A Summary of the Game Go
As many know, a great deal of Japanese culture stems from mainland China. Such examples include the use of kanji characters in their language, past forms of government, and Buddhism, to name a few. One such game that originated in China is Wéiqí (围棋) which has since become more popular with its Japanese name, Go (囲碁). It is a traditional strategy game that has since been rooted into the culture of not just China and Japan, but also Korea to Tibet over centuries. In recent years, Go has started to make its way across the entire world including Europe and even America as far as competitive sport goes.
While the origin of Go is unclear, the earliest documentation of the game is in written text dating back to 300s BC in ancient Chinese text, using it’s original name, Wéiqí, and is theorized to be even older, going back as far as 4000 years from today. Since then, the only known physical evidence has been archaeological remains of Wéiqí stones and boards dating back to the Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 CE) in ancient China. The great Chinese philosopher, Confucius, even made reference to the game roughly around the same time in the 3rd century BC in his books.
So what exactly is Go? Well, literally translated from its Chinese name, it means ‘surrounding game,’ which is very appropriate given the game’s goal. Two players, with black or white stones, place their pieces on the board in an effort to surround parts of the board, and capture their opponent’s stones. Unlike most grid-based board games, the stones are placed on the cross-points instead of within the square spaces. What’s more, there is no set limit to how many stones can be on the board at once.
It sounds rather simple, but Go can become just as complex and mentally demanding as any game of Chess or Shogi, and is just as often used as a metaphor for war. In fact, according to the British Go Association, the nation of Tibet’s future was once decided on Go match when, instead of marching to war, the nation’s ruler challenged their enemy to a game. Whether or not that is true is uncertain.
Go in Japan
The time of which Go became established in Japan isn’t very clear. The earliest known documentation is a brief mention of it in Murasaki Kishibu’s The Tale of Genji, publication dated during the 11th century. However, it isn’t until the late 16th/early 17th century where Go’s impact was granted any historical significance. Right after the turn of the century at the start of the 1600s, Shogun Tokugawa Bafuku unified Japan under common law and thus lead the country into the Edo period. During which, Tokugawa also elected the best known Go player at the time (who happened to be Buddhist monk), as the nation’s Godokoro (Minister of Go). He went on to establish the first of four great Go schools, Honinbo.
Hyayashi, Inoue, and Yasue School’s foundation soon followed. Every year onward, the best players from each school would compete annually to be the next Godokoro. As a result, Go achieved great popularity nationwide.
In modern times, Go is still practice and enjoyed as a simple hobby, but also as a competitive sport equal to that of chess in western culture. It has even influenced the creation of various movies and manga for kids.
Prior to his worldwide success as an illustrator for the hit manga, Death Note, Takeshi Obata’s first major manga work was Hikaru no Go. The comic tells the story of a boy who became possessed by the spirit of a professional Go player from the Heian period named Fujiwara no Sai. The manga ran for over four years, concluding after 23 volumes as well as a 75-episode anime adaptation, both ending in 2003.
Both the manga and the anime was created under the supervision of various professional Japanese Go players, as seen in the acknowledgment of each volume of the manga, and in the credits of every anime episode. While the series is long over, Hikaru no Go is widely credited for Go’s increasing popularity overseas today as it was translated into English.
In recent years Sumire Nakamura is the youngest professional Go player in Japan, making her debut in professional matches in April 2019 at only age 9.
So how do you play Go? Well, it may sound rather simple, but there are a few restrictions that can make strategy very complicated. While most of these are best represented visually, here are the most basic starting points.
- After you decide who plays what color, black will always go first.
- The white player gets 0.5 points minimum from the start. This is to compensate for not having the first move, but also to ensure that a tie isn’t possible. There is no way to get half a point normally in game. Often, the white player may be given 2.5 or even 5.5 points as a handicap if there is a skill level gap.
- Territory that is surrounded by your stones means you’ve conquered part of the board, and thus all empty space equals more points for you at the end of the game.
- If you surround your appointment’s stones with your own (pictured below) then you are allowed to remove them from the board. This is called capturing. At the end of the game, you can use captured stones to fill in space your opponent has conquered, thus lowering their final score by one point per captured stone.
- For a more detailed list of rules and examples of plays, there are plenty of apps, Youtube videos of such, or you can just read more on the American/British Go Association official website.
Where to Play
Go is a game that anyone can play in just about any city in Japan, even suburban towns. While very few places will offer English support, so long as you know the rules of the game, it will hardly be necessary to ask another guest at a Go parlor/center if they’d like to play a game with one another. Often, the atmosphere at such establishments is very quiet and focused. You can simply search 「囲碁」(spelled「いご」in Hiragana) or 「囲碁センター」(Go Center) on Google Maps and you can be sure that at least one if not a dozen places will pop up, especially in any metropolitan city.
Entry price can vary depending on location, but personally, I’ve yet to enter one that asked for more than 800 yen and allowed guests to stay as long as they want. Some will even offer classes, but odds are will only be in Japanese.