When it comes to ancient board games, Western countries have chess, and the Orient has go . In Japan, go was viewed as a game for the elderly, and that's why it was often ignored by many people, especially the young. But that changed a few years ago, and go is now enjoying a tremendous boom among elementary and junior high school students.
Today, introductory go classes for children are deluged by applicants, with demand up several hundred percent. Toy stores and other retailers are often sold out of go sets for beginners. Virtual go software is also selling briskly. About one million children have taken up the game recently.
"We've never seen such an explosion of interest before," says Kobayashi Tadashi of The Nihon Ki-In (Japan Go Association).
The craze was started by a manga series called Hikaru no Go . The manga hero, a male elementary school student, does everything he can to become a professional go player. The series was launched in a weekly children's manga magazine in December 1999, and since then the storyline has been extended into 16 volumes. More than 15 million have been sold so far. The TV anime series hit the air in October 2001, and it now enjoys an average audience rating of 10%. The hero quickly attracted the admiration of kids and got them thinking, "Hey, go is cool!"
From the manga series, Hikaru no Go.
©H.O. and S.T.D.P.
A go board has 19 vertical and 19 horizontal lines. The two players take turns placing round "stones" on the line intersectionsone player has black stones, the other white. The object of the game is to take the opponent's stones by surrounding them, and to gain control of space on the board. The winner is the player with the greater amount of "territory" at the end of the game.
Go was invented in China more than 3,000 years ago. It came to Japan some time later, and after the beginning of the 16th century, it gained considerable popularity under the patronage of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Today's version of the game developed through the efforts of go circles in Japan. This version has spread to more than 50 countries, with a dramatic increase in the number of players in China and the Republic of Korea. Thus, an ancient game introduced to Japan from the Asian continent has returned there with new vigor.
The number of players in Japan peaked in the early 1970s at 12 million. Each year after that saw fewer and fewer players for two main reasons: (1) go strategy is hard to master, even though the rules are simpler than chess or the Japanese version of chess, shogi; and (2) a game tends to last a long time before you know who the winner is. In 1998, the number of go players in Japan had dropped to only 3.9 million. The manga series made go a hit again, starting in 1999. Even so, top professional players from the Republic of Korea and China tend to have the upper hand at international matches today.
Kobayashi says, "We certainly don't want to see the current go boom lose steam. We want more youngsters to recognize how the game develops perseverance and strengthens their ability to plan ahead. Then, hopefully, young players will return the lead to Japan, the country where modern go developed. It would be great if one or more of our young players gained enough expertise to place among the world's top professionals."
In a decade or two, he'll find out if this dream will come true.