Letter from Tokyo

British Go Journal No. 62. July 1984. Page 18.

Guy Stevinson

Last year the South London club briefly acquired a new member, Guy Stevinson, whose work and inclinations have led him to spend much time in the Far East. However it is only recently that Guy, who was playing as a very approximate 6 kyu in our club, has settled in Japan. The following 'letter from Tokyo' describes his initial visit to a typical Japanese Go club.

I found the club with much less difficulty than I had experienced in eliciting its address from a selection of Japanese acquaintances. They had obviously considered Go unfashionable, a game for old fogies, and none of them had admitted personal knowledge of either how or where to play in Tokyo. The unusual is regarded with suspicion in Japan, and I seemed to fit the category: a gaijin (foreigner) with a whimsical desire to track down a Go parlour.

The club was only a few minutes walk from the underground station in Kobayacho, a shabby area of central Tokyo. I made my way up the narrow alley of ramshackle two storey houses towards it, took off my shoes at the entrance, and selected a pair of green artificial fur slippers. After scanning a number of neatly scripted notices which proclaimed (in Japanese) affiliation to the National Association of Go Clubs, the fact that the club was closed on the second and fourth Mondays of the month, and much else I couldn't decipher, I looked around for the action. This was clearly upstairs, since a glance at the ground floor of the little wooden building revealed only two lavatories and a kitchen.

Mounting a steep staircase ominously decorated with a fire warning poster, I arrived at a small dark landing, worked open a grubby sliding door, and confronted the surprised gaze of half a dozen Go players with a beaming smile. Japanese is a difficult language, and I had at that stage mastered at most ten words. Supplementing these with grunts, smiles and gestures, I made the acquaintance of Harada-san, the elderly woman who ran the Go club. She obviously considered that the advent of a Go-playing gaijin lent tone to her establishment, and made me welcome by procuring me a glass of hot green tea and an opponent.

The room was large by Japanese standards, about ten mats (180 sq. ft.), and was equipped with low tables and cheap metal and plastic chairs for five games, with dubious looking cushions on the floor for a further two boards. I sat down, noting that my opponent preferred to squat cross-legged on his chair, and negotiated a six-stone handicap for myself. Soon, politely if warily placed white stones wove a suffocating net around my less adroitly positioned black ones. After 20 minutes I conceded the game, secretly pleased that I had avoided making any elementary blunders; while I detected a slight air of relief about my victor. To have lost to a strange foreigner would have seriously diminished the face of one who now revealed himself as a fourth dan (Japanese reckoning).

I was then passed on to a succession of fresh opponents who drubbed me one after the other. I consoled myself with the thought that they were now only giving me four and five stone handicaps. All, that is, except a six Dan, who allowed me nine and then crushed me. However he did at least have the decency to praise the way I managed to live in three out of four corners.

Nearly everyone smoked heavily and the room grew stuffier. Nonetheless, in Japanese style it remained draughty and pretty chilly, the only heating an oil stove. One of the players, an obese man in his late fifties, kept his leather jacket on all the time. When playing me, he had a habit of sucking his breath in through his teeth from time to time, a sort of reverse hiss; disconcerting this, for I swiftly discovered it meant my last move was considered a poor one.

Even more disconcerting was the post-mortem which several players inflicted on me. Their explanations in Japanese of where I had gone wrong were less than easy to follow, and my repertoire of knowing grunts and acquiescent dips of the head was sorely overstretched. An influx of fresh players as the afternoon turned to evening provided a boost to morale in the shape of a balding woman in late middle age who, I was gratified to discover, was a weaker player than myself No matter that she was obviously the holder of the club's wooden spoon, or chopstick; for a change it was I who was giving a handicap.

Since I did not have to concentrate so hard on my games with her, I had time to examine the company more closely. They were, on the whole, a healthy change from the touchy, pretentious businessmen I had met so far in Tokyo. Apparently drawn largely from the ranks of the working classes, their clothes were mostly shoddy and ill-fitting, their attitudes humble and polite, as befitted the lower orders of a social system until recently feudal. My presence did not seem to arouse in these people the feelings of unease, inferiority and hostility which a foreigner often meets in Japan.

Ten o'clock struck, the hour at which the club reverted to its alternative role as home of Harada-san. I was pleased with my seven-hour Go session. Although it hardly qualified as rollicking entertainment, and victor's laurels were conspicuously absent from my brow, the club's low-key atmosphere had been appealing. The members placed their stones softly, kept physical movement to a minimum, and spoke in subdued tones when they spoke at oil; as a result, little tension was allowed to build up.

By and large the members had been unostentatiously friendly to the stranger in their midst. There was one exception, a fellow who had rejected Harada-san's suggestion of a game with the comment that he didn't go in for "Kokusai go" (international go, I think). But nearly everyone else had bent over backward to say something nice.

One chap, having whitewashed me completely, solved the rather tricky problem of finding something complimentary to say by praising my aggressive play. Far better, he indicated, to have a stab at winning, than to dourly stick to handicap stones, and simultaneously to have the opportunity of learning by my mistakes. If a Japanese puts his mind to casting about for a compliment, the odds are he'll find one (albeit back-handed) We got up to pay our 700 yen apiece (slightly over 2), and descended into the night snow, bowing copiously right, left and centre to each other. I noticed in the street that not one of the players appeared to possess a car, most of them making a beeline for the underground. And so we quietly went our different ways.


This article is from the British Go Journal Issue 62
which is one of a series of back issues now available on the web.

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