putting a liquid-state computer in a drink and washing it down as a memory supplement. Rather than going to all the effort of learning something new, people can just take a concoction specially formulated for their needs and narrow in on only the knowledge they want. I wasn't clear on the specifics, but it seemed as if you could unconsciously extract and remember the necessary parts of the information you took in.

I still wasn't legally old enough to try it, so it wasn't the method I relied on. But I had no interest in being that kind of adult anyway. For me, I would just have to stick to my desk and put in the hours.

If you access the external memory of liquid-state computers, you can quickly understand much of the world. What was necessary for us was not to learn those facts one by one, but rather to learn how to draw on them and use them. The instructors who teach face-to-face are frantically trying to instill in us this kind of comprehensive knowledge system.

Just to kill a little time, I picked up the stylus that I wanted to try out in class. It was equipped with predictive intelligence. When I wrote out some kanji characters that I'd learned, strings of incoherent shapes zigzagged across the tablet screen covering the top of my desk. The meaningless characters did not form any real sentence, but as the liquid-state ink morphed in and out of different jumbles, my intended shapes finally managed to emerge.

Which made me realize something—this could actually be fun! These were characters all my own, ones that could not be reproduced by any commercial font. Each time I tried to write in my own style, the characters would shift back and forth between the certified shapes and their deviations, finally settling on a result.

猫 猫 猫

I changed the letter (“cat”) bit by bit, until it was somewhere between a kanji character and a sketch. It came out looking like a cute little pet of some sort, and I wanted to show it off to someone.

I was having so much fun that I e-mailed a classmate I was pretty friendly with. I was sending a note during class! Would it be okay? It was not an obvious message. I hadn't written a real character, and it wasn't a picture, either. I had sent out a bizarre new animal. The girl got the message and seemed to understand because she looked over at me with a giggly smile.

Her reply was, "Cool! Teach me how to do it, too."

I decided to use the app development skills I'd learned to add some writing functions for arranging the liquid-state ink at will. The result was a new type of "personal font" that my classmates asked me to teach them how to make.

If I wrote the character for fish (魚), it could swim across the liquid-state monitor like a killifish, while bird (鳥) could flutter about and move its wings. Students gathered around exclaiming, "Awesome!" and, "I want to try!" The once-boring classroom environment was now fun for me.

By creating characters by hand, I could take the combinations of characters that I wanted to communicate and add in colors and shapes to create a font that works as a new tool—and my own personalized form of writing. It was possible to combine words for flowers with illustrations of flowers. Others might make rhythmic music from the strokes that build each character, while still others might convey the meaning of kanji with movement. The styles could be matched to each purpose while uniquely expressing the author's own individuality.

Each time we had a break, classmates I ran into enjoyed showing me the new characters they had created. At first, our teacher shot displeased looks in our direction, until it became clear that we were immersed in a creative pursuit, at which point the frowns turned into accepting smiles.

"Some things are created specifically through real interaction." The teacher’s comment expressed approval.

All of this helps explain how these hand-drawn characters created a personal font sensation that promptly swept through my peer groups and even showed up in some forum threads that were part of our high school girls’ impenetrable culture. And there was social utility as well. Kanji learners from other countries were able to use this idea to help them understand the meanings of characters, while the fonts were also singled out as an example of non-verbal communication, which was not something I had a hand in. All of that was the product of much cleverer minds than mine.

Being taught, and conveying

The class that had been the wellspring for my personal font idea became the spotlight of media attention, with students across Japan soon clamoring to register.

"Your quiet days are over," I told the teacher, which made him laugh through the hologram.

"Without a doubt,” the teacher said. “By the way, I understand now why you took the kanji characters apart to make a new font." This comment came written in beautiful characters that were far above my skill level (revenge, perhaps, for my earlier challenges?). "Your Russian friend was happy to get those letters from you. Even if he couldn't read the kanji, there was meaning communicated through your handwriting."

I didn't want the teacher to tell anyone. I hurled over the character for anger (怒), pulsating and erupting in a frenzy, expressing as much protest as I could. The teacher received it and answered with a single, playful reply: "This is the concept of 'Wisdom isn't encapsulated in words.’ Now I think you understand."


  • Katsuie Shibata

    Katsuie ShibataAuthor

    Born in Tokyo in 1987. Katsuie Shibata began his career in 2014 with the sci-fi novel Nilya Island, winning the Second Hayakawa SF Contest. Presently he is a folklore and cultural anthropology graduate student in the Literature Research Department of Seijo University and is majoring in Japanese Commons Culture. He is researching the transformation of foreign folklore religious beliefs and propagation. He has great respect for the feudal warlord Katsuie Shibata and addresses himself in the first person expression that was more common for men in the medieval period. Sporting a beard and mustache and traditional Japanese dress known as kimono, Shibata is gaining attention and there are high expectations in the sci-fi world for this promising author.

  • Zain


    Zain has received high acclaim in Japan and abroad for combining edgy illustrations with dynamic spaces and pop art. Active on various fronts, Zain even worked on a collaborative advertisement with Hatsune Miku for Toyota America. She has created artwork for CD jackets as well as artwork for the cover and story of a novella.

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    Conveying the Heart: KATSUIE SHIBATA

    Conveying the Heart: KATSUIE SHIBATA

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