In 1938, thirty years before the Nobel Committee awarded him the Prize for Literature, Yasunari Kawabata was a reporter for the Tokyo Daily News chronicling the retirement match of Go master Honinbo Shusai. Due to a modification of the usual structure of play, as well as health problems suffered by the 64 year-old master, the match sprawled over six months. Reporting it required sixty-four installments, which eventually became the basis of Kawabata’s elegiac novel, The Master of Go.

Between each session, Kawabata would travel by train to spend the interval with his family in Karuizawa. After two days of reprieve, during which time he logged his stories with the paper, he returned to the venue, usually at Hakone on the coast opposite of Tokyo, to be “sealed in” for another session. It is during one such commute that the Kawabata of the novel encounters an American tourist with an amateur interest in Go.

The American enthusiastically suggests that they play a match. “Losing did not seem to bother him in the least,” Kawabata writes. “He went happily through game after game, as if to say that it was silly to take a mere game seriously.”

Not so for the author himself. “Indeed,” he says, “this quickness to lose left me wondering uncomfortably if I might not have something innately evil concealed within me.” The difference might even be a matter of national character:

For him it was probably like having an argument in a foreign language learned from grammar texts. One did not of course wish to take a game too seriously, and yet it was quite clear that playing Go with a foreigner was very different from playing Go with a Japanese… One is of course rash to generalize from the single example of an American beginner, but perhaps the conclusion might be valid all the same that Western Go is wanting in spirit. The Oriental game has gone beyond game and test of strength and become a way of art.

The elevation of all manner of activities to “a way of art” is characteristic of a certain classical vein of Japanese thought. The language even has a suffix, -do, that implies as much. Kendo is “the way of the sword”; shodo, “the way of calligraphy”; kado, “the way of [arranging] flowers”; and so on. This “way” can be compared to -jitsu, technique. Thus, jujitsu is the technique of yielding to redirect an opponent’s attack against them, but judo is the elevation of that technique to a way.

“Way” is probably the most literal translation of -do, but in English it’s common to render it, both semantically and conceptually, as “art.” Thus kyudo, the way of the bow, arrived on American shores in the form of Eugen Herrigel’s Zen and the Art of Archery. Fair enough, but in what sense might archery be an art? A well-drawn bow can provoke a great deal of aesthetic satisfaction, as can the flight of the loosed arrow to its target, but -do implies something more, something pervasive. It points us to the way in which certain practices can be given a purity of form that elevates them into a pattern for living.

That is the sense in which any -do is a way. By extension, the work of art is the life given form by that way. Kawabata’s American tourist — who might stand in for any number of Westerners enthusiasts — is content to try out his technique, while for those immersed in the traditions of pre-War Japan, the essence of Go is commitment to the way it provides.

Part of that commitment is the sheer endurance required by the match at the heart of the novel. It is difficult to think of any other context in which a single match of a board game could command attention over a span of six months. The players are “sealed in a can” for days at a time. By dint of continual exposure, the game imparts to them its very form. As the match draws to a close, Kawabata writes,

Watching these last stages was like watching the quick motions of a precisely tooled machine, a relentless mathematical progression, and there was an aesthetic pleasure too in the order and the formal propriety. We were watching a battle, but it took clean forms. The figures of the players themselves, their eyes never leaving the board, added to the formal appropriateness.

At the same time, The Master of Go presents a Japan on the verge of transformation. Originally serialized in 1951, the novel can be read as a depiction of the changing spirit of a nation locked into a war that will ultimately disappoint its Imperial ambitions. But that political interpretation may be unnecessary.

What’s undeniable is the pervading sense that the master’s retirement match marks an historical change. Otaké, the challenger, stands to inherit the master’s prestige if he wins. Play is interrupted several times while the players dispute the arrangements of each session. Long-standing tradition is at stake. An unexpected play makes tactical advantage of the irregularities of the match, and the game itself is changed for generations.

“It was like smearing ink over the picture we had painted,” says one player in utter disappointment.

At present, the West may have only incompletely grasped the Japanese sense of -do as a way, but this notion of gaming as a creative act seems near to the heart of how we view games. With respect to Go, Kawabata explains that,

That play of black upon white, white upon black, has the intent and takes the forms of creative art. It has in it a flow of the spirit and a harmony as of music. Everything is lost when suddenly a false note is struck, or one party in a duet suddenly launches forth on an eccentric flight of his own. A masterpiece of a game can be ruined by insensitivity to the feelings of an adversary.

The game itself is not an art, but a well-played match becomes a work of participatory art. We see that sentiment dimly reflected in the Western concern with sportsmanship; likewise in our preoccupation with cheating. The bombastic and epochal tone of NFL Films‘ narrative shorts may be our society’s most glaring illustration of the artistry of a match, but even the prosaic institutions of the sports page, the chess transcription, or the video game speedrun all testify to our implicit conviction that, under the proper conditions, play can become a work of art.

That artistic conception is always at odds with a more predatory attitude. It requires a kind of disembodiment: the capacity to see the match as though from a position outside of time — to see the aesthetic effect of the potential form that, at each moment, it could take. Against that ars longa point of view is the vita brevis conviction that winning is the sole standard by which any given match must be judged. Taken to its logical conclusion, that premise will justify any amount of smeared ink, be it poor sportsmanship, cheating, doping, or innovations that forever change not only how the game is played, but also the spirit of the culture it embodies.

is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
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