Yasunari Kawabata, The Master of Go (1951)

Author: Yasunari Kawabata

Title: The Master of Go

Format: Paperback

Pages: 189

Series: –

Hi everyone, apologies for the sudden radio silence of the last few weeks. I’m preparing for an exam and cloud characteristics are taking all of my computing power, as well as all of my available time 😉 This situation should be remedied in the next couple of weeks, when I hopefully sit and pass the exam. But till then, I’ll be scarce in the blogosphere, not posting much or visiting much. I’m alive, though, and kicking – just in a different direction ;).

Now, then, onto today’s real topic – Kawabata’s intriguing mix of fact and fiction, a reportage turned into a meditation on cultural change turned into a dirge for the past. I’ll be usin my GR review as the foundation, and I’ll be adding a thought here and there, to explain my admittedly short and slightly whimsical initial impression.

The crux: Interesting, unusual, meditative.

It’s such a strange little book, showcasing the uniqueness of Japanese culture in rare and hard-hitting ways. First of all, the game of go means nothing to most of the Western sphere and is much less known than, say, another of Asian war games turned philosophical mirror, a.k.a chess. Go is said to be much more complex and difficult than chess, depicting a perspective on life, a way of approaching things, that is not common in the Western culture. It is – or at least it used to be – not a game in the Western meaning: not an entertaining pastime but rahter a battle of wills, a bloodless duel that nevertheless remains deadly serious. Kawabata depicts a particular game of go, when these old tradition and beliefs give way before the modern, somewhat Westernized and rationalized approach: a clash between the old master and the young contender. The emotions in this go match cover almost the entire range, from cold calculation to hot-headed anger, from triumph to quiet despair. The one emotion missing from this mix is joy. Quiet satisfaction, yes. But clean joy, mirth, is something that doesn’t enter this gravely serious clash of personalities and traditions. This final match of the ‘invincible Master,’ highly publicized and extremely popular, in which every move is widely commented in minuscule detail, is in fact a background, or a metaphor, for the profound cultural conflict playing out in Japan itself.

“Shusai the Master would seem, in a variety of meanings, to have stood at the boundary between the old and the new. He had at the same time the lofty position of the old master and the material benefits of the new. In a day the spirit of which was a mixture of idolatry and iconoclasm, the Master went into his last match as the last survivor among idols of old.”

There is a lot of sadness in this book, a quiet grieving over the inevitable change and the destruction it brings; and yet, the sadness is ameliorated by the appreciation of the new way, by a slow and dignified acceptance of the inevitability. There is also a lot of pride in the traditions, an unbending, straight-backed adherence to old ways and their meaning, to concepts like honor, dignity, and propriety. The lens of the narrator is turned outward; the emotions he feels are reactions to the impulses coming from the outside world: the nature, others around him. The way Kawabata achieves the emotional weight of his novel/reportage is highly intriguing, dependent as much on the natural passage of time evidenced in the changing of seasons and weather patterns as on the actions of the protagonists. It probably needs to be mentioned that Kawabata ultimately committed suicide; some reviewers trace the underlying causes of his decision to his views expressed in here, to the grief over the death of the proud, mystical Japan of old. I will leave this discussion for others, but I need to mention that there is a clear feeling of loss, an underlying sadness permeating every page of this slim book. For a reportage, this work speaks surpassingly more about the author than about the nominal object of his attention.

Indeed, you won’t learn how to play go from this book; but you might come out reacher in understanding of the Japanese culture and perspectives. To that end, let me offer you one last quote, from the match of the narrator and an American met on a train, who enthusiastically insisted on playing:

“He had the forms down well enough, but he had a way of playing thoughtlessly, without really putting himself into the game. Losing did not seem to bother him in the least. He went happily through game after game, as if to say that it was silly to take a mere game seriously. He lined his forces up after patterns he had been taught, and his opening plays were excellent; but he had no will to fight. If I pushed him back a little or made a surprise move, he quietly collapsed. It was as if I were throwing a large but badly balanced opponent in a wrestling match. Indeed this quickness to lose left me wondering uncomfortably if I might not have something innately evil concealed within me.”

There is a lot to think about after reading this seemingly innocuous book. It’s fascinating how culture shapes our perceptions, how it informs our reality. As I mentioned before, this book had been originally partly written as a series of dispatches from a real match of go, for the Japanese readers already well versed in the art of go. There is not much explanation, and while the board snapshots are added, they do not inform as much as add to the mystery. This aspect of being thrown in the middle of it all makes this reading experience at once more alien and more intriguing, and recommended for all interested in Japan.

Score: 7/10

13 thoughts on “Yasunari Kawabata, The Master of Go (1951)

  1. I read the manga series Hikaru No Go and had a brief interest in go (it lasted about a week). Way more complicated than I was interested in and since I am a reader and not a player, well, I let it go with all the other games I’ve let fall by the wayside.


  2. I’m glad you read this and found much to respect in it. If I had to (but why!) put a word to this work, I’d say it is a novel about stamina. To include, of course, the stamina of those old cultural traditions & meanings. Do you think Kawabata’s “stamina” just ran out in ’72 ?

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    1. Thanks for the rec! I found this book really fascinating. To me, it was not so much a battle of staminas, but of… conduct, I guess? We can read it in many different lights, obviously, but I felt that Kawabata leaned toward the option in which it is the story of how the whiny, meowly Otake acting like a primadonna for the entire duration of the match finally succeeded in breaking the composure of the old master and thus won through overthrowing the tradition of respect and honor in the game – and in the end that behavior, of winning at all cost, was what broke the master’s heart ;). I do wonder, though, how much Kawabata wrote about himself after the war, though. I don’t like to read too much of the author’s life into his work, but certainly there is an overlap that cannot be denied.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What a nice coincidence. I’ve just started reading this to make an audiobook version for my YT channel. I love Kawabata’s Snow Country and am looking forward to (slowly) making my way through this book.

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    1. Oh, only that my mental capacity is consumed by other pursuits at the moment, Will 😜 I will start kicking in y’all’s direction soon, though!

      No, unfortunately, but I would like to learn. I found it fascinating that Japanese have such a different approach to what we would term, for most part, game, as in “just a game” – but I guess it’s like that for everyone who has aspired to be the master of their respective field.

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  4. The struggle between old times and modernity pop up often in stories about Japan, and in their own fiction too. Their changes after ww2 were dramatic. This story about go seems a good representation of that.

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    1. I feel that the changes after WWII in Japan were more than that, they were outright traumatic. Even more, I think, than what happened in Germany post-WWII, because Germany had WWI before that, and Japan had nothing even remotely similar in living memory. It’s super interesting though to see how Japan adapted.


  5. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one but I too learned about the game of go thanks to Hikaru no Go, which was quite an obsession back in high school. A bunch of friends and I even played the game a lot too, which isn’t too surprising since chess is my favourite boardgame hahah This book does sound intriguing though. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If you know a bit about go, give this book a go! (Terrible pun, I know 😜) I feel like both chess and go say a lot about Far Eastern mindset; have you watched Zhang Yimou’s Hero, Lashaan? To me it speaks so much about the hierarchy of value in the Chinese society, it was a foreshadowing of Jinping’s ideas for China and his execution of power.

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