The Master of Go
Yasunari Kawabata, Edward G. Seidensticker
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Go is a game of strategy in which two players attempt to surround each other’s black or white stones. Simple in its fundamentals, infinitely complex in its execution, Go is an essential expression of the Japanese spirit. And in his fictional chronicle of a match played between a revered and heretofore invincible Master and a younger, more modern challenger, Yasunari Kawabata captured the moment in which the immutable traditions of imperial Japan met the onslaught of the twentieth century.
The competition between the Master of Go and his opponent, Otaké, is waged over several months and layered in ceremony. But beneath the game’s decorum lie tensions that consume not only the players themselves but their families and retainers—tensions that turn this particular contest into a duel that can only end in death. Luminous in its detail, both suspenseful and serene, The Master of Go is an elegy for an entire society, written with the poetic economy and psychological acumen that brought Kawabata the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Translated from the Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker
have to get up from time to time.” “I have the same trouble myself,” said the Master. “I have to get up two and three times every night.” It was odd that, despite this apparent understanding, the Master seemed to sense none of the nervous tension in Otaké. When I am at work myself, I drink tea incessantly and am forever having to leave my desk, and sometimes I have nervous indigestion as well. Otaké’s trouble was more extreme. He was unique among competitors at the grand spring and autumn
It was all too clear that he had made use of the noon recess, not charged against his time allotment; but the trickery was not in the Master to conceal the misdemeanor by pretending to deliberate his first afternoon play. The penalty was that he had spent the recess gazing into space. That aggressive Black 69 has been described as “a diabolic stroke.” The Master himself said afterwards that it had the sort of ferocity Otaké was known for. Everything depended upon the White response. If it proved
great dispatch he defeated me at five and six matches of Ninuki Renju. “But it’s such a lightweight game,” he said fretfully as he went out. “We’ll play chess. There’s a board in Mr. Uragami’s room.” His match with Iwamoto at rook’s handicap26 was interrupted by dinner. Happy from his evening drink, Iwamoto sat grandly with his legs crossed and slapped away at his bare thighs; and in due order he lost. After dinner a clicking of stones came sporadically from Otaké’s room; but soon he came
had to leave my summer house the day before a session. After a session I would spend the night in Hakoné or Tokyo. Each session thus cost me three days. With sessions each fifth day, I had to set out again after a two-day rest. Then I had to do my reports, and it was an unpleasantly rainy summer, and in the end I was exhausted. The reasonable thing, it might be said, would have been to stay on at the Hakoné inn; but after each session I would hurry off, scarcely finishing my dinner. It was hard
easily disposed of. I found it difficult to leave immediately. I stayed for a time talking with the Master’s wife. The Master himself had nothing more to say, either about the postponement or about his adversary. A day’s postponement may seem like a small enough concession. The Master had waited a very long time, however, and for a player midway through a match, all poised for a session, to have his plans suddenly thrown into confusion was no small matter at all. Indeed it was of such magnitude