The Japanese game of Go has fascinated me for many and I have included it in a scene in the novel I’m writing. In the scene, set in May 1917, the main point of view character Lieutenant “Wilkins” has been granted passage on the Japanese battle Cruiser Kasagi from Cape Town to England. On the ship he meets the ethnologist Yanagita and they begin a life long friendship.
It was after midnight and only a minimal crew were on duty. Wilkins stepped through the hatch leading out onto the deck and inhaled, through his nose, the crisp air into his lungs. He held this breath, for a several long seconds before exhaling audibly and headed forward along the starboard deck.
The stars shone as brilliant pin points in the dark sky—perfect for navigation; clear skies and negligible swell would make taking readings from the sextant child’s play. The only sound was the quiet whirl of a breeze in his ears and an intermittent clicking sound coming from up forward.
Wilkins had always enjoyed walking, particularly early in the morning and again late at night just before sleep. Since his bout of influenza he had not returned to the habit. Maybe this was why he felt so constrained. The ship was just coasting along as if the world were not at war.
He maintained a solid pace around the perimeter of the ship. His body had grown accustomed to his enforced docility and soon his shins ached with every long stride. He had made about three circumnavigations of the ship before he heard a familiar voice call out.
‘Wilkins-san, please come and join us,’ called Yanagita from the shadows of the guns on the foredeck.
Yanagita sat cross-legged on a thick cushion, and opposite him was a grey haired man. Between them, in the moonlight, was a low wooden table—about knee height. Their eyes were bright and smiles wide.
‘Come sit with us a while,’ Yanagita said, raising his arm to welcome Wilkins to their table.
Despite the cool air, both the Japanese men were naked to the waist. Wilkins stood for a moment.
‘I’m sorry Yanagita-san, I’ve disturbed you both,’ he said and nodded to the older man.
‘No, do not worry, please, let me introduce Kawabata-san, ni go-shokai shimasu,’ Yanagita said nodding towards the grey haired man.
Wilkins put out his hand.
‘Good evening Kawabata-san, komban wa,’ he said and glanced to Yanagita to check his pronunciation.
Kawabata looked to be in his late fifties. His grey hair was cropped short and rough. He reminded Wilkins of the veteran sailors he had met in northern Canada and the Arctic.
Kawabata nodded his dark tanned head and motioned for Wilkins to join them.
‘Dozo,’ he said.
‘Thank-you, arigato,’ Wilkins said realising that Kawabata may not speak English.
He lowered himself to the ground and sat between them at the small low table.
‘Wilkins-san, you have walked passed us several times. You are, in a hurry, to get to this war?
‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘it’s a dire time for the Empire and our Allies.’
‘All the more reason to use this respite to recover your strength properly.’
‘I know,’ Wilkins sighed, ‘but I need to play my part.’
Wilkins was aware of Kawabata watching him. Did the old man understand?
Yanagita continued, ‘We all have a part to play but it is rarely what we expect.’ He paused and then gestured at the table. ‘This is Go.’
The table top looked to be one solid piece of wood about ten inches thick, and it had a square grid of lines etched upon it in black. Many small black and white stones had been placed haphazardly across the table, but always at the intersections of the gridded lines.
‘A cousin to the game of Chess,’ Yanagita continued.
‘Yes, checkers, Chinese Checkers I think we call it.’
‘Ah no, Wilkins-san, not Chinese Checkers, this is Go. It is a game of strategy, some say, invented by the Chinese Emperor Shun almost forty-one centuries ago. But I think an Emperor would have too many things on his mind to invent such a game.’
Wilkins’ travels had given him the opportunity to discover the customs of many indigenous peoples and he had learnt many Inuit games; becoming adept at seal fin puzzles.
‘What are the rules Yanagita-san, can you teach me to play?’
‘Samimasen, I am sorry Wilkins-san, not tonight. But you are most welcome to watch. You see Kawabata and I have a wager on this particular game.’
He picked up a black stone from the wooden bowl on the table closest to him and placed it with a click at the intersection of two lines in the grid.
Over a hundred of the black and white stones already lay on the board. Looking closer Wilkins began to see patterns in their placement; less like chess—where the pieces represented men on a battlefield—and more like the cities and borders of a continent, where areas of the board were encompassed by either black or white stones.
‘Who is winning,’ Wilkins asked without looking up at either of the Japanese men.
‘I am ahead by two,’ Yanagita said, ‘but it is not so simple. You see this is part of a long standing argument between us. We are re-enacting a game played over ninety years ago on the 19th of July, 1836, between Go Masters Yasui Shintetsu and Mizutani Takuma. Kawabata-san believes that Yasui made an error early in the game that eventually cost him the match. And so we test this theory.’
‘So you just take over from that point, to see who is right?’ Wilkins asked.
‘In a way yes,’ Yanagita explained, ‘but we must keep to the original strategies they used in that game.’
Kawabata then bowed to Yanagita and placed his white stone on a different section of the board. They then placed several more stones in quick succession without seeming to watch each other’s movements.
A doorway opened behind Kawabata and a swath of light flooded the deck. A young Japanese Ensign carried an exquisite wooden box toward them.
Kawabata jumped to his feet and looked up and down the ship.
‘Iie,’ he whispered, trying to take the box from the young man.
‘Dozo, dozo,’ the young man responded, turning his body to ensure Kawabata could not wrest the box from his grasp.
He bowed once, and then again, even deeper, until Kawabata returned his seat. He placed the box on the deck between Wilkins and Kawabata, nodding to Wilkins and then looking to Yanagita for reassurance. He opened the double sided top of the box to reveal a small kit stove.
‘Would you like some tea, Wilkins-san,’ Yanagita said.
Wilkins nodded to Yanagita and again to the young man, who responded with a cheerful grin. Wilkins now noticed the young man’s swollen jaw and several bruises on one side of his face.
‘Arigato, Takeshi-san,’ Yanagita said bowing to the young man.’
The game of Go resumed as the young man built a small fire with kindling wood and heated some water in a blackened steel kettle.
‘Takeshi-san,’ Yanagita said, ‘is one of Lieutenant Obata’s men, as is Seaman Kawabata. Kawabata was Takeshi-san’s Kenjitsu Sensei when he was a young boy.’
The game progressed and Wilkins began to comprehend some of the strategy. The object was to secure sections of the board for your colour. But unlike chess, once the pieces were placed on the board, they were not moved again; unless they were surrounded by an opponent’s stones, and then they were removed and placed alongside the playing area.
‘Was this a famous game?’ Wilkins asked.
Steam rose from the kettle and Takeshi took it from the stove and placed it on a small cloth he had laid out upon the deck.
‘Yes,’ Yanagita replied his speech slowing as Kawabata placed one of his gleaming white stones on the board.
Kawabata looked up to Yanagita with a rye smile.
‘Yes Wilkins-san, it was a famous game. Not one practiced by beginners, but famous.’ He fell silent for a moment. ‘Kawabata-san has provided me a great lesson tonight,’ he said bowing low. ‘And well timed,’ he said receiving his tea from the young Takeshi.
In this low light the bright green powdered tea had a pleasant contrast to the pale interior of the old tea cups. They looked like they had been bouncing around in Kawabata’s kit bag for decades. The cracks, chips and heavy stains on them gave tribute, like proud medals of honour, to their passage through time. The tea was tepid and very bitter. When Takeshi had served all three men, he put out the fire and packed up the stove, bowing to each of them; last of all to Kawabata who squirmed in his seat, and again looked about nervously. Yanagita and Kawabata continued to place stones on the board but now with little concentration.
‘So Kawabata has won the game?’ Wilkins asked.
‘Yes, he will win,’ Yanagita replied.
‘So he has the advantage and you are just playing it out.’
‘Iie, no Wilkins-san. I am still ahead but Kawabata has found suki—an opening—in the strategy played by Master Mizutani and will eventually win.’
He smiled towards at Kawabata.
‘We will try again another time, though, I am not convinced that Master Mizutani would have left this suki. Tonight it is my own skill that has been found wanting.’
G is for the strategic game of “Go”