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Recently a newspaper clipping was brought to my attention. It reported on two books, presumably English translations, by Yasunari Kawabata as recently published by Vintage Books. The first, which should be of great interest to all Go players, is "The Master of Go." Originally this was translated by Edward G. Seidensticker and published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, in 1972.

Kawabata, author of "Snow Country," "Thousand Cranes" and "The Sound of the Mountains," was a world famous Japanese Novelist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968.

"The Master of Go" is the story of one, very famous, game of Go. Seidensticker wrote in his introduction to the Knopf edition that "The Master of Go" is a chronicle-novel or as it is called in Japanese a shoosetsu. It is a piece of literature that, while it has been embroidered and colored, is still essentially a piece of non-fiction. The game started on 26 June 1938 and ended on 4 December 1938. It was played in fourteen sessions. During this period the Go master spent about 3 months in hospital. Kawabata at the time was a reporter for what is now The Mainichi Shimbun (newspaper) and his book is based on the 64 installments he wrote for his paper.

In earlier years there were four famous Go Schools, or families. The preeminent school was the Honinbo family and the name has been carried forward and is today still one of the major titles in the Japanese Go World. The top player and leader of the Honinbo family had a name such as Honinbo Shuei. This title, or name, was basically held for life. At an appropriate time in his life the ruling Honinbo would select one of his disciples as his successor. This disciple would be adopted into Honinbo family and at his succession would take a name such as Honinbo Dosaku.

Needless to say there was great competition within in the family to be selected as the Honinbo's successor. This competition lead to the development and advancement of Go skills and is still evident today even though the system has changed.

It was usual, when he felt his skills were waning, for the Honinbo to retire. This event was marked by the playing of a retirement game, his last official game. "The Master of Go" tells of such a retirement game, the game between Honinbo Shusai and Minoru Kitani. Fictional names are used in the book.

As noted above the game was played in 1938. In that time frame the old Go family system was disappearing and various Go Associations, such as The Nihon Kiin (Japanese Go Association) and the Kansai Kiin, had come into being. Shusai gave the Honinbo title to Nihon Kiin and a new system of title play commenced. This democratization of the system started with the first Honinbo title match in 1941 and which is now held on an annual basis.

Now, as the man says, for the rest of the story.

The author, Yasunari Kawabata, was in New York during the early 1960's. I met him and played some Go with him. He was a very strong player and at least one of his games with a top ranked professional player is included in Jan van der Steen's database.

Honinbo Shusai passed away before I became interested in the game of Go. However, I met his opponent, Minoru Kitani who became one of the top players in Japan and I was privileged to have several teaching games with Kitani Sensei At one period, while working in Tokyo, I visited his home each Saturday afternoon to play with his students and other guests. During this period I had the opportunity to meet and play with many of his young students. Today those players are the among the top players in the world although they are gradually being replaced by a younger generation.


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Robert A. McCallister

The author Robert A. McCallister can be reached at:

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