Kawabata Yasunari (1899-1972)
On April 12th, Ishida Yoshio nosed ahead of his modest challenger Iwata Tatsuaki 9d in the Pro Best Ten tournament. And, on April 24th, he completed his defense of the title. Although the games were all quite close, Iwata calmly remarked, “After all, the weaker player lost.” (Game records: Game 3, Game 4.)
As of April 15, the Hon’inbo League had but one game to play, and a playoff would be required to challenge Ishida Hon’inbo. Sakata Jūdan and Rin Meijin finished tied with 5-2 records. The Meijin League still had a way to go, but Fujisawa Shūkō led with a 4-0 record. Ōtake Hideo trailed at 3-1 and they had yet to play.
But the bulk of this month’s article will be devoted to Kawabata Yasunari, the Nobel Prize winning author of The Master of Go, who died on April 15 1972.
At the outset some important non-go business. It should be noted that Kawabata did not win his Nobel for our favorite work, but rather, for all of his efforts. The Nobel Committee cited three novels: Snow Country, Thousand Cranes, and The Old Capital. Additionally, there are growing theories that his death was accidental, as opposed to by his own hand as traditionally claimed.
Nothing I can say about The Master of Go can compare to simply picking it up and reading it. The book is based on his own newspaper accounts covering the famous retirement game between Hon’inbo Shūsai and Kitani Minoru. Some of the names are changed to protect the victorious, but the game is the same, and Kawabata calmly and deftly not only relates it to us, in wonderful detail, but locates it in history. For Kawabata, looking back in 1951, the Master and the game were the end of the old Japan, and the challenger “Otake” were the first wind of change, soon to be a whirlwind.
Kawabata’s place in the go world is of course grounded in this book, but went far beyond it. He was a 5d amateur player, back in a time when that was quite impressive. He served for many years on the committee that awarded the annual Shūsai prizes. A friend of Sakata, you can see him in the background of many title match photos.
Another lasting contribution, inspiring players today, is his wonderful calligraphy adorning the ceremonial playing room at the Nihon Ki’in – the Yūgen no Ma room, site of many matches and even featured in Hikaru no Go. His scroll means “deep, subtle mysteries.” A perfect, and frightening sight for a challenger to see over the shoulders of a champion, and a completely relatable description of the game for the rest of us.