19 January 2014

The Master of Go, 2

Art, war, and Go

The clouds of the Second World War cast its shadows on Kawabata Yasunari's writing of The Master of Go. The novelist himself acknowledged that the game was "a contest and a show of strength". His news reports appeared in the papers prior to the war, but the narrative was collected and revised during and in the aftermath of the war.

The two sides had an equal opportunity of winning and strategies had to be devised along the way. Much had been made about the differing methods of the two players, and the "violence" with which they made their moves. Like in any combat or board game, rules of engagement ("its conscience and its ethics") had to be followed. But as with an actual battle, "the unforeseeable occurs and fates are sealed in an instant". "This is what war must be like", commented one observer when one of the players made a decisive move that assured his win and his opponent's defeat.
The way he described the tension-filled game, the unnerving moves and counter-moves of both sides, the singular purpose and obsession possessing both players, the destructive nature of the game itself, the way it could harm a player physically and psychologically. All these were indications that the sport was a dangerous arena, with sufficient space reserved for madness, cruelty, and perversion.
A notable incident in the book was when the writer played a match of Go with an amateur foreigner – an American and Go enthusiast. While playing, he contrasted his own temperament with that of the stranger's.

He had the forms down well enough, but he had a way of playing thoughtlessly, without really putting himself into the game. Losing did not seem to bother him in the least. He went happily through game after game, as if to say that it was really silly to take a mere game seriously. He lined his forces up after patterns he had been taught, and his opening plays were excellent; but he had no will to fight. If I pushed him back a little or made a surprise move, he quietly collapsed. It was as if I were throwing a large but badly balanced opponent in a wrestling match. Indeed this quickness to lose left me wondering uncomfortably if I might not have something innately evil concealed within me. Quite aside from matters of skill, I sensed no response, no resistance. There was no muscular tone in his play. One always found a competitive urge in a Japanese, however inept he might be at the game. One never encountered a stance as uncertain as this. The spirit of Go was missing. I thought it all very strange, and I was conscious of being confronted with utter foreignness. 

The key words in this passage are evil, competitiveness, and foreignness. Concepts that could be associated with the rise of militarism in Japan during the first half of twentieth century.

The writer went on to conclude that as opposed to Oriental Go which had "gone beyond game and test of strength and become a way of art" and which "has about it a certain Oriental mystery and nobility", "Western Go is wanting in spirit". And then he went on to discuss how Japanese Go had been derived from China, how it had been "elevated and deepened by the Japanese".

The 1938 Go match itself was contemporaneous with the Second Sino-Japanese War. The metaphor was not lost on Kawabata.

There was gunfire. Troops of student reserves were in training. More than a score of acquaintances in the literary world had gone off with the army and navy to observe the attack on Hankow [Hankou, China]. I was not selected for the party. Left behind, I wrote in my Nichinichi reports of how popular Go had always been in time of war, of how frequently one heard stories of games in battle encampments, of how closely the Way of the Warrior resembled a way of art, there being an element of the religious in both.

Perhaps there lay in the perversion of the beautiful game of Go the seeds of fascism, the excessive romanticization of nationalism and cultural supremacy, the way distorted ideology and religiosity could harmfully invade the Japanese psyche and give rise to fascism and militarism.

Kawabata's elegy may not only be directed to the vanishing code of an imperial culture, represented by the board game. He may also be grieving for the defeat of Japan in the war. Interestingly, his chronicle of a famous game of Go provided a window into Japanese perception of their own national culture; how, depending on one's perspective (and actions), it can be perceived (and played) as beautiful art or ugly war.

Again for the Japanese Literature Challenge 7 and January in Japan. An earlier post here.


  1. There's an interesting little novel by Chinese writer Shan Sa - who writes in French - called La Joueuse de Go, in which the game is also used metaphorically to comment on Japanese-Chinese relations during the Japanese occupation of Manchuriia (it takes place largely in Harbin). I wonder how much Shan may have derived from Kawabata (whom I haven't read).

  2. The Girl Who Played Go. That's a good find. This particular book was not too explicit on the Japanese-Chinese relations, but tackled it indirectly.

  3. Kawabata is a writer that I'd like to read more of having thoroughly enjoyed this

    1. Me, too. At the moment I don't have anything else by Kawabata on my shelf, but I'd definitely read another when a copy magically appears.

  4. When I read the quote about the American and the Japanese master playing ago, the key words which struck me were: happily, thoughtlessly, uncertain, no will. I find that an attitude of many Americans, and personally, it ashames me. Of course there's nothing wrong in being happy, until you come to the place of pointless. No backbone. No will. This must be a fascinating book,for looking at the two cultures alone.

    1. That's an interesting perspective, Bellezza. What a study in constrast. The clash of cultures was truly evident in that scene. I only considered Kawabata's viewpoint, not his American opponent's, as I wanted to focus on the Japanese psyche of competitiveness. Interestingly, there's this article about a WWII Japanese soldier who made a statement similar to Kawabata. The soldier, Onoda, went into hiding in an island in the Philippines for 30 years, disbelieving that the war had ended and his side had lost. From the article:

      "I became an officer and I received an order," Onodo told ABC. "If I could not carry it out, I would feel shame. I am very competitive."

      And a quote from Onoda's book:

      Men should never give up. I never do. I would hate to lose.