Japanese people often ask me, “Why did you come to Japan?” For me, this question has proven difficult to answer with complete honesty, because the reasons are complicated and require explanation. My Japanese isn’t nuanced enough to do these reasons justice, so instead, I reinterpret the question in a way that makes it easier to answer: “Why were you interested in Japan?”
For some of the people who come here, these questions really are interchangeable, but I think they constitute a minority. Most people don’t move halfway around the world based on interests alone. There are a host of circumstances that contribute to a decision of that magnitude. An interest is just the beginning.
And yet, most of the time, the answer I give is probably more satisfactory than the one I withhold. Prattling on about the drudgery of retail sales, the wanderer’s itch, and the desire to be challenged by life is a sure way to find yourself standing alone by the punchbowl. Most new acquaintances don’t want to know your outlook on life–they’re just curious if you like the same stuff that they like.
So I tell them I’m fascinated by Japanese literature. I can say this with a clear conscience because it is absolutely true. As a bonus, it doesn’t take much Japanese to name-drop a handful of famous authors and convey that you are a man of taste and letters, even though you spend most of your free time puzzling over which backup running backs are likely to steal carries at the end of the regular season.
When I applied to the JET Program, I cited my college coursework in Japanese Lit as fundamental to my interest in Japan. I wanted, I said, to see for myself the land I had only read about.
But since arriving, the only Japanese author I’d endeavored to read in country was Haruki Murakami. Some months ago, I wrote at length about my slog through 1Q84, his most recent and most epic novel. One of the interesting things about Murakami, not just in 1Q84 but in general, is that his books are so unique that they begin to shed the impression of being Japanese. Yes, 1Q84 takes place in Japan, and there is certainly an undercurrent of Japanese sensibility that remains in Murakami’s writing. But the scenes, characters, and tropes of his books kaleidoscope reality in such a way that it is hard to recognize them as belonging to anything other than the author himself.
While I drew many conclusions about Murakami from my reading of 1Q84, it didn’t impress upon me any meaningful revelations about Japan. In this way, it didn’t seem to matter that I was reading Murakami in Japan. In fact, his work is so urban that it might have felt more at home in any city than it did in the Japanese countryside. When I finally got around to reading another Japanese author, the result could not have been more different.
Although Murakami holds the mantle of Japan’s most popular author (living or dead), Yasunari Kawabata is properly regarded by many as the father of modern Japanese literature. If Soseki Natsume is Japan’s Mark Twain–in stature, not style–then Kawabata may be Ernest Hemingway. (As contemporaries, both men won the Nobel Prize for Literature–Kawabata was the first Japanese to win it–and both men took their own lives.)
I had previously read one of Kawabata’s works, The Sound of the Mountain (Yama no Oto in Japanese). Kawabata’s style has been described by translators as reminiscent of haiku, and with the writers of that quintessential Japanese form, he shares a talent for spare, evocative language. In college, when I read The Sound of the Mountain for the first time, I found myself frustrated by how many important details were left unwritten for the reader to infer. Last year, when I reread it, I began to understand that what goes unsaid often speaks the loudest.
Like The Sound of the Mountain, my second foray into Kawabata was a novel as well, though some might not think of it that way. In his introduction to The Master of Go (Meijin), translator Edward G. Seidensticker writes,
The word used, of course, is not novel but shosetsu, a rather more flexible and generous and catholic term than ‘novel.’ Frequently what would seem to the Western reader a piece of autobiography or a set of memoirs, somewhat embroidered but essentially nonfiction all the same, is placed by the Japanese reader in the realm of shosetsu.” (Kawabata v.)
In fact, Seidensticker continues, The Master of Go is by all accounts a rather faithful retelling of a real event which occurred in Japan in 1938. A few names and other details are changed, and some artistic liberties are taken, but the story itself is drawn delicately from real life.
The subject of the novel is a championship match of Go, a traditional Japanese board game. Though the rules of Go are relatively simple, the strategy involved in high-level play is incredibly nuanced and extremely complex, with a number of possible permutations many magnitudes greater than chess. Played on a 19×19 grid, the object of Go is control more territory on the board than your opponent at the end of play.
While Kawabata meditates on aspects of game-play throughout the book, The Master of Go is not a strategy guide. It is the story of the two combatants: one, the Master (Meijin), the other, the challenger. Although an avid player of Go may derive added satisfaction from it, Kawabata’s novel does not require any special knowledge of the game. It is only a book about Go in as much as Friday Night Lights is a TV show about football: the game is a narrative backdrop for the human drama that unfolds.
The characters are intriguing and well-rendered, but for me, the most fascinating thing about this story is what it tells us about the values of prewar Japan.
Per one of my Go-playing students, current professional matches typically allot 2 hours of time to each player, though major championships may exceed this. (The Ing Cup, held every 4 years, is the world’s most lucrative Go tournament, with a winner’s purse of nearly $500,000. Finalists have a time allotment of 3.5 hours.)
Given that championship matches may be played in a best-of-three or best-of-five format, it is fair to conclude that games of Go are rather lengthy affairs. But they are nothing like they once were. In the match described by Kawabata, each player was allotted fully 40 hours in which to play. Four-zero. Hours. Per person. To play one game.
Now, Kawabata goes out of his way to say that this was an outrageous figure even at the time, when championship combatants were typically limited to a mere 10 hours apiece. But it gets even stranger than that.
As one might expect, the game was broken up into sessions of play, but after each period of play, the combatants were given four days to recover before play was resumed. The game was considered so mentally taxing that playing more than twice a week was deemed out of the question. But even though the combatants spent only a handful of hours each week at the Go board, they were not allowed to leave the ryokan (hot-spring resort) where the game was being played. Although leniency was sometimes granted, this restriction–known as “canning”–was considered essential to the integrity of the competition.
Even under the best circumstances, then, this game would have taken weeks to complete, with both players boarded up inside a hotel. But because one of the combatants–Honinbo Shusai, the Master–was old and sickly, the game had to be suspended repeatedly so that he could be hospitalized. The game continued, however, largely because its sponsor–Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s preeminent newspaper–desperately wanted it to come full-term.
The newspaper had sponsored the match so that it could publish columns on its progress, and demanded that it continue because the serial had proved hugely popular. It was Kawabata himself who had been hired to cover the match, which took over 6 months to complete and was published in its entirety across some 60-plus columns.
Reading this book in 2012, it is difficult to imagine that such a thing actually happened. A newspaper–a newspaper–shelled out money for food and accommodations at a variety of expensive hot-spring resorts, not just for the players themselves, but for an entire cadre of auxiliary personnel: judges, timekeepers, and scorers, not to mention famous writers and photographers to cover the whole thing. All for the sake of a board game that, in the end, took 54 hours spread over 6 months to finish.
And it was a huge success! Readers of the Yomiuri Shimbun couldn’t get enough of it! There were individual plays that took over 3 hours; weeks went by with only a dozen moves to show for them; and yet commentary on the match proved so popular that the newspaper people repeatedly summoned Honinbo Shusai to the board from his gurney.
Such a thing was possible in the Japan of 1938; no, not merely possible. It actually happened. And as I read about it, something strange happened: I became nostalgic for a country I have never known.
When we pine idly for the joys of a simpler time, it is seldom the loss of 54-hour board games that tug most poignantly at our heartstrings. Yet, such a game paints contemporary Japan in stark relief. Though rich with history, I live in a country that is as proud of its modernness as any Western nation. With digital pictures to take, video games to play, electric cars to drive and posters to kiss, Japan has no time or patience for board game odysseys.
Make no mistake: I do not want to play a 54-hour game of Go. I do not want to watch one. And it didn’t particularly thrill me to read about one. But the fact that such a thing once captivated an entire country is remarkable. And it feels something like loss to know it never could again.