Anyone wanting to attend a summit conference in Japan this November had lots of choices: an AI summit in Tokyo, a seagrass summit in Osaka, an udon (noodles) summit in Kumagaya, and over thirty more, including a go summit.
Japanese go summits have been held annually for the past ten years. They are attended by representatives of various small-to-medium-sized cities and towns that are actively promoting go. Many of them have historic ties to the game, such as Hiratsuka (site of the Kitani Dojo), Onomichi (birthplace of Honinbo Shusaku), Hyuga (source of clamshell for white go stones), and Kumano (source of slate for black go stones).
The eleventh go summit was held this year on November 22 in Kashima, a city of about thirty thousand in Saga prefecture on the western side of Kyushu, noted for fishing, farming, and seaweed production. Kashima’s connection with go goes back over a thousand years to the Buddhist priest Kanren, who was born there. Kanren was not only a priest; he was the first Japanese go player to be hailed as a go saint (gosei), and he was favorite opponent of the Emperor Daigo, who reportedly took a two-stone handicap from him. Around the year 900, at Daigo’s request, Kanren wrote a go book. Although the book (Goshiki) has not survived, later writers drew from it, and it is regarded as the work that established the Japanese rules and etiquette of the game.
There are some interesting stories about Kanren. One concerns a young girl who beckoned to him as he was on his way home. She said she had heard that he was a matchless go player and asked him for a game. He agreed. She led him into a villa, played her first stone in the center of the board, and proceeded to kill almost all of his groups. Realizing that the girl must be supernatural, Kanren fled in terror, but later told Daigo what had happened. Daigo sent an attendant to investigate, but the girl was not to be found; the only person in the villa was an aged crone.
Another story concerns a game played with Daigo for the wager of a golden pillow. Kanren won this game, but the pillow was one of Daigo’s prized possessions, and he sent some of his attendants to stop Kanren on his way home and get the pillow back. Kanren deceived the attendants with a substitute wooden pillow, which he threw down a well, and then used the real pillow’s gold to finance the building of a new temple in Kyoto.
Continuing in the spirit of these stories, the Go Summit in Kashima began with some local color: a ten-minute exhibition of traditional dancing, featuring two mythical lions and two long-nosed goblins. Then the mayor of Kashima gave the opening address, in which he explained that because of Kanren, Kashima regards itself as the birthplace of go in Japan. Next to speak was Dan Hiroaki, chief director of the Nihon Kiin, who pointed out that the rise of artificial intelligence had transformed go by discrediting most of the opening patterns that everybody had been playing without question for years, so that now human players were having to think for themselves again. This is also what Japanese educators are trying to get Japanese school children to do, instead of just having them learn information from textbooks. Mr Dan went on to mention Yasuda Yasutoshi, the 9-dan originator of capture go (first player to capture a stone wins), who passed away last May. Mr Yasuda’s term for this form of go was fureai-go: literally, ‘touching-each-other-go’, or perhaps ‘friendly go’ would be a better translation. Although no human go player can hope to surpass the best AI any more, Mr. Dan noted that playing go is still a great way to make friends with all types of people, and that this contributes to community development.
After some introductions, Shigeno Yuki and Hara Akiko took over to deliver the keynote addresses, but first they gave us a live demonstration of ‘friendly go’. Three complete beginners who did not know how to play were enlisted from the audience and summoned to the stage, where a 9-by-9 demonstration board had been set up. Opposing them were three experienced players from the Nihon Kiin. After being shown how to capture a stone by blocking its four exit routes, the two teams chose colors by the paper-scissors-rock method and immediately began to play, the beginners’ team playing white. It soon became obvious that the Nihon Kiin team was following a simple strategy: play moves that do not capture any white stones. Eventually one of the beginners found a move that captured three black stones, and the game was over. The victorious beginners left the stage to a round of applause. Needless to say, the Nihon Kiin team did not burst out in tears, as some young children have been known to do when their stones get captured in this game.
Next Ms Hara, who directs Go Communications, a Tokyo organization that implements Mr Yasuda’s ideas, gave a rundown of Mr Yasuda’s career. In particular, she told how he had started the friendly-go movement in the mid-1990s in response to a series of much-publicized suicides by middle-school students who had been harassed at school. He approached the authorities and was shown five suicide notes that the students had left. What they all had in common was their inability to talk their troubles over with anyone. Using go as a way to help people break out of their isolation, Mr Yasuda began teaching go to children in his friendly way, and almost immediately began to see the results he was hoping for. Go was helping children make contact with each other, sometimes even physically, as when he used the children themselves as go stones to illustrate the concept of atari. Ms Shigeno, the Summit coordinator and a Nihon Kiin director, continued on this theme in the context of Mr Yasuda’s work in teaching go to people with serious disabilities, such as autism and Down’s syndrome, and her own experiences in teaching go in Europe and other places. It was in Malawi that she was struck by the realization that go can enrich people’s lives in a way that money, roads, and material wealth cannot.The keynote addresses were followed by a panel discussion and then by reports by representatives of various cities and towns on the go activities they were carrying out. These included go festivals of one kind or another in almost all the cities and towns, teaching activities aimed mainly at children but also at older people, the hosting of amateur tournaments and professional title games, and teaching visits by professional players from the Nihon Kiin. Various benefits were cited. One speaker told how friendships formed over the go board had helped persuade the local populace to accept the construction of a strongly opposed waste treatment plant. The key phrase heard throughout the discussions, however, was inochi wo tsunagu. This literally means ‘connecting lives’, but the real meaning of the Japanese expression is ‘keep alive’, which was Mr Yasuda’s concern. All go players want to have lots of living opponents, and as one of the speakers pointed out, keeping its citizens alive is the most important responsibility of any local government.
The last person to speak was a school principal, and what he said showed that the Summit had gotten its message across to a least one person. His school was one of those that had been visited by a Nihon Kiin pro. ‘After the visit’, he said, ‘I invited some of the students who had attended the pro’s lecture into my office and played go against them, and I’m now very ashamed to confess that I crushed all of them.’The Summit concluded with a pledge to expand and develop local go promotion acitivies, to give go an increased role in children’s upbringing and provide more local facilties where they can play, and to learn from one another and cooperate in a spirit of mutual respect. It was followed by a welcoming party for Iyama Yuta and Yamashita Keigo, who had split the first two games of the Tengen title match and were to play the third game at the Yutoku Inari Shrine the next day. This shrine is Kashima’s most famous attraction. It has a stone monument to Kanren in its outer garden, and it hosts an annual Yutoku Honinbo tournament, which draws amateur go players of primary school age and up from all over Kyushu and beyond. Iyama spoke of his good memories of the shrine: he had played the third Tengen game there in 2013 and won, defending the title for a third time. Yamashita countered by recalling that he lost the Tengen title in 2010 in Karatsu, another city in Saga Prefecture, but said that he felt relaxed about tomorrow’s game because even if he lost that game too, the title match would not be over.
The game started at 9 o’clock the next morning. Many of the Summit attendees also attended the public commentary held in the afternoon in a public hall on the shrine grounds. The game may even have been observed, from a higher vantage point, by the shrine’s three Shinto gods: Uganomitama, the god of rice; Omiyanome, the god of arts, crafts, prosperity, and happiness; and Sarutahiko, who guides seafarers and other travelers. Perhaps these gods enjoyed the game. The human spectators at the commentary certainly did, and many of them took home small prizes awarded twice during the commentary to people who correctly guessed the next move.
The commentary continued even after black (Yamashita) had resigned. One of the more perceptive comments was made by a local schoolboy in the audience who pointed out that, in the final position, black could have killed a white group in the bottom right corner. Unfortunately that would not have compensated for the death of a larger black group extending from the top edge into the center, the frailty of the black group in the lower left, and the big territory white was building up on the left side. The commentary concluded when the players themselves came over to add their own remarks. Iyama was modest in victory, Yamashita was cheerful in defeat, and on that happy note, everybody went home.
– James Davies
1. Yutoku Inari Shrine, one of the largest of the many Inari Shrines in Japan, where one can offer thanks for the basic things in life: food, clothing, shelter, and in particular, rice.
2. Stone monument to the go saint Kanren, put up in 1952 to commemorate the first Yutoku Honinbo tournament. The inscription was written by Segoe Kensaku, whose Go Proverbs Illustrated was the first really useful go book to be translated into English. Perhaps some readers can recall reading it and seeing their kyu level shoot up a few stones.