Do you know that the Western chess has a cousin in Japan? It is called “shogi(将棋)” and has since been attracting many foreign people into taking the challenge and playing the game. Other than being called the Japanese chess, it is also known as the Generals’ Game. It is popular for its “drop rule” which allows captured pieces to be returned to the board and to be used as one’s own. Though it is similar to the classic game of chess, it has interesting changes and additions to the rules. Let’s know more about this traditional Japanese board game!
Shogi’s exact origin and when the game was brought to Japan is unknown. However, there are several tales related to it such as being invented by Yuwen Yong or Emperor Wu of Northern Zhou. Some say this story was just invented by people who want to make a name for themselves. Another story says that it was most likely delivered by the Imperial ambassador during the rule of Nara and became very popular for the noble people during the Heian period when the Japanese capital was moved from Nara (奈良) to Kyoto(京都).
It is also said that the earliest predecessor of the game originated from India and was called “chaturanga,” an ancient Indian strategy game. From then on, it spawned into a number of variants with the present form being played as early as 16th century. During this time, the pieces used were not the five-sided pieces of today but three-dimensional figures. This claim hasn’t been supported with physical evidence yet, thus it remains a mystery whether these figures truly existed or not.
An old document also supports the existence of shogi in the Heian period. It contained a detailed description regarding the characters being used for the shogi pieces. It was written by Fujiwara Akira, a Japanese historian who was also a professor at the Hitotsubashi University(一橋大学). Archaeological evidence of the shogi pieces was found in excavated grounds of Nara Prefecture which backed up documentary evidence. There were two forms of shogi commonly known in the era – dai shogi (large shogi) and sho shogi (small shogi). The Heian small shogi is the version in which the modern shogi is based on. Upon its development in the Edo period, rules were officially established and precisely formulated.
The game needs two players who have to play on a board. The black player is called “Sente” and he has to move first. The white player is called “Gote.” The board consists of grids with 9 rows and 9 columns. Just like chess, the goal of each player is to position their pieces in a strategical manner in order to put their opponent’s king into checkmate.
Shogi has more pieces and a larger board than chess. It also has certain areas on the board which allows the pieces to be promoted when they reach it. The piece will reveal a new name and range of movement after the player flips it over. Each player starts with 20 pieces of different sizes, each having a name of its own in Kanji characters. They are placed on the board facing the opponent.
The pieces include the following: 1 king, 1 rook, 1 bishop, 2 gold generals, 2 silver generals, 2 knights, 2 lances, and 9 pawns. Each piece has a specific placement on the board. The king is placed in the center file, the two gold generals are placed in files adjacent to the king, the two silver generals are placed adjacent to each gold general, the two knights are placed adjacent to each silver general, the two lances are placed in a corner, adjacent to each knight. If an opponent catches a piece, it can be placed back onto the board and added as his own. It is similar to controlling two queens in a chess game. You will know when a piece has been promoted as it will be turned face up during the game.
In the recent years, pieces with both Japanese and English captions have been used to make it easy for foreign people to understand. And to make it even easier, English speakers have their own terms for promoted pieces such as “dragons” for promoted rooks and “horses” for promoted bishops. The game is quite unpredictable which makes it daunting for first-time players.
For those people who get easily frustrated in learning shogi and just can’t get the hang of it, an easier version is available for them to learn. It is known as the “9-Masu Shogi” which has been endorsed by the Japan Shogi Association (automatic translation available) and has been well accepted by the shogi community. Its rules have been developed by Teruichi Aono (青野照市), a popular shogi player who is also considered to have the highest rank.
The new version is played on a three-by-three square board. The goal of checkmate still remains though the starting positions consist of 40 different styles allowing players to have an open arrangement. It is a great guide for beginners who’d like to master shogi. The number of sales for this version is actually on the rise and is expected to continuously increase in the future.
For those who are interested in mastering the game, they should definitely start with this easier version. It is very important to be conscious of time and movement as professional games rely on timekeepers. Every movement should be carefully planned and legal as an illegal move immediately results in loss of the game. A proper etiquette should also be followed such as greeting the opponent before and after the game and a fair withdrawal without any disruption.
Shogi, as a traditional board game, has a vast history worth knowing in the Japanese culture of gaming. It has been well received and has grown in popularity over time that it has become an advantage for every tourist to learn the game. Nowadays, shogi can be played in computers where players can compete with other players around the world. Try playing the game now!