Book Reviews:
The Master of Go

From the way of Go, the beauty of Japan and the Orient had fled. Everything had become science and regulation.


I would like to recommend this book I have just finished reading: Originally published in Japan under the title Meijin, this book written by Yasunari Kawabata has been translated Edward G. Seidensticker and published in the west. Kawabata, who also wrote books such as Snow Country, Thousand Cranes and The Sound of the Mountains, received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968.

This book is a fictional work, but is nonetheless closely based on a real event and real people. It tells the story of a very famous game of Go between Honinbo Shusai and Minoru Kitani that started on 26 June 1938 and ended on 4 December 1938, after fourteen sessions in various scenic locations. Kawabata was a reporter for the newspaper which is now known as Mainichi Shimbun, and later rewrote the 64 installments into this book.


In the Japanese Go history, professional Go was represented by four famous Go schools, or families, the most famous of which was the Honinbo school. The head of the school carried the title of Honinbo (this title is now a tournament title of the Nihon Kiin), and was also known by this title. When the Honinbo felt his powers weakening, he usually selected one of his students as his successor, who would then be adopted and eventually take the Honinbo title as his name.

So when the Honinbo felt his play weakening, he would retire, by playing a retirement game, the last official game. This book recounts the retirement game of Honinbo Shusai against the up-and-coming Minoru Kitani, but uses fictional names. However, this game was special in another way as well, as it marked the last retirement game of the Honinbo school. The School system was long being replaced by the Go Associations, and so Shusai passed the title not to a successor, but to the Nihon Kiin to be used as an annual tournament title from then on.

Kitani on the other hand was one of the new stars of modern Go, who revolutionized play together with Go Seigen with the invention of Shin Fuseki (New Opening Strategy). To earn to honor of playing against Honinbo Shusai in his retirement game, Kitani had to win a tournament first, which resembled the title tournaments known today. Kitani was a big influence on the world of Go, and his students are still amongst the leading players of Japan.


The book, reduced to its bare bones, is a report of the above game, with all the moves given and only minimal commentary. However Kawabata manages to put flesh on these bones, puts everything into a breathtaking dramatic context of symbolizing a changing of the guard, a passage of the old ways of tradition to the new ways of moderization in the Japan of that time. Many themes of japanese culture and human life are subtly depicted. The game of Go is an equation of life: The sick old man versus the young man. Life versus death. Tradition versus The New. The introductory quote above reflects Kawabata's feelings: Players worried about points, not elegance or dignity. And so Kitani, who is named Otake in the book, represents the New, the ambitious, the unrefined, whereas the old master represents all that was vanishing, the style and dignity that was perceived as being lost.

Kawabata manages to make the book a fascinating read for players and non-players as well. Even if you have never played a game of Go and know little to nothing about the rules, you can enjoy this book as it is written in a way that makes every page fascinating and enjoyable. I fully recommend it to everyone. As for who wins?

Find out yourself...

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