The Master of Go
Yasunari Kawabata, Edward G. Seidensticker
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Go is a game of strategy in which two players attempt to surround each other’s black or white stones. Simple in its fundamentals, infinitely complex in its execution, Go is an essential expression of the Japanese spirit. And in his fictional chronicle of a match played between a revered and heretofore invincible Master and a younger, more modern challenger, Yasunari Kawabata captured the moment in which the immutable traditions of imperial Japan met the onslaught of the twentieth century.
The competition between the Master of Go and his opponent, Otaké, is waged over several months and layered in ceremony. But beneath the game’s decorum lie tensions that consume not only the players themselves but their families and retainers—tensions that turn this particular contest into a duel that can only end in death. Luminous in its detail, both suspenseful and serene, The Master of Go is an elegy for an entire society, written with the poetic economy and psychological acumen that brought Kawabata the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Translated from the Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker
remarkable invention, someone did pass it on to the Master. Perhaps, again, the play was the Master’s own. Only the Master and his disciples know the truth. The first of the three matches, in 1926, was actually between the Association and a rival group, the Kiseisha, and the generals of the two forces, the Master and Karigané of the Seventh Rank, were in single combat; and there can be little doubt that during the two months it lasted the rival forces put a great deal of study into it. One
Black six hours and fifty-two minutes. At the end of the fifth session, on July 21, the difference was even greater: five hours and fifty-seven minutes for White, ten hours and twenty-eight minutes for Black. At the end of the sixth session, on July 31,17 White had used eight hours and thirty-two minutes, Black twelve hours and forty-three minutes; and at the end of the seventh on August 5, White had used ten hours and thirty-one minutes, Black fifteen hours and forty-five minutes. But by the
assumed that the Master would respond to the “peep” by linking his stones, and to us bystanders the linking seemed quite natural. One would imagine that though White 100 was a sealed play Otaké had for three months known what it would be. Now, inevitably, Black 101 must strike into White territory toward the lower right. To us amateurs it seemed that Otaké had a natural play, a space removed on the “S” line from Black 87. Yet he still had not played when noon came and the recess for lunch. We
jumped. Otaké took forty-two minutes for Black 105. There were only five plays during the first Itō session. Black 105 became the sealed play. The Master had used only ten minutes, and Otaké four hours and fourteen minutes. In all Otaké had used twenty-one hours and twenty minutes, more than half the unprecedented forty-hour allotment. Onoda and Iwamoto, the judges, were absent, participating in the autumn tournament. “There is something dark about Otaké’s game these days,” I had heard Iwamoto
for a game of billiards. He had been at mahjong until almost midnight with Iwamoto, Murashima, and Yawata. That morning he was out strolling in the garden before eight. Red dragonflies lay on the ground. The maple below Otaké’s upstairs room was still half green. Otaké was up at seven thirty. He feared he might be defeated by stomach cramps, he said. He had ten varieties of medicine on his desk. The aging Master seemed to have fought off his cold, and his young adversary was suffering from