Check it Out! SHOGI, AND THE BEAUTY OF JAPANESE CULTURE

  • 2021/5/5
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Check it Out!

SHOGI, AND THE BEAUTY OF JAPANESE CULTURE

What is Shogi?

Shogi, or Japanese chess, is speculated to have originated f rom chaturanga, an ancient Indian board game. Shogi is believed to have spread from India to Japan through Southeast Asia (rather than directly from China) due to its resemblance to makruk (also known as Thai chess), and its number of differences with xiangqi (Chinese chess). The earliest examples of shogi pieces were found in the grounds of Kōfuku-ji in Nara Prefecture – these sixteen pieces were thought to be from c. 1058. Despite all of this, the origin of shogi still largely remains a mystery.

Watch professional craftsmen make shogi pieces by hand. You can try writing the words on the pieces yourself, too!

The famous 水車そば(suisha soba – waterwheel soba noodles), served on a shogi piece-shaped plate.

Tendō, Shogi Wonderland

Tendō, located in Yamagata Prefecture, is a city famous for its beautiful, hand-made shogi pieces. Most of the shogi pieces used by players across the country come from this one city.

Tendō can be easily accessed from Yamagata Station via JR East’s Ōu Main Line (奥羽本線, Ōu-honsen) line. It takes only about 25 minutes and a ticket costs 240 yen. It’s a must-go destination for fans of shogi, as well as those interested in learning more about shogi culture.

In Tendō, you can literally LIVE AND EAT SHOGI!

Enjoy shogi-themed cookies and sweets!

Tendō is also famed for its hot springs. How about enjoying a footbath (in a shogi piece-shaped hot spring, of course) to warm yourself up before you leave?

Have fun finding shogi pieces everywhere in the city!

Lovely scenery, isn’t it? Make sure to check out the bridge with the shogi pieces on it.

The Human Shogi Festival

The Human Shogi (Ningen Shogi) Festival is a famous event held at the top of Mt. Maizuru in Tendō during April every year. Watching the professionals command “human pieces” to move on a giant chessboard, while you enjoy food bought from the many stalls under the beautiful cherry blossom trees sounds like a one-of-a- kind experience, doesn’t it?

Of course, don’t forget to take photos of the shogi piece-themed landmarks, as well as the adorable mascot!

The “Humane” Element of Shogi

There are two interesting facts about shogi that are vital to understanding its charm. Firstly, shogi has a special rule called “dropping” (再使用, literally “reuse”, in Japanese), which allows players to “drop” a piece that was captured from an opponent by placing it anywhere on the board. This piece then becomes one of the players’ active pieces. This allows players to perform surprise attacks, just like on a real battlefield. Famed professional shogi player Kozo Masuda once said that this quirk of shogi is an extension of the idea that “prisoners of war” (captured shogi pieces, in this case) are treated as equals. Captured pieces have their “abilities” respected, instead of being permanently removed from the game. This is the “humane” element of the game.

Shogi as a Cooperative Game

Next, while shogi is a battle of wits, it also puts great emphasis on the ideas of 和 (wa- harmony) and 美 (bi- beauty). Proper etiquette is expected from all players – bowing to one another and saying “よろしくお願いします” (yoroshiku onegaishimasu, roughly meaning “I will be in your care) is a greeting before every game, and thanking your opponent marks the end of a game, before you get up from your seats. As my sensei (teacher) always told me, shogi is not a game you can play alone. To create a harmonious environment, you must be polite to your opponent for taking the time to play with you.

Also, a game of shogi only ends when the losing player concedes and admits defeat. This is done by saying “負けました” (“I have lost”). Gracefully admitting defeat is proper shogi etiquette and is key to achieving the “和” and “美” stated above.

After a match, it is compulsory for the victor to spend some time helping the loser improve their skills, such as by giving pointers and tips, and through post-game reviews where they go over the moves that were made. This is where the cooperative nature of shogi shines through.

Let's Play Shogi!

① Set up the game board with the pieces placed as shown in the photo in the first page. Players take turns moving their pieces to attempt to checkmate their opponent’s king.

② All pieces, except the king and gold general, can be promoted by flipping them over when they enter the opponent’s territory (the furthest three rows). Pieces that were dropped in on an opponent’s territory cannot be promoted immediately but can be promoted after they are moved.

③ Drops: You can place one of the pieces you captured from your opponent on a space on the board as one move. Promoted pieces that were captured can only be dropped in as unpromoted pieces.

④ 二歩 (nifu, “two pawns”): Only one pawn is allowed in a vertical column. Pawns may not be dropped on a column that already has another pawn, although promoted pawns do not count.

⑤ 打ち歩詰め (uchifuzume, “drop pawn mate”): A pawn cannot be dropped on a square that would result in an instant checkmate.

Fun fact: The two King pieces in shogi are differentiated by their slightly different kanji (Chinese characters): 王将 (“king general”) or 玉将 (“jeweled general”). Shogi etiquette dictates that the player with the greater age or the higher shogi player rank is “higher classed” – these players will be the ones who use the 王将 piece, as a show of respect.

WRITERS PROFILE

GAN WEN SHUOH

27 years old. Bachelor’s Degree holder in Japanese Language and Linguistics program. Currently pursuing Master’s Degree in Cultural Anthropology, Doing research on Japanese chess culture at Tohoku University, Japan. Loves Japanese chess and Japanese culture.

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