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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Yasunari Kawabata beautifully illustrates Japanese cultural pride and the sense of longing that accompanies the loss of that culture in his novel The Master of Go.

Although The Master of Go contains elements of fiction, it is based upon Kawabata's observation of a Go match that took place in 1938, between the then Go Master Shūsai and his challenger, Kitani Minoru, who ultimately defeats him. Therefore, the book reads more like a chronicle of events as opposed to a fictional account or a biographical rendering of one man's life.

Go is a game of simple mechanics but exceptionally complex strategy. In general, the goal is to place stones on a gameboard in such a way as to make them invulnerable to attack while at the same time capturing as many enemy stones as possible.

Kawabata takes us through the 1938 match between Shūsai and Minoru (who is called "Otaké" in the book), referencing both the moves made by the players themselves and the events that transpired in the breaks between play. The story, however, acts as more than a mere recollection of one game or the fall from grace of a legendary player. The players, events, and outcome of this match are deeply symbolic of Japanese tradition, and, in describing them, Kawabata makes an argument for the necessity of maintaining fidelity to culture and history and the risk that comes with turning one's back on them.

The events of the novel are as follows.

Shūsai, Master of the game Go, is introduced; a brief description of Kawabata's role reporting the match is given; and the author speculates that the loss of the match itself may have been responsible for the Master's death, who passed away just a little over one year after his defeat.

Kawabata then proceeds to describe the events surrounding the match, describing the opening ceremony, the first moves, and the characteristics of the Master, the challenger, the announcer, and all of the spectators who came to watch.

Shūsai is depicted as a well-revered, larger-than-life character who assumes an awing presence when seated behind the game board. His dedication to his craft and concentration during play seemingly elevates his consciousness outside the realm of the everyday, placing him in a kind of sublime state of being.

Otaké is a young and ambitious challenger with an aggressive style of play. Though he is respectful of Shūsai's experience—often taking much longer intervals to decide upon his moves in comparison to Shūsai's graceful execution—he is willing to experiment and risk the unorthodox. This eventually earns him the victory, much to the chagrin of Shūsai.

Throughout the remainder of the novel, the events of the game are dramatized, providing insight into individual character motivations and inspirations. During conversations with Kawabata, for example, Shūsai explains his rationalization for making certain moves, revealing his deep understanding of the inner dynamics of the game.

It is also revealed that, outside of competitive play, the Master is actually a quite sickly man. At one point, after the first Ito session, Shūsai was overtaken by an illness. This required him to postpone the game for some time and then to continue in three-day increments, much to the displeasure of Otaké.

The story concludes with Otaké's game-changing decision to seal his move 121. In the long history of Go, this was considered an entirely unprecedented and radical departure from the traditional style of play. The move greatly disappoints the Master, who proceeds to counter with a move of his own which deliberately costs him the game.

This turn of events holds important symbolic significance for Kawabata's narrative....

(This entire section contains 726 words.)

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By sealing his Black 121 stone, a piece that was situated far away from the main events of the match, Otaké had broken the overarching resonance of the game, which, according to the Master, was what provided it with such a special quality. Otaké had essentially forsaken the old rules of Go in favor of a new and controversial stratagem.

The Master of Go presents this decision as symptomatic of a larger dismissal of traditional Japanese culture and values, a destructive event that symbolizes the disintegration of Japanese cultural unity. The story ends with the death of the Master: old, proud, and a vestige of an archaic beauty that had been sacrificed in the coming of a new order.