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Top finishers in the Japan's WAGC selection tournament (photo courtesy of the Nihon Kiin). Left to right: Mori Hironobu (3rd place), Hiraoka Satoshi (1st), Osawa Shinichiro (2nd), Ono Shingo (4th)On the afternoon of September 21, 2014, Hiraoka Satoshi, three times amateur Honinbo and twice world amateur go champion, found himself facing a neurosurgeon. More precisely, he was facing Osawa Shinichiro, a member of the faculty of the Department of Neurosurgery in the Graduate School of Medicine at Tohoku University. Between them was a go board, and they were about to play the game that would decide which of them would represent Japan at the 2015 World Amateur Go Championship in Thailand.

Hiraoka had been seeded into the 60-player selection knockout and given a bye in the first round, so he reached the final game by defeating only four opponents: a veteran from Chiba, a middle-school student from Fukuoka, an insei from the Kansai Kiin, and Mori Hironobu, another seeded player, who had played in the WAGC in 2007. Dr. Osawa, the amateur meijin of Miyagi, had entered at the first round and downed five opponents, including a former amateur Honinbo and an insei from Nagoya. Those were in addition to the opponents he had beaten in the Miyagi qualifying tournament. His appearance in the final game was no surprise; he has beaten professional opponents in the Agon Cup. The presence of insei among Hiraoka’s and Osawa’s opponents was a little unusual — Japanese insei rarely take part in amateur tournaments — but in any case, none of the insei reached even the semifinal round.

Instead, all four of the semi-finalists were in their thirties or forties, far past insei age. In contrast, the last eight world amateur go champions have all been in their teens or twenties. And none of them have been Japanese. Japan did rather well in the WAGC in the last decade of the 20th century, taking five championships against three for China and two for Korea, but since 2001 Japan has won the WAGC only once, and after Mori’s third place in 2007, no Japanese player has finished higher than fifth.

The job of lifting Japan’s sagging fortunes will fall to Hiraoka, for he beat Dr. Osawa by 9.5 points. Hiraoka was in his mid-twenties when he first won the WAGC in 1994, and in his mid-thirties when he won it again in 2006. Can the JR freight railwayman win another world championship in his mid-forties, or can he at least restore Japan to a place among the top four? We’ll find out next summer.

– James Davies

 

 

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