Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 422
The Master of Go (original Japanese title: Meijin) is a semi-fictional, historical, and cultural novel written by Nobel Prize-winning Japanese novelist and short story writer Yasunari Kawabata. Kawabata is, in fact, the first Japanese author to ever receive a Nobel Prize for literature, and many analysts believe that it was precisely this novel that contributed the most to his win. The novel was originally published as a series in the Japanese magazine “Shincho” in 1951, and it was first officially published as a full novel in 1954. In 1972, the novel got its first English translation and publication, which was a bit shorter in length compared to the original Japanese publication.
The title comes from the popular Chinese strategy game “Go,” in which two players, one playing with black “stones” and the other one with white, try to control as much territory on the board as they can. The player who controls the most territory on the board wins the game. The Mater of Go is basically a slightly fictionalized account of the actual 1938 championship game between the older, professional Go player Master Honnimbo Shsai and the promising, ambitious young player Mr. Otaké. The character of Otaké is actually based on Minoru Kitani, who became one of the most respected and popular Japanese Go players in the history of the game. Thus, Kawabata chronicles the interesting match between the two adversaries, which was actually Master Shsai's last official game before his death in 1940.
One of the main themes of the novel is the metaphorical battle between tradition and modernity, which Kawataba presents through his two main protagonists. Master Shsai represents tradition, as he uses conservative, precise, and meticulous tactical moves in his attempts to win the game, while Mr. Otaké represents modernity and pragmatism, as he uses unconventional, daring, and bold strategies, managing to baffle his opponent and shaking up the rhythm of the entire game. In the end, Mr. Otaké (Mr. Kitani) wins the game by 5 points, which is a rather thought-provoking resolution both in the book and in real life.
What’s interesting about Kawataba’s style is the fact that he doesn’t present the narrative as exciting, thrilling, or fast-paced. Instead, he takes a journalistic approach and manages to create a literal report of a captivating, historical game of Go, presenting a unique story of subtleness, ambition, tradition, strategy, success and failure, artistry, culture, and the pursuit of happiness and satisfaction. The Master of Go is also considered a metaphor of Japan’s loss and defeat in the Second World War.