Shogi – A Traditional Japanese Game with a History Covering 1000 Years

By Mike Sullivan.

Shogi is a Japanese version of a kind of chess, if you are an avid fan of Japanese anime, manga or even film then you have most likely seen it being played. Although, it might not have been very clear how exactly one plays it!

However, for foreigners it does help create a very Japanese atmosphere, in the 2012 movie ‘The Woodsman and the Rain’ (キツツキと雨) the game of shogi helps Koji Yakusho and Shun Oguri’s characters deepen their bond of friendship. We might not understand the game itself, but we can see how it bridges the gap between generations in Japan.

The History of Shogi

It is not well known when shogi first made its appearance in Japan, but we do find it mentioned in text from the 11th century, including actual shogi pieces found in Nara which appear to date from around 1058. We can see a clear line of development in the game of shogi from the 13th century to the 15th century, during this time the number of pieces increased with the inclusion of the rook and bishop, and the rules became more fixed.

The game of shogi reached all levels of society, and it might be surprising to hear that it was even endorsed by the government! In 1612 the shogunate created a law that the best shogi players should receive an endowment, and the eighth shogun, Tokugawa Yoshimune decreed that a tournament should be held every day in his castle. Yoshimune reigned for 30 years, and is considered to be one of the better shoguns, and he set the date for the tournament as the 17th of November. Today this date is known as Shogi Day.

Japanese Checkers - Japanese Checkers – “Go” / A.Davey

 

From the 15th century until now the game of shogi found new focus through shogi associations that were set up, as well as tournaments.

Shogi Tournaments

In Japan the two main organisations for shogi players is the JSA and the LPSA (this one is for women), though in many regards they co-operate together. Professional tournaments are organised by the JSA, altogether there are seven main competitions, but both organisations are also involved in smaller tournaments at national and local levels.

On Shogi Day it is quite common for these kinds of tournaments to be on TV, and for foreigners an interesting aspect would be the very Japanese way that players greet each other, avoid any disruptive behaviour during the game and finally say some few words after the game.

The Game of Shogi

As a basic explanation, each player has twenty shogi pieces consisting of 1 king, 1 rook, 1 bishop, 2 gold generals, 2 silver generals, 2 knights, 2 lances and 9 pawns which similar to chess face each other on a board. In contrast to chess though the pieces are not visualisations of their name, each one is a simple flat piece of wood upon which it’s name has been written in kanji.

ShogiShogi / chidorian

 

Another difference that you will notice is that rather than being placed in two lines like in chess, that the pieces have three lines. In the first line closest to the player you have the king, gold generals, silver generals, the knights and the lances, then in a second line you have just one rook and one bishop, and then in a third line you have a row of pawns.

Players take turns, and for anyone familar with chess some of the pieces have similar types of movement. For example, the king can move one square in any direction, the rook can only move sideways or forward/back and the bishop can move diagonally. Some of the other pieces, like the generals, have rather more complicated rules to their movement!

Shogi piecesShogi pieces / Vibragiel

 

An interesting aspect of shogi is that if any of your pieces reach one of the squares held by your opponent’s pieces then they get promoted. For example if your pawn landed on your opponent’s square then it will become a gold general. Furthermore, if you capture an opponent’s piece, then you can opt to return it to the board and use it as your own – however you would lose a turn if you do so.

Just like chess one can win a game of shogi by capturing the opponent’s king.

Michael Sullivan

Michael Sullivan is the editor for the online magazine and is responsible for bringing together the great content that we offer our readers. He can normally be found writing for several UK and Japanese magazines, as well as working as a translator.