19th century go players
Go is the most popular board game is Japan, Korea and much of China. It is a simple but very complex game of strategy. It is played on a 19-by-19 grid board with black and white circular-stone pieces arranged into intricate patterns.

The rules of go are very simple: One players with white stones and an other with black stones take turns placing their stones on the 361 intersections of the board with a grid of 19 lines. The idea of the game is to capture the stones of an opposing players by occupying all the spaces around his or her stones. This is done by creating complex fence-like structures and enclosing as much territory as possible.

The object to not necessarily to capture the stones of the opposing player but to capture the most territory as represented by points (the intersections on the board). Those that like the game regard its as beautiful, complex and elegant.

Ben Macintyre wrote in the Times of London, “It has been said there are more distinct games of go than atoms in the universe...In go, a move early in the game can affect the passage of play hundreds of moves later. The very vastness of the possibilities offers wide scope individuality, strategy, personality and intuitive spatial awareness.”

Good Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article on Games in Japan Wikipedia ; Hyakunin Isshu 100 Poems Game ; 100 Poems / ; Go Go, an Addictive Game ; Japan Go Foundation ; American Go Association ; Shogi Shogi Rules ; Shogi.Net ; Computer Shogi Association ; Shogi Rules ; Kid’s Games Kids Web Japan on Children’s Games ; Tag in Japan ;Wikipedia article on Children’s Games in Japan Wikipedia


Origins of Go

17th century go players
Some regard go as the world’s oldest game. The origins of the game are shrouded in mystery. According one legend go was invented by the legendary Chinese Emperor Yao (2255-2205 B.C.) to improve the mind of his feeble-minded son and teach him balance and patience. In another story it was invented by court astrologers in the Zhou dynasty (1045-244 B.C.). The earliest evidence of the game is a board discovered in a Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 9) tomb.

Go evolved in China before writing. Most scholars believe that it was invented 3,000 to 4,000 years ago by shaman-astrologers as a method of divination. Some of the game's terminology has astrological roots. The center of the board, for example, is called the “tengen” ("center of heaven") and the points around the perimeter are called “hoshi” (stars). In addition, the four quarters of the go boards correlate with the basic trigrams of the "I Ching" system.

In 8th century China, go was one of "The Four Accomplishments" along with calligraphy, painting and lute playing that a gentleman was expected to learn. In 1050 a book called “The Classic of Go” was published in China. The game probably reached Japan in the 5th century. By the 8th century it was popular among Japanese Buddhist monks and nuns. It later became a court game then a popular game among the samurai class and a mandatory game played by soldiers at military academies.

Modern Go in Japan

Professional go players earn a great deal of money from tournament prize money, TV appearances, teaching and royalties from books and videos.

“Hikaru No Gi” is a comic series about a teenager who loves to play go. It first appeared in the popular weekly manga magazine Shonen Jump in December 1998 and has helped popularize the game among young people. The story is about boy who is possessed by a ghost that gives him extraordinary go-playing abilities.

Unlike chess, it is nearly impossible to create a Deep-Blue-like computer program that can defeat a halfway descent go player, basically because there are so many different moves a go player can make (about 200 compared to only 35 for a chess player). Despite decades or research, the expenditure of millions and offers of prize money as a reward the best go software is only as good a first-grade players in the amateur category. A good teenage player can beat the supercomputer go program.

Ben Macintyre wrote in the Times of London, “The very qualities that mark out the master go player are precisely those a computer lacks: intuition, planning, character and pattern reading. Go is not merely a matter of probabilities leading to certainties, at its best, the game reflects the defining characteristics of human intelligence.” The quest to come up with go software continues because if a computer can “learn” the game that advance is regarded as big step in unlocking the secret of artificial intelligence.

A Taiwanese organization has offered $1 million for the first computer program to defeat a junior Go champion. Among those that have played go are Albert Einstein, Rod Stewart, Mao Zedong and Nobe-Prize-winning economist played by Russell Crowe in “The Beautiful Mind”. In Japan, Go is becoming increasingly popular with women. Some salons in Tokyo have special women’s go nights in which women sip sip champagne and wine while they play the game.

In February 2010, an 11-year-old girl named Runa Fujisawa made her debut as a professional go player, the youngest person to do so. To reach that level the fifth grader had to pass a special qualifying exam. She began playing Go at age six and expressed an interest in becoming a professional shortly after entering primary school. Every day after school she attended go class with her mother and trained until 9:00pm. Her father is an eight dan go player and her grandfather was an honorary kesei, one of he highest ranks in go.


Shogi is a chess-like board game invented in the 8th century and played mostly in Japan. Some scholars believethat chess actually evolved from shogi. In the game two players with 20 pieces each compete on a 9-x-9-square board and try to checkmate their opponent's king. Unlike chess, pieces taken from an opponent can reused by the player who took them as his own.

There about 50 possibilities for each move in chess, considerable more complicated than in chess. Chess lends itself better to careful mathematical analysis while shogi is more unpredictable and intuitive. Experienced players anticipate future moves by narrowing down a range of potential moves to several alternatives, by assessing the overall situation or by making intuitive decisions. Brain wave studies of shogi champions have shown they use the creative right side of their brains more than the analytical left sides.

Shogi is reportedly being enjoyed by more and more kids and is used in education to teach courtesy, concentration and courage. National High-school shogi champion Kaito Takahashi told the Yomiuri Shimbun, "The beauty of shogi is you can climb higher, little by little, with continual effort, even if you don't have much talent."

“Hachiwan Diver” is about a former professional “shogi” (Japanese chess) player who leaves his profession to enter the in the world of shinkenshi, where people play shogi for big money. Created by Yokusaru Shibatam, a strong amateur shogi player, it was popular enough to be made into a television series.

Shogi Tournaments in Japan

Japan is the only country with professional shogi players. There are currently about 150 of them, with the top ones earning as much as $1 million a year. It was big news in 1995, when Yoshiharu Habu won all seven of Japan's major shogi tournaments at the age of 25.

All players who are serious about game have rank, like judo. Players begin at the 10th-kyu level. After surpassing the kyu level they begin at the first dan. The highest ranking is the 10th dan. These days many of the best players are in their 20s, not their 40s as was the case in the past.

Major tournaments are televised live on television and many newspapers have daily shogi contests. The first major global shogi tournament was played in Tokyo in 2000. It drew 32 amateur players from 25 countries.

The popularity of shogi has grown very fast abroad, partly as the result the game being played and disseminated via the Internet.

Legendary Shogi Master Kunio Yonenaga

Kunio Yonenaga was a celebrated professional shogi player known for the innovation he brought to the game. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Before Yonenaga, professional players had a laissez faire attitude to winning games that were not seen as important to their careers. Yonenaga's approach of doing his best in all matches eventually became the norm in the shogi world.

Yonenaga, who hailed from Yamanashi Prefecture, was known for his cheerfulness and the humor he brought to the game. He turned professional in 1963 after a period as an apprentice with the late master Yuji Sase. Since winning his first kisei title in 1973, he took part in a number of games that are now part of shogi folklore, such as those with the legendary Yasuharu Oyama and Makoto Nakahara. In 1985, he was awarded a permanent kisei, after retaining the title for five terms, and became the third person ever to win four titles--judan, kisei, osho and kio.

In 1993, one month shy of his 50th birthday, he became the oldest player ever to win the prestigious meijin title. Yonenaga ranks fifth in titled terms. In 2005, he was made chairman of the Japan Shogi Association. He was again in the spotlight in January when he lost an official match to a computer.Yonenaga was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008 and died in December 2012.

Computer Shogi

As is the case with go computer programmers have yet to devise a program that can beat good shogi players. This is because there are less people working on shogi programs than chess programs and because shogi pieces can be reused creating many more possible moves and strategies. Experts believe it is only a matter of time when super-fast computers will be fast enough to deal with all the possibilities and beat shogi masters.

Shogi software is becoming more advanced and more and more top players are losing to computers. The software was first developed in the 1970s and was given a big boost when Deep Blue, the IBM-produced chess-playing supercomputer defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov.

Shogi software is good at the beginning and end of a game. In the beginning it searches game-record database of tens of thousands of professional games to play strategies for the first stage of the game. It considers 100,000 possible moves per second in the final stages of the game. The software has trouble in the middle stages of the game when offensive and defensives strategies are not clear.

In October 2010, a computer — programed with Akara 2010 software designed by the University of Tokyo — defeated a professional shogi player. The player held a second- or third-dan rank. Akara was developed using some of the same computer tricks used in the software that defeated the world’s best chess player in 1997 and is capable of foreseeing 60 million possible moves per second.

Bobby Fischer in Japan

In July 2004, former world chess champion Bobby Fischer was arrested and held at a detention center in Japan on trying to traveling with an invalid U.S. passport as he tried to fly from Tokyo to Manila. He was thrown in prison. The Japanese government initially wanted to deport him to the United States, where he was wanted for violating international sanctions against the former Yugoslavia in connection with a chess match he played there against Spassky in 1992 to earn $3 million.

At various times, Fischer said he was gong to renounced his American citizenship and claimed he was really a German citizen (his mother was a German Jew) and marry the head of the Japan Chess Association, Miyoko Watai, but he wasnn’t t allowed to marry her because his passport was not valid. At one point, Watai said, “I could be a sacrificial pawn. But in chess there is such a thing as a pawn promotion, where a pawn can become a queen. Bobby-san is my king, and I will become his queen. We want to win the game by joining hands.”

Fischer tried to avoid deportation by claiming he was a political refugee. The situation was finally resolved when the Icelandic government agreed to grant Fischer a residency permit. After eight months in prison, Fischer was freed and allowed to fly from Japan to Iceland.

Fischer had lived outside the United States since 1992 and divided his time between Japan and the Philippines and earned some notoriety for making anti-American and anti-Semitic remarks. After the September 11th attacks he told a Manila radio station that was “wonderful news...I want to see the U.S. wiped out.” It is not clear why and how he had been able to travel for more than decade after he violated the international sanctions.

Mazes in Japan

At one point Japan had approximately 100 commercial mazes, more than any country. Most Japanese mazes were made with 6½-foot wooden walls not hedges. They generally have about 2,000 yards of pathways and maze runners have to find four checkpoint, and get their cards stamped, before emerging from the end. The route of the maze can easily be changed by moving the walls and many maze owners change the walls once a week or so to lure back repeat customers.

Japanese mazes are much more difficult than their counterparts elsewhere in the world. It typically takes about 50 minutes to get out, but some people get lost for hours. A common joke describes a honeymooning couple that enters a maze and came out with two children.

One Japanese woman told Smithsonian magazine that mazes are so popular in Japan because, "Most of the time, people in our society are deprived of the chance to make our own decisions...In a maze you can make your own decision and go for it."

Signs at the beginning of Shiga Ritto, one of Japan's largest mazes, reads: "Before you start, don't forget to go to the bathroom," "Please don't climb over the walls," and "Anybody who wants to be saved, please wave one of the red flags and we will lead you out."

Traditional Japanese Games

poetry cards
Battledore and shuttlecocks is a New Year's game traditionally played by girls in kimonos. It is a netless badminton-like game in which players hit a shuttlecock with battledores (racket-like bats). It was first played to keep sickness and evil spirits from children. Another New Year's game played son some parts of the country involves throwing a fan to knock down a card.

Yet another game associated with New Year’s, often televised the day after New Year Day, features players who are given a line from a haiku poem and have to quickly slap a card with the correct poem on it.

Goldfish scooping is a popular summer game. Competitors try to scoop up as many goldfish as possible with a special small nets in a certain time, usually three minutes. The sport is particularly popular in goldfish breeding areas around Osaka. One year the winner was a 52-year-old man who scooped up 160 fish in three minutes. He won a trip to Hawaii. Another year there was big scandal when it was discovered that the winner of a big competition cheated by using a net with an illegal mesh.


“Kemari” is a traditional form of kickball played by a circle of players that resembles kicking around a soccer ball or hackey sack in a circle. Performed at a famous Shinto shrine in Kyoto after New Year by men in colorful, dress-like, traditional costumes, it is a simple game: the object is to kick a ball as many times as possible without letting it hit the ground. The 130-gram ball is made of deerskin patched together with horse hide “tape” and covered with a mixture of egg white, glue and white powder.

Kemari (also known “shukiku”) is usually played in a 15-square meter area with four species of forked trees in the corners. Each of the trees — a pine, cherry, willow and maple — is considered a dwelling place of gods. Players shout out the names of the gods who visited Fujiwara no Nariminchi, the Saint of Kemari, There are a number of religious rituals that accompany the sport such as placing the ball in the forks of the trees and saying prayers with it at an altar.

The players are supposed to have an erect posture and keep their arms glued to their side like Riverdancers and the kick the ball with the instep of the foot. The color of the costumes worn by the players indicates their skill level. One player told the Daily Yomiuri, “An ideal flick of the ball contains a moderate spin, makes a clear sound like a tsuzumi spin and should not be too low or too high.” Kemari is often played as an exhibition. In 1992, U.S. President George Bush joined in a game and enjoyed it so much he kept Air Force 1 waiting as he kept trying it again and again.

Kemari is thought to have been imported to Japan from China between the fifth and seventh centuries. The historical chronicle the “Nihon Shoki” has a small description if it being played at Hokoji Temple in a village in Nara in A.D. 644. A competitive version of the game — in which two six-member teams kick the ball over a rope without letting it hit the ground on a volley-ball size court — has been resurrected in the Asuka area of Nara. As was true in ancient times contemporary players use a leather ball stuffed with deer fur that produces a dull whack when kicked hard and wear Nara-era clothes. In the Heian Period (794-1192) the game was compulsory for court nobles. In the Kamakura period (1192-133) it was popularized by samurai.

Japanese Children's Games

Cats cradle is popular in Japan. It is called “ayatori” and is especially popular with grade schoolers. In 2005, a Japanese astronaut made a string ladder on the Space Shuttle.

Kendema, also known as cup-and-ball, is a popular children’s game. It consists of ball on a string connected to a stick and three cups. The idea is to throw the ball up and catch it in one of the cups or the end of the stick, with the large cup being the easiest and the end of the stick being the hardest, There is a Japan Kendama Association, which promotes the game in primary school as a tool to teach hand and eye coordination, and a dan ranking system based on skill.

Other Kids games include dodgeball, kick baseball (kickball), “menko”, a game in which opponents try to hit and flip square pieces of paper called menk, and thief and detective, Japanese version of hide and seek. See Playground Games Below

Rock, Scissors, Paper in Japan

Rock, scissors, paper — known and jun-ken-pon in Japan — is very popular in Japan. Dating back at least to ancient Egypt, it is used by kids to determine who is "it" or who gets something and is also played as a game in its own right with some variations.

It is also used by adults. In April 2005, according to the Wall Street Journal, Japanese businessman Takashi Hashiyma couldn’t decide whether to use Sotheby’s or Christie’s to sell his company’s art collection and asked the auction houses to decide the matter by playing rock-paper-scissors. Christie’s chose scissors and won and earned an eventual $2.3 million in commissions, The Christie’s executive that made the winning choice took the advise of his twin 11-year-old daughters who told him, “Everybody knows you always start with scissors.”

Kate Elwood wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: According to Sepp Linhart, a researcher of Japanese culture, janken emerged around the 1840s as a variant of other, more complex, "ken" hand games which were played by adults and date back 300 years or more. From the second half of the 18th century, sansukumi-ken, which is the type of game janken belongs to, appeared. In sansukumi-ken, A defeats B, B defeats C, and C defeats A. In an old children's version called mushi-ken, a frog outdoes a slug, which conquers a snake, which beats a frog. In a once-widespread two-handed adult sansukumi-ken called kitsune-ken, a fox trounces a village head who trounces a hunter who trounces a fox. [Source: Kate Elwood, Daily Yomiuri, December 17, 2012]

Janken may have appeared relatively late, but it is the version that has stuck and embedded itself deeply into the fabric of Japanese daily life as a resolution tool. Child development researchers Tokie Anme and Uma Segal made a study of all authorized day care centers in Japan, obtaining more than 22,000 responses. Their study reveals that 10 percent of children can make decisions using rock, paper, scissors at 38 months; 50 percent can do it as 46 months, and 90 percent can do it at 57 months. Before the age of 5, janken is in full swing, as it were.

Janken may be fun, but it is also a playground necessity. Educational anthropologists Yi Che, Akiko Hayashi and Joseph Tobin point to the Japanese cultural inclination to let children resolve their own disputes without aid from the grownup in charge. At times, arrangements for discord may even be purposely augmented: The researchers note a principal at a preschool who deliberately did not put out enough toys for the children in order to get them to learn to cooperate. What's a tot to do? In a video taken by the researchers, girls fight over a shovel and eventually settle the problem through janken.

Begun early and practiced intensively, janken plays a crucial role in Japanese children's lives. Perhaps as a result of this, while the less essential "eenie, meenie, miney moe" and "one potato, two potato" are left by the wayside as children mature, janken persists as the method of choice for a quick settlement. Linhart suggests egalitarianism may be at the heart of janken. As a younger sister often outsmarted by the super-smooth arguments put forward in negotiations with my older brother, the allure of a swift and--ahem--even-handed method is plain.

In the United States there are rock, paper, scissors competitions in Las Vegas with the winner taking home a $50,000 prize in a single elimination competition in which contestants stand across a table and go when a referee tells them to. The winner of two of three throw wins a set and the winner of three sets advances to the next round. Organizers of the event have ambition of making it an Olympics sport one day.

Playground Games in Japan

“Daruma” is similar the game Red Light in the United States. Players line up about 30 feet from a wall and try to reach the wall. The player who is it faces the wall and says "Daruma falls down" and turns around. If he sees someone moving that person is captured and has to come to wall. The process is repeated. If one player touches the captured player the captured play is free. The game ends when all the players are captured and the first captured is it the next round.

The Japanese version of kick-the-can is called “Kankai.” Kids are divided into kickers and runners. One runner kicks the can out of the circle. After a tagger places the can back in the circle the tagger tries to catch the runners. If a runner is tagged he stand in the circle. If a runner can kick the can without being touched, he releases all the runners.

Dodge ball is very popular among children, The regional and national tournaments in the sport for primary school students. The player on one champion team from Kagoshima told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “I feel so good when I hit someone with the ball.”

Some attention was focused on the safety of playgrounds in the early 2000s after some children died playing a group swing. Afterwards a study showed that 75 percent of playgrounds have defects that could potentially cause accidents.

Card Games, Puzzles and Board Games in Japan

Japanese cards
Card games for kids in Japan include Babanookie, a game in which players pick cards form their opponents hand and try not to get stuck with the Joker at the end of the game. Difugo and “shinkaswe jakuu” are two other popular games. The latter is a memory that starts with all the cards face down and players turn over a pair of cards and keep them if they are the same.

The Japanese version of the board game Life is popular in Japan. More than 10 million boxes of the game been sold. In 2001 a version with Internet dating and online gambling was introduced. In 2005, a version called the Game of Life M&A (Merges and Acquisitions) was released that was intended to tap to the fascination of hostile takeover by a television station by an upstart Internet billionaire.

In November 2005, Yuki Hayashi a 19-year-old part-time worker from Tokyo, broke his own record solving the 4-x-4 Rubik’s cube in 54.13 second at a competition at Disney World in Orlando, Florida. He shaved more than six seconds off his previous record and defeated 145 contestants from 18 countries.

A 16-year-old Japanese boy — Yu Nakajima — won the Rubik’s Cube World championship in October 2007, correctly configuring the cube in an average of 12.46,, Nakajima won a 5,000 euro prize. He said he practiced five hours a day to prepare for the event. A 15-year-old Japanese boy placed third. The championship was held in Budapest, Hungary with 2450 competitors from 33 countries.

The winner of World Puzzle Championship 2010 — in which participants do sudoku and other kinds of puzzles — was Taro Arimatsu, a robot researcher and University of Tokyo graduate. It was Aritamtsu’s f ifth time taking part on the event, which was held in Paprotnia, Poland in 2010 and featured 105 puzzle freaks from 27 countries. In the finals of the competition Arimatsu solved seven puzzles in 38 minutes, defeating three other finalists. Part of his training, Arimatsu said, was eating his food as quickly as possible during his lunch break so he could do puzzles in the 500 puzzle magazines he has access to.

Image Sources: 1) Visualizing Culture, MIT Education 2) National Museum in Tokyo 3) Liza Dalby 4) Ray Kinnane 5) 8) JNTO 6) 7) 10) Goods from Japan 9) Andrew Gray Photosensibility

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2013

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