18 January 2014

The Master of Go

The Master of Go by Kawabata Yasunari, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker (Perigee Books, 1981)

"A sad, elegant piece of reportage" was how the translator Edward G. Seidensticker described The Master of Go in the introduction. It was about an actual 1938 match that Kawabata Yasunari reported in the newspapers. The novelist reworked his narrative during the war and it was finally published as a book ten years after, in 1954. It was obvious from his treatment of the particular game of Go that the story was not merely a straightforward narrative of a battle between two diametrically opposite positions. It was also a meditation on the art of fiction and on cultural tradition, and, less obvious, a glimpse into the psyche of a nation at war.

As with the tea ceremony in Thousand Cranes and the weaving of obi in The Old Capital, the game of Go was here portrayed as "a way of life and art". And like the other two novels, this "chronicle-novel" was suffused with respect for cultural products and artifacts. The Go board and stones were evoked with particular care. The dedication of the players to the craft was but a reflection of the perfectionist builders of Go board.

I don't remember when it was, but I once saw a Go board of lacquer. It wasn't just lacquer-coated, it was dry lacquer to the core. A lacquer man in Aomori made it for his own amusement. He took twenty-five years to do it, he said. I imagine it would take that long, waiting for the lacquer to dry and then putting on a new coat. The bowls and boxes were solid lacquer too.

It would not be a spoiler to mention that this was a portrait of the magnanimous defeat of the Master at the hands of his challenger Otaké. The elegiac tone of the narrative seemed to extol the passage of an era and old traditions – represented by the Master – and to herald the entry of new, fresh blood who would take over the reins of the new era – represented by Otaké. The rivalry between tradition and modernity was a constant in Japanese literary novelists. The old inevitably paving the way for the new was there in the works of Sōseki, Akutagawa, Tanizaki, and Mishima. Kawabata's version of this conflict was through his characteristic elegant elegy for the "dying" art of the game and the traditional culture and values associated with it.

It may be said that the Master was plagued in his last match by modern rationalism, to which fussy rules were everything, from which all the grace and elegance of Go as art had disappeared, which quite dispensed with respect for elders and attached no importance to mutual respect as human beings. From the way of Go the beauty of Japan and the Orient had fled. Everything had become science and regulation. The road to advancement in rank, which controlled the life of a player, had become a meticulous point system. One conducted the battle only to win, and there was no margin for remembering the dignity and the fragrance of Go as an art. The modern way was to insist upon doing battle under conditions of abstract justice, even when challenging the Master himself. ... Perhaps what had happened was natural, Go being a contest and a show of strength.

The novel described the extreme discipline and dedication of the two players to their craft. Several times, Kawabata referred to the game as "art" or to the Master as an "artist". The game, which was fought in several sessions at specified intervals and which lasted for half a year, was almost elevated to a life and death situation. The players, especially the Master, were constantly plagued by health problems and psychological stress.

Although based on facts, the novelist's presentation of the story often courted the apocryphal. The account of the events felt more like an annotation of a written piece, with some details added in to embellish the story. There were details that were deliberately falsified either because Kawabata wanted to distance himself from his story or because he was trying to achieve a dramatic effect. (The translator's introduction and detailed notes at the end of the novel were particularly useful in determining which parts of the narrative are factually incorrect. Here the translator also played the role of fact-checker.) In any case, it was refreshing to see the novelistic side of Kawabata prevailing over journalism, how he treated reality as bendable, how he practiced creative nonfiction wherein objective reality was falsified, misused, and betrayed imaginatively. – "Since I was reporting on a match sponsored by a newspaper, I had to arouse interest. A certain amount of embroidering was necessary."

Being largely a "mental" game where a single move of a stone was inscrutable, where the meaning of that move was never fully revealed but only hinted at, Go was a perfect representation of Kawabata's literary medium. In the mysterious exchange of moves in Go lay his art of the novel – the art of uncertainty and vagueness.

It would seem that the mistake [in the game] resulted from more than an outburst of the anger the Master had felt all morning. Yet one cannot be sure. The Master himself could not have measured the tides of destiny within him, or the mischief from those passing wraiths.

Kawabata often interjected a lot of things from the gestures and comportment of the two players. But in every case, he was almost reduced to conjectures and assumptions, to make an uncertain ("one cannot be sure") interpretation of the proceedings of the game. He often acknowledged this uncertainty; he always put "perhaps" in his commentary on the game. "Vagueness" was Kawabata's fictional aesthetic.

"It seems strange that I've come as far as I have. I'm not much of a thinker, and I don't have what you might call beliefs. People talk about my responsibility to the game, but that hasn't been enough to bring me this far. And they can call it physical strength if they like—but that really isn't it either." He spoke slowly, his head slightly bowed. "Maybe I have no nerves. A vague, absent sort—maybe the vagueness has been good for me. The word means two different things in Tokyo and Osaka, you know. In Tokyo it means stupidity, but in Osaka they talk about vagueness in a painting and in a game of Go. That sort of thing." The Master seemed to savor the word as he spoke, and I savored it as I listened.

In this piece of nonfiction, Kawabata was surprisingly not a mystical observer of inexpressible actions but a mediator of an exciting game. However vague and humble he could be, he was truly invested in the game, watching it with a sense of immediacy and profound interest.

Read for the Japanese Literature Challenge 7 and January in Japan.


  1. I almost bought another Kawabata work to read for these events but then decided to read the lone Japanese book on my TBR instead. Mistake! This book sounds fascinating--must try to get to the author before next year's version of the reading events. P.S. Did this work remind you at all of Zweig's Chess Story?

  2. Speaking of Chess Story, yes, there's a similarity in terms of the players' obsession with the board game (to the point of madness, in the case of one anecdotal story in the novel). Kawabata is a must for Japanese lit enthusiasts.