The Magic of Go
Go brings out best in ukiyo-e artists

Go centerpiece of many ukiyo-e

Go brings out best in ukiyo-e artists This is the second of a two-part series by Richard Bozulich, writer of «The Magic of Go» column. He is a collector of art related to the game of go as depicted in ukiyo-e.

Sets such as «The Four Seasons,» «Five Elements,» «The Eight Views of Lake Biwa,» and so on, exemplify a principle of organization much favored by artists in Japan to generate new pictorial ideas within a familiar and accepted framework. «The Four Accomplishments» was another category favored by ukiyo-e artists.

The Four Accomplishments

«The Four Accomplishments» refers to the four arts, especially esteemed in China from around the seventh or eighth century, mastery of which was considered to be the mark of a well-rounded gentleman-scholar. As a set, these four-the lute, the game of go, calligraphy and painting-became known in Japan under the name «kinkishoga,» with the lute often represented by the koto, biwa or shamisen.

Grand Minister Kibi at the Tang Court

Go probably reached Japan in the fifth century and certainly no later than the sixth, and by the beginning of the eighth century, it was popular among Japanese Buddhist monks and nuns. In spite of this, however, the Japanese have accepted it as a truism that go was introduced into the country by a certain Kibi no Makibi, known as Grand Minister Kibi.

Kibi was born into a family of aristocrats in 693 and died, full of honors, in 775. While still a youth he won favor at the Imperial court, then situated in Nara. When he was 23 he was sent to study at Changan, the capital of the Tang dynasty (618—907). He was given special instructions from Emperor Shomu’s daughter, to «bring back the fruits of Tang learning.» Kibi spent 18 years in Changan, the largest and most splendid city in Asia, the fountainhead of the flourishing culture of the Tang empire.

There is a fascinating story concerning Kibi’s visit to China. Emperor Hsuan-tsung wished to test Kibi’s mental powers and invited him to play go with one his ministers. At that time, Kibi did not even know the rules, but he agreed nevertheless, and even went so far as to stake his life on it. Aided by the ghost of a friend, Abe no Nakamaro, Kibi was on the verge of achieving a one-point victory when the minister’s wife, who was standing by, secretly swallowed a stone in order to save her husband from the shame of defeat. All the stones were counted (as is still the rule in Chinese go), and one was found to be missing. Now it happened that the emperor owned a magic mirror. It was fetched, and with its help the missing stone was located. Hsuan-tsung was incensed and gave the order for the unfortunate woman to be executed. Kibi, however, begged the emperor to spare her, which he did.

Go-Board Tadanobu

Go brings out best in ukiyo-e artists

Sato Tadanobu’s bravery in defense of his lord Minamoto no Yoshitsune is recounted in many tales and ballads of the medieval period. One scene in particular made such an impression on the public that it became the centerpiece of many dramatizations and gave Tadanobu the nickname by which he is best known, «Go-Board» Tadanobu. In this scene, Tadanobu, trapped in the house of his mistress, fights off his enemies with a go board. In its many versions by different artists, it has become the most common subject among woodblock prints related to go. The story is summarized as follows:

Sato Shirobyoe-no-jo Tadanobu was born in 1160 into a high-ranking samurai family. He became one of the most trusted retainers of Yoshitsune, the younger half-brother of the great warlord Minamoto no Yoritomo, the leader of his great clan. Yoshitsune’s brilliant military successes against the Taira clan, had helped Yoritomo gain control of the country. These victories had also brought Yoshitsune into high favor at the Imperial court in Kyoto, with the unhappy result that Yoritomo became convinced that Yoshitsune was working up some sort of plot against him.

Early in the winter of 1185, Yoritomo secretly dispatched a small troop of warrior-monks from his headquarters in Kamakura to Kyoto, where Yoshitsune had established himself in the Horikawa mansion, the clan’s headquarters. The monks attacked on the night of the 17th of the 10th month, and even though the attack failed, it frightened the timid court into withdrawing its favor from Yoshitsune. He left the city with his faithful lieutenants, intending to find a haven in Shikoku or Kyushu. They sailed from Osaka, but were driven back by a violent storm, so he now abandoned his plan and decided to look for help in the distant northeast of Honshu, where he had spent much of his boyhood. By this time, he and his dwindling band, Tadanobu among them, had been declared outlaws and became the objects of the most extensive manhunt in Japan’s history. To bypass Kyoto, now swarming with Yoritomo’s troops, they were forced to make a difficult detour through the snowbound mountains of Yoshino.

On the way, they were discovered and attacked by a band of monks. Tadanobu heroically rose to the occasion. He put on Yoshitsune’s armor to deceive the enemy. Then, with a handful of loyal comrades, he fought a delaying action until the others had got safely away. His companions fell one by one, and he expected to be cut down as well, but miracuously managed to escape.

Weary and dispirited, Tadanobu arrived back at the outskirts of Kyoto and sought refuge in the house of his mistress Kaya. However, in Tadanobu’s absence Kaya had transferred her affections to another warrior, a man called Kajiwara. She tried to persuade him to get Tadanobu arrested. He was a loyal vassal of Yoritomo, but the woman’s treachery horrified him. He turned down her request and went away, leaving her seething with resentment. That same evening she plied the unsuspecting Tadanobu with wine, and when he fell asleep she slipped out of the house and reported his presence to the authorities. Soon armed officials arrived and surrounded the house. Tadanobu woke in the nick of time, fought his way out of the trap and over the rooftops, and made his way back to the Horikawa mansion. Yoritomo’s men found him there the next morning, and, after a bloody struggle, Tadanobu, badly wounded, cut his belly open and fell forward from an upper balcony with the point of his sword in his mouth.

Sato Tadanobu is the very type of tragic hero whom the Japanese have always held in the highest esteem: bold, single-minded, utterly loyal, betrayed by circumstances, and in the end expiring without complaint in the face of hopeless odds. Curiously, there is no mention of go boards anywhere in the story. Perhaps the go episode was added when the story was dramatized for the first time in 1680 as a play for the puppet theater.

In another version of the story Tadanobu is taking a bath when Kaya slips away to alert his enemies. Hearing the commotion they make, he snatches up a kimono, and rushes out to find that she has hidden his sword. He picks up the first weapon that comes to hand-a go board-and fights off his opponents with it.