Daniel Moon: Igo

My first day in the Kyoto Igo Salon began with me walking into a classroom full of elderly ladies and being greeted by their curious stares. Upon telling the instructor that I am a foreigner trying to take Igo lessons, the classroom buzzed with whispers of “He’s a foreigner!” Needless to stay, the unwanted attention was more than enough to reconsider going back to the salon.

I’m happy to write though that it feels a lot more comfortable attending the class now. The class, including the instructor, is very friendly, and a lot of the students have been eager to talk to me about life back in the states, my thoughts on Kyoto, Igo, and so on.

Each week, the instructor lectures the class for half an hour about new strategies. After walking me through a brief overview of the basic rules of Igo, the instructor has allowed me to listen in on the lectures along with the rest of the class. The basic idea of the game is to build one’s base as large and secure as possible using “stones,” which are the basic unit of the game. The lectures have been mostly about conducting offensive and defensive moves based on predictions of the opponent’s moves. According to the instructor, veteran players can predict the flow of the game multiple moves ahead of time, though I’m not confident that I can predict beyond one or two moves at best.

I have to admit that I have yet to win a game (and I don’t imagine that I’ll be returning to the states with a win on my record), but strangely enough, despite my competitive personality, I haven’t found myself stressing about losing in Igo. My guess is that there is a certain atmosphere about Igo (or perhaps an atmosphere specific to my salon) that allows both the winner and the loser to walk away from a game with satisfaction.

What kind of atmosphere? What I view as the attractions of the Igo game come mostly in comparison to other strategy board games that I have played in the past, namely chess. Granted chess has its own appeals, I would characterize Igo as a game that places relative emphasis on respecting the opponent. Some of the customs of Igo (bowing to the opponent before the game, placing the first stone in the upper-right hand corner, avoiding making sounds or touching the opponent’s stone when placing one’s own stone, etc.) are purely for the sake of paying respect to the opponent. Of course, mannerism is present in any game, including chess, but clearly Igo comes with a longer list of intricate customs and manners that are virtually considered rules.

Besides the general rules and customs of Igo, it is also the informal atmosphere of my salon that allows for a relaxed few hours of lectures and practice. It seems that the students here have been regulars for a long time, since they all seem to know each other well and speak to each other in informal Japanese. While they address the instructor as “sensei,” it was surprising to see that they also speak to the teacher in informal Japanese, as does the instructor. I have been able to talk with a number of students, though the talks mostly consisted of them asking me questions about where I am from, why I decided to come to Japan, why I chose to study Igo, and so on. The students had a strong Kansai Accent, and it might be a safe guess that talking with them helped grow my ears for the Kansai Accent.

I can’t say that there’s been a major breakthrough that suddenly elevated me to become adept in the workings of Igo. What I can say, however, is that over the course of the semester, I steadily grew a good amount of understanding of the logic and dynamic of the game. I dare to say that along with better understanding came a better appreciation of the game in its unique charisma.

6 thoughts on “Daniel Moon: Igo

  1. Wow, your CIP sounds really cool. I’m still working on my chess skills but I hope to try my hand at Igo one day. I find it pretty interesting that you think respect for the opponent is somehow inherent in the game. When I first read that, I thought it was simply Japanese politeness but your description does make it seem to go beyond that. Did you know you wanted to take Igo lessons as your CIP before coming to Kyoto? How did you first become interested in it? Good luck getting that first win!

    • I was actually considering volunteering for an English teacher, but after reading about another Igo CIP activity, I thought I’d give it a try. I’d known the basics of Igo before, but don’t think I had played a complete Igo match before I started attending the class. Turned out to be a good decision though! I would recommend it for the sake of the experience. Thank you for the wishes!

  2. Dan Moon: I’m very impressed that you chose Igo as your CIP. A game like Igo seems like it has the dual advantage of being fun and insightful as well. I imagine that it is a game unique to East Asia, and its fascinating that the game remains relevant today (I’m guessing its been around for a while). I was wondering if you have an opinion on why Igo remains popular in Japan? I’m thinking about brushing off the dust and getting into some strategic gaming myself, so maybe Igo is just the thing for me, too. Glad you stuck with it!

    • Koji Spangler: Thanks for your feedback. Don’t think I can pinpoint a reason it’s particularly popular in Japan, but what I will say is that I think it’s popular that Igo has come to be associated with the traditional East Asian image. Maybe the aspect of respecting the opponent shares a number of conceptual similarities with Confucian ideals that define East Asian culture? And yes, I would suggest you try a game or two, it’s a much harder challenge than chess I would say but equally more fun.

  3. Moon-san! Sounds like you were able to make the most of the experience even though you weren’t able to secure a win. I personally have always felt that traditional Asian strategy games had a certain feel to the apart from those we see in the West, and I think reading your entry was the first time I’d ever thought of a concrete way to describe that feel.

    You were describing the casual atmosphere of the classroom as well as the formalities associated with playing Igo, so I was curious what your impressions were of how those two qualities reconciled with each other. Is there almost a shift in the atmosphere in the classroom when people start playing, like all of a sudden things get serious and quiet? Or is that casual atmosphere still manifested somehow?

    • I would say that the atmosphere of the salon, whether during the lecture or during practice, remains quite casual. But what I will say is that it’s a unique kind of casual – while the students talk to each other in informal Japanese, they still keep up the Igo customs (bowing to each other before the game, etc.) It’s a subtle coexistence of informality and formality. I for example use formal Japanese and follow the customs, but also joke around sometimes with the other students. Old ladies are fun to talk to!