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New Future for Ancient Game
By Tanaka Reiko
Published: May 4, 2004

 

AKASUKA, Tokyo. Eight o'clock on a Golden Week morning and already dozens of teenage girls are lined up outside the entrance of the Imperial Hotel. Some of those waiting behind the ropes have been there since six in the morning, and the tension is not unlike being front stage at a 1990s Glay concert minutes before the opening act. In fact, there is an even bigger crowd waiting at the front of the Imperial Hotel today than last week when the popular singing duo Lemon and Lime, famous for their dishsoap jingle, booked the hotel for a photo event. However, curious adult passerbys who ask if all this commotion is for a J-band are quickly set to rights.

"Ko-sama isn't anything like those bubble-headed lip-synchers," says Yuki, 16, standing at the very front of the crowd. Beside her, her cousin Chiriko, 18, who came all the way from Sapporo, nods in agreement. "He and Shindou-san aren't just pretty faces," Chiriko says. "They're utterly *brilliant*." Lasered across both girls' t-shirts is a publicity still of the aforementioned 'Ko-sama,' Ko Yeongha, a Korean go-playing professional, and Shindou Hikaru, a Japanese go-playing professional, facing each other across the game board.

Yuki, Chiriko, and nearly a hundred other spectators with a median age of 17 are waiting for the opening of the Hokuto Cup, a two-day international go-playing tournament.

Three years ago, no one in the go-playing community could have foreseen the extent to which this ancient game of strategy would ensnare a younger generation of Japanese. Perhaps due to its long history in Japanese culture, go has also earned in Japan the reputation of being a stodgy game fit to be played only by old men. For decades, the Tokyo Go Institute and the Kansai Go Institute saw a decreasing number of insei applications by children interested in training to be professional go-players. The number of those who sat for the professional exam also decreased. Without new talent, the strength of Japanese go, once first in the world, fell behind China and South Korea where youthful interest in the game remains unabated.

Three years ago, it was partly to shore up flagging Japanese interest in the game that Hokuto Snack and Soft-Drink Inc., a privately-held company based in Osaka, sponsored an international tournament between Japan, China and South Korea for young go-playing professionals 18 and under. Team Japan came in last that first year, but the tournament attracted enough audience abroad to convince the company to sponsor it on an annual basis.

No one, not even the company itself, expected the runaway success in Japan that was the Hokuto Cup the second year it was held.

"I remember we rented a mid-sized ballroom at the Imperial for the event, seating capability for 150, same as the first year," said Togari Ryuu, then the senior event coordinator for the Hokuto Cup. "-- and the first day, twenty minutes after we opened the doors to the public, we ran out of seats. Afterwards, it was standing room only."

When asked the reason for the tournament's unexpected popularity in Japan, Togari replied only, "Go is an irrefutable part of our national heritage. Hokuto Snack and Soft-Drink Inc. only helped a little to keep this part of Japanese culture alive in their hearts."

Hokuto Snack and Soft-Drink Inc.'s former marketing director, Suzuki Hoshi, now retired, gave a blunter explanation. "It's simple: sex sells. And some of those young pros --" She smiled. "Well, let's just say it hasn't hurt the company any to be associated with them."

It probably helped that Ko Yeongha, one of the returning members of Team Korea for the second Hokuto Cup, had branched out from being just a professional go player. In the year between the first and second annual Hokuto Cup, Ko -- nicknamed 'Ko-sama' by his fans here in Japan -- emerged as a minor TV celebrity in both Japan and his home country of South Korea after he acted in the popular KBS drama 'Flowers in the Attic.'

"It passed the time," Ko replied in accented Japanese when asked in a phone interview why he suddenly took up acting. He had been scouted during one of his bimonthly visits to Seoul's premier hair salon, Languid Waves. Casting in KBS's newest soap opera and a contract quickly followed. However, 'Flowers in the Attic' would be the first and last drama he appeared in. He quit his acting agency immediately after filming for the drama concluded. "It was interfering with go," Ko explained simply.

Since Ko had ended his acting career as summarily as he'd begun it, there were those who were prepared to dismiss the number of spectators at the second Hokuto Cup as an aberration. "All this fervor over go will die once the next hottest soap opera airs and those kids lose interest," said Uedo Yoshiie, 56, proprietor of a go salon in Shinjuku and long-time amateur go aficionado. His customers are also mostly in their fifties and seem to share Uedo's opinion on the attention span of Japanese youth. No one at the salon had gone to either of the first two Hokuto Cups.

Contrary to the expectations of Uedo and his customers, however, attendance at this year's Third Annual Hokuto Cup is up by almost 100% from last year. And, unlike last year, a majority of the crowd today did not even come for Ko Yeongha. Among the fans waiting at the entrance of the Imperial Hotel this year, there are two other names that can be heard just as frequently as the Korean soap star's: Touya Akira 6-dan, 17, and Shindou Hikaru 3-dan, 17, two of Tokyo Go Institute's fastest rising stars.

Touya Akira 6-dan is the only son of the former six-title-holder Touya 'Meijin' Kouyo, and is considered by many players to be the defacto successor of his father's legacy. Even as a child, it was evident he was meant for the world of go. "He was barely in middle school before he was beating me one game out of three," said Ashiwara Hiroyuki 5-dan, long -time disciple of Touyo Akira's father, "And he wasn't even a pro then." Since becoming a professional go player at the age of 13, Touya has attained a near legendary status in the go world: he has the longest uninterrupted string of wins in the history of the Tokyo Go Institute and last year, in the Honinbou games, he became the youngest ever to sit in the final challenger seat for a major Japanese go title. He did not win the title last year -- insiders of the go world predict that the venerable Kuwabara Honinbou will retain the title for years to come -- but by all accounts it is only a matter of time.

Shindou Hikaru 3-dan had more of a rocky start at his professional life as a go player, but others may discount him at their own peril. "There are those who say that talent in go appears at age ten, and that if a child does not train by then, that it is too late," said Shinoda Hachemon, teacher for fifteen years of the insei class, a class for go- talented children, at the Tokyo Go Institute. "Whoever said that has never known Shindou Hikaru," said Shinoda. According to Shinoda, Shindou appeared at the entrance exam of the go class without knowing seiza from byoyomi, but within a year had blazed ahead of all his other better trained insei as well as countless gifted amateurs to become a professional go player.

Touya and Shindou's youth and meteoritic rise through the ranks was what first led insiders at the Institute to dub them and their age-peer professionals as the 'New Wave' of players who will sweep away the older generation of professional go players. Not everyone agrees however. "The New Wave is just another way of saying that this newest crop of pros aren't as much of a disappointment," said Ogata Seiji, 36, professional go player and current holder of the Japanese go title of Ouza. "They have promise. But it'll be a long time before any of these new pros can seriously challenge a title holder."

Amano Eizo, editor and staff writer at the specialty newsletter Weekly Go, disagreed. "I believe Ogata-sensei is underestimating them. I'm surprised the outcome of the Honinbou preliminaries didn't leave more of an impression on him." Amano referred to the qualifying match for a prestigious Japanese go title last year where Touya won against Ogata and took his place as challenger for the Honinbou. According to Amano, the outcome of the qualifying match was a surprise but hardly unexpected. "We didn't know exactly when Touya Akira would surpass Ogata-sensei, just that he would -- one day." He smiled. "That day probably came sooner than either Ogata-sensei or I expected."

Together, Ko Yeongha, Touya Akira, and Shindou Hikaru have become the unofficial faces of the Hokuto Cup. All three players have consistently beaten the best of the young talents in the professional go world in order to appear at the Hokuto Cup. Designated by some fans simply as 'The Trinity,' Ko Yeongha, Shindou Hikaru and Touya Akira have participated in both the First and Second Annual Hokuto Cup. The rivalry between the three players is intense and has turned into something of a legend in the go world.

When the Third Annual Hokuto Cup opens today, however, Shindou will not be among the competitors. He will be in a tournament room on the other side of Tokyo playing in the last of a series of games for his first title against Ogata Ouza. He is one of the youngest to sit in the final challenger seat for a Japanese title, a distinction shared by his colleague Touya 6-dan during last year's Honinbou title challenge. If Shindou wins, he will be the youngest title-holder in the history of the Tokyo Go Institute. The odds are against him, but Shindou Hikaru, one-third of a force that almost single-handedly transformed the go world, has always defied expectations.

"He'll win," says Akari, 17, high school student and dedicated go lover since junior high school. She waits patiently with her friends in front of the Imperial Hotel for the opening of the Third Annual Hokuto Cup, but is all too aware of the important title game being played at the far side of the city. "He'll win," she repeats. "Maybe not today, maybe not this year, but soon. The new wave is coming and not even Ogata-sensei can stop it."

 

The Third Annual Hokuto Cup will be held at the Imperial Hotel on May 4 and May 5, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free and open to the public.