Go in Japan

Japanese Go has a very different history from China. It was very popular in the late 16th century and gained much government support. There is a lot of information about Japanese hisotry available to us, and it will be briefly overviewed here.

Early Japanese Go

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Kibi no Makibi (695-775) is often attributed with bringing Go to Japan in the year 735, after he left for China in 716 to study. However, there are earlier records of Go in Japan including a reference in the "Taiho Statutes: Rules for Monks and Nuns" published in 701, and the writings of a Chinese envoy about Japanese fondness of Go published in 608. This would indicate that Go was at least introduced, if not popularized in Japan, earlier that Kibi no Makibi's time. Evidence suggests Go was introduced to Japan from the Korean peninsula around the time of the Chinese occupation during the Han period.

Over the next several centuries Go gained popularity in Japan, and more writings appeared. By the 15th century Go was a part of education for upper classes, and it was used by monks and samurai as well as aristocrats. By this time the board had evolved from the 17x17 to 19x19 size, and the game was starting to resemble modern Go.

Recognizable Go players emerged in the late 16th century. A monk named Nikkai was the teacher of Oda Nobunaga, a Japanese warlord and Go enthusiast. In 1582 Nobunaga was assasinated by a rival after watching Nikkai play a game with a triple ko. Since then, the appearance of a triple ko is regarded as a foreboding omen. Nobunaga's successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, gained great political power and in 1588 he sponsored Japan's first national tournament. Nikkai won and changed his name to Sansa. He took the surname Honinbo and was given the title of Meijin (meaning "Great Expert" in Japanese). Today, the Honinbo and Meijin are the names of prestigious tournament titles in Japan.

The Edo Period

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Japan's Edo Period (1603-1868) is often called the "Golden Age of Go" as the game flourished in Japanese culture during this time. Tokugawa Ieyasu, a Go player who established the Tokugawa shogunate, appointed Honinbo Sansa as Godokoro (a metonym for "Go Office"), the person in charge of all official Go matters. In 1605, Japan's top players began competing in the presence of the shogun (and by 1628 these "castle games" became an annual event). In 1612, four large, government sponsored Go "houses" were formed and competed against each other. It was the rivalry between these houses which resulted in new techniques being developed, and the skill of Go players gradually increased.

In 1678, Honinbo Dosaku was appointed as Godokoro, and for the first time in years there was no dispute. Dosaku was called the first Go "saint" as he was clearly a superior player at the time. Over time, as the houses continued to compete, more strong players emerged.

In September 1846, Gennan Inseki (head of the "Inoue" house) played Kuwabara Torajiro, who was later known as Shusaku (this name roughly translates to "Expert Strategy"). In this game Shusaku played his famous "Ear-Reddening Move." Gennan appeared to be winning the game, but Shusaku played a move which helped all areas of the board and witnesses report that Gennan's ears turned red after Shusaku played. Honinbo Shusaku wond the game by two points. He won all 19 of his castle games and later became known as the second saint of Go. At age 33 he died while tending to his sick students during a large cholera epidemic. Today, Shusaku's games are still studied by many players worldwide.

Go in Japan began to decline after the Tokugawa shogunate ended in 1868. The Go institutions lacked fundings and Honinbo Shuwa, head of the Honinbo house, died in 1873.

Modern Era

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In 1879, a strong player with close ties to the Honinbo house named Shuho created an organization called the Hoensha. The Hoensha members were dedicated to popularizing Go as a leisure activity. Go strategy began to be perceived as a metaphor for life and careers. In 1914, a man named Shusai became Meijin and some regard him as one of the first modern professionals.

By the 1920s many newspapers ran Go columns about newspaper-sponsored games, which professionals would write commentary for. Around this time, several protest organizations such as the Hiseikai were formed. They wanted to change things in the Go world such as lowering the importance of titles, emphasis on even games and the addition of komi (extra points to White to compensate for Black's first-turn advantage).

In 1924 the Nihon Ki-in (literally translated as "Japan Go Institute") was formed in 1924, primarily by Baron Okura Kishichiro, after other Go organizations lost funding as a result of the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. This organization made many changes to the professional Go world, including a reformed ranking system and the introduction of komi. Gradually, more newspapers ran Go columns, and public interest grew as people discussed games, moves, and their favourite players.

In 1928 Go Seigen, a Chinese Go prodigy went to Japan with the sponsorsip of Baron Okura Kishichiro, and would later work with his friend (and another famous, strong Go player) Kitani Minoru to develop fuseki (opening) theory. This Shinfuseki ("New" fuseki) movement focused more on making early moyos, influence and thickness towards the centre. Some at the time considered these untraditional approaches as being disrespectful, but the ideas are still used and studied today.

In 1936 Honinbo Shusai transferred his title to the Nihon Ki-in, and the first Honinbo tournament began in July 1939. In 1950, Hashimoto Utaro won the Honinbo tournament, but his Osaka-based group broke away from the Nihon Ki-in in a dispute over finances and promotions, to form the Kansai Ki-in. Over the next few decades, more newspapers sponsored Japanese tournaments, and many strong players emerged.

Although many Japanese players had successful Go careers, it became apparent that less youth were playing the game. Then in 1998, Hikaru no Go was published. It was a manga (Japanese-style comic) about a young boy who played Go with help from the ghost of an ancient Go master. The manga became very popular in Japan, and today many youth - in Japan and elsewhere - are becoming interested in the game and attending local clubs.