The minimalism of its aesthetics –smooth white and black lens-shaped pieces on a simple matrix of horizontal and vertical lines- and the simplicity and directness of its strategy with few rules and one and only objective, the occupation of as much area on the board as possible make igo (囲碁) or, as it’s more widely known, “go” (碁) look clearly Japanese –at least in conformity with most people’s preconceptions about Japan. But the game is so characteristically Chinese that it was included in one of the four arts that Chinese scholar-gentlemen had to know, already from the 8th century (the other three was playing the instrument guqin which would become koto in Japan, calligraphy and painting). As was the case with most products of Chinese culture, igo’s way in Japan passed from the Imperial Court of the Nara period to end much more popular in the Edo and Meiji periods and from there to our day and age.
Outside Asia, the game became famous through Japan, in pretty much the same way it happened with Zen Buddhism; I don’t know why but it is, I believe, safe to assume that the country’s closer relation with the West and the various waves of “Japonisme” that sprang from it played their part. Precisely because of its appearance and the simplicity of its rules, igo was perceived as more Japanese than shogi (将棋) which is more directly related to the chess we all know –if one was to get passionate about something remote and exotic, he’d better pick something shouting as loud as possible that it is remote and exotic. Besides, one of the most advertised characteristics of Japanese culture was and is the strategic abilities of the samurai warriors and a game where victory comes with the occupation of lands, the most basic rule of strategy there is, seems to illustrate best these abilities of the Japanese as well as their penchant for bypassing what is superfluous and go directly to the essence of things.
As is bound to happen with all fantasies, all the above crumble when someone starts getting involved with igo: you learn its prehistory and its origins, that there are several rules within the rules, that the rating system for the players is complicated with kyu (級) and dan (段) ranks familiar to those who are training in martial arts (and who, for the most part, ignore that these ranks came from this game) but divided in different categories depending on if the players are amateurs or professionals and that around the 19X19 board there is a whole universe with schools-houses going back to the age of the first Tokugawa shogun and with power, authority and money games that make the game played on the board pale in comparison; Yasunari Kawabata’s “Meijin” (名人) offers but a tiny glimpse of the unseen world of igo and, with it, the worlds of all traditional Japanese arts. The moves of the white and black “stones” are just another interesting hobby –and many are quite comfortable with that, and why not?- but going a little deeper one gets does indeed gets to know Japan a little better –and through it, the rest of Asia as well.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes on the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.