During the Edo period a go club, like a tea ceremony room or a kyoka poetry meeting, was a place where rank, station and sex were irrelevant: what mattered most was the skill of the participants. Such people came as close to forming a genuine meritocracy as was possible in class-conscious Japan in those days, and this must have been a large part of go’s appeal to new players.
The fact that go requires deep concentration over relatively long periods of time naturally leads to absent-mindedness in everything unrelated to the game at hand. The absent-minded go player is a stock joke in Japan like the absent-minded professor in the West. A fine example of this is the old story called Go Doro, ‘the Go Burglar,’ several versions of which are preserved in the public story-telling tradition of the Edo and Meiji periods.
Two friends who were addicted to go and were pretty evenly matched used to play every night until very late, so wrapped up in their games that they were oblivious to everything around them. This was a great nuisance to their families, but the worst part of it was their habit of smoking, for they were always spilling hot ash and making holes in the tatami as they lit their pipes from the burning coal in the tobacco tray.
Their wives kept scolding them about this until they had to quit playing altogether. But they couldn’t keep from thinking about go and wishing they could play again. One evening they hit upon a plan. “Let’s just stop smoking while we play! Instead, we”ll go out and have a pipe after each game!”
It’s a splendid idea, but of course they forget about it as soon as they get into their first game and start fiddling with their pipes. After a while one of them notices something. “Oy!” he calls out. “There’s no coal in the tobacco tray!” The wife thinks to herself “If I put a coal in the tray they’ll start burning holes in the tatami all over again. I’ll find something red and bring that instead.”
So from the kitchen she brings in a small red vegetable called a snake gourd and carefully pokes it down into the ashes of the tobacco tray, where it looks just like a bit of burning coal. The men don’t notice a thing, and after a while the wife goes to bed, satisfied that she has nothing more to worry about. On and on the two friends play, frowning and muttering at the go board, sucking away at their pipes and having a great old time.
Later that night a burglar sneaks into the back of the house. He stealthily fills his bag with everything he can get his hands on and hoists it over his shoulder. Just as he is about the take off he hears the click of a go stone. The burglar plays go too, so when that sound comes his curiosity is aroused. With the bag still slung over his shoulder he tiptoes toward the room where the two friends are playing and peeks through the door.
At first he just stands there, watching, but then moves close, bit by bit, until he’s right beside them. One player is about to make a move. the burglar simply can’t control himself. “That’s no good!” he exclaims, putting down the bag. “You ought to play on the other side!” A typical kibitzer’s remark.
Both men are studying the board. “Hey, onlookers are supposed to keep quiet,” says one. “This happens to be a crucial moment in the game.” He glances up briefly. “Who might you be, anyway?” he asks. Click goes a stone onto the board.
All three study the move. It’s a tense moment.
“I’m a burglar,” comes the reply.
“Hmmm…” Click goes another stone. “I see…” Click. “Well, make yourself at home…”
Originally published in Go World #45 (Autumn 1986); click here to find out more about Go World. graphic: cover of GW#95; a surinomo by Utamaro entitled Gods Playing Go. Date unknown. Recalling the Ranka theme, Utamaro depicts (from left to right) Juroujin (the god of Longevity), Benzaiten (the Goddess of Good Fortune), and Bishamonten (the God of Riches) engaged in a game of go (from the collection of Erwin Gerstorfer).