This book is a fictionalised account of a real match, between Master Honimbō Shūsai and his opponent Kitani Minoru, (renamed in the book, Otaké). This was to be the masters retirement match (started on 26 June 1938 and ended on 4 December 1938), and he died just over a year after it finished. Kawabata reported on the original match for the Mainichi newspaper chain, and sections of this book are reworked versions of his original newspaper columns. The Japanese word used to describe this type of book is shōsetsu, which can be translated as "chronicle-novel".
Before I go any further, a bit about the game. Go may well be the oldest board game in the world. It’s played on a grid-marked board with smooth disks of black (stone) and white (shell), the rules of the game have remained unchanged for millennia. It was introduced into Japan via China in the 8th century, initially played by courtiers, it was taken up by educated men, Buddhist monks, and Samurai. In the 17th century, Japan’s feudal Government recognized four family – based schools of Go, these schools engaged in fierce rivalry, with the result of continuous improvement in play and the introduction of a ranking system, classifying players into a nine grade system culminating with the highest “Meijin” meaning expert or master. To play Go, two opponents start with an empty board and take turns placing their pieces on the intersection of the grid.
Once set out, stones are not moved unless they are surrounded. Go is territorial. Players aim to stake out areas, either by enclosing blank space or capturing the opponents stones. At the end of the game, when all stones have been played, points are awarded for each vacant intersection in ones own territory plus captured pieces. Go, like chess, is a war game and although in principle quite simple, its strategic and tactical possibilities are endless.
The book starts, “Shūsai, Master of Go, twenty-first in the Honimbō succession, died in Atami, at the Urokoya Inn on the morning of 18 January 1940. He was sixty-seven years old by the “Oriental count ”. This was about thirteen months after his retirement match, which he lost to Otake by five points. After the match tea was served, pieces were put away and the master left, offering no comment on the game. All this is revealed within the first few pages of the book and we still have at least (not including footnotes) another two hundred odd pages to go. So, unless you’re a follower of Go, what reason do you have to carry on with the book, or to put it more succinctly- why the £>$~* did I continue with this book. The Master of Go, is more than a “faithful chronicle Novel”*, It’s a fascinating character study of two highly different individuals, representing opposing cultures, although both are Japanese. The master represents the traditional Japan, with its ideal of the beauty of the game, with honour, and with it played as an almost deified art-form, where as Otake is very cerebral, pragmatic, representing a more scientific method, thus beneath the game’s decorum, tensions build, consuming the players, their families, friends and all those involved. On top of that you have the age old power struggle between the older player whose powers are fading, and his younger challenger aiming to replace him in the pecking order, aiming for role of dominant male.
As a final remark on this, the translator Edward Seidensticker considers it a symbolic parallel to the defeat of Japan in World War II, an event which affected Kawabata deeply. Kawabata began work on the book during the war, but did not complete it until well after the end of it.
The Master of Go is a novel by the Nobel Prize-winning Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata, first published in serial form in 1951. Titled Meijin (名人) in its original Japanese, Kawabata considered it his finest work, and although it’s based solely in and around the confines of the match, no knowledge of the game beyond that mentioned in the book is necessary to appreciate this story (thankfully), but if you feel a need to learn more, if you click on the Go- board above it will take you to a site that can provide such information.
*Yasunari Kawabata’s term for this book