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Happy Taiiku No Hi Everyone!!!

October 15, 2011

Sumo, the only sport in the world that counts diapers as athletic wear.

When I think about Japanese sports, the first thing that pops into my head is ridiculously fat men in teeny tiny diapers.  However, since I spend a great deal of my time trying to not think about obese people wearing nothing but glorified nappies, it’s really quite seldom that I think about Japanese sports.  Even though Sumo wrestling hasn’t exactly taken off here in the United States, most of us can at least picture what one of Japan’s most popular sports looks like.  And, because we’re a bunch of apple pie loving, hot dog devouring, Chevrolet driving Yankees, we also know all about Japan’s second most popular sport – baseball.  And, thanks to Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Mr. Miyagi, Asian martial arts aren’t entirely foreign to us either.

However, since this past week was taiiku no hi, a Japanese holiday celebrating sports and health, I thought I’d bring up some Japanese games we don’t know so much about.

Shogi could crush chess to death with its bare hands.


Japanese chess is known as shogi, and is remarkably similar to the chess we play over here, in the same way that a bear is similar to a bear with robot arms that crush cars and laser beams that shoot from its eyes.
Chess the way we know it is a complicated game in which two players compete on a game board that is divided into 64 squares (the board is 8 squares across by 8 squares deep) and the players each use eight pawns, two rooks, two bishops, two knights, and a queen to protect their king piece – while, at the same time, trying to capture the other player’s king.  Chess gets tricky when you realize each piece has unique rules about how many spaces and which direction they can move.  It take the smartest people on the planet years to master the game.
Shogi laughs at chess.  Shogi is Einstein to chess’s Gump.  Shogi is filet mignon, and chess is a McDouble – and it’s not even a hot, fresh McDouble – it’s an old nasty one you found on the floor.
The first way that shogi asserts its supremacy over regular old chess is the game board itself.  Instead of being 64 squares, the Japanese board ‘roided up at and stands at a whopping 81 squares.  Then, they didn’t settle for simple rooks and knights and pawns, the Japanese game has nine pawns, two knights, one rook, and one bishop on each side.  Where we have another rook and another bishop, they’ve added two lances – which, of course, come with their own rules for movement.  On top of that, instead of a simple king and queen, ruling over the game board in wedded bliss, the Japanese have to make things a masculine and fighty – there’s no queen.  Instead, they have a single king, two gold generals, and two silver generals.

In our chess, if your opponent takes your piece, it’s gone.  We assume it’s a casualty of war, dead forever.  On the other side of the world, their game pieces use some kind of brainwashing techniques, because once one of your pieces is captured, it’s held prisoner and converted to The Dark Side, and your opponent can bring that piece back into the game at any time to use against you.  That’s a whole new level of psychological warfare there – turning your friends and family against you, so they can aid in your demise.  That’s some serious Invasion of the Body Snatchers style stuff right there.
If things weren’t complicated enough already, shogi takes the “queening” rule to a whole new level.  In Western style chess, the queen is the most important and powerful piece.  To reward a player that is able to move their weakest piece, the pawn, all the way from its starting position, deep into enemy territory to the far opposite end of the board, that pawn is “queened” – giving the power and movement of the queen.   Shogi has similar rules called promotion.  Each of your pieces has different areas of the board they need to get to in order to be promoted, but once promoted, a silver general, knight, lance, or pawn suddenly has the power and movement of a gold general.  The original gold general and the king can’t be promoted, but the rook and bishop reaching the promotion zone become entirely new pieces.  The rook is now the dragon king, which makes it a ton more powerful, and infinitely cooler sounding, while the bishop becomes the dragon horse, which is the only game piece ever that sounds more awesome than the dragon king.
The game is won when one of the players captures the other’s king, or when one of the player’s heads explode from the confusion – which ever comes first.

Othello - inspired by Shakespeare. Go - inspired by M.C. Escher.

Here in the States we have a pretty popular game called Reversi, or sometimes referred to as Othello.  Just like chess, Othello is played on a game board made up of 64 squares – 8×8.  Othello, like some might think, is named after the Shakespeare play of the same name.  The game play and objectives mirror the themes of the play.  In the play, Othello, a dark skinned Moor, is the king.  Iago, a white man, is his best friend and right hand man.  Iago, who is quite possibly the biggest poophead in the history of modern literature, is a two-faced, backstabbing, fiend.  He tries to convince Othello that his wife, Desdemona, is unfaithful, sending Othello into fits of jealousy and depression.  This allows Iago to flip back and forth, playing the friend role to Othello’s face, but conspiring to undermine him and seize control of both the kingdom and Desdemona behind his back.  The two-faced nature of the character, along with the themes of race and jealousy, led to the green game board and the two-sided game pieces – black on one side and white on the other.

Each player starts with two tiles on the board.  One player, with the white side up, and the other player with the black side up.  The first player puts a black piece down, sandwiching a white piece in between the new piece and a black piece already on the board.  Any white pieces between these two black pieces are then flipped over to become black.  Then the white player plays a piece, and any black tiles between the new piece and the existing one are flipped to white.  It’s a strategic game in which each player is trying to have control over more and more of the board.  In the end, 64 pieces will have been placed on the board and whichever player has more of their color is the winner.
Go doesn’t have a complicated Shakespearean back story, but it makes up for that in a convoluted scoring system that causes even expert players fits.
Just like Othello, Go is played on a board divided into equal sized squares, but most Go games are slightly larger.  By slightly larger, I mean bigger in the way that a buffalo outweighs a Buffalo wing.

The Go board is comprised of 361 squares, only the pieces aren’t played in the boxes, but on the intersecting lines that make up the grid.  Instead of capturing a row of your opponents pieces by placing single tiles on either end, in Go you have to surround your opponent’s stones on four sides, and once you do that, you remove their piece and control that empty space.  At the same time, you’re playing Napoleon and trying to take over as much of the world as possible – creating strings of your color that block off other areas of the board.  

The game ends when neither player feels another move will benefit them any further, but can continue on if the players don’t agree upon the winner.  The scoring system is so complex that the rules allow you to resume the game and keep finding ways to score if you can’t agree who won the first time the game stopped.  


It doesn't matter how athletic he looks, he's still hitting something called a birdie.

Hanetsuki can best be described as Japanese badminton, but there’s a few key differences between their game and ours.  If you don’t know what badminton is, the best way to describe it would be to say tennis and volleyball had a baby, and that baby was a really slow moving old lady.  Badminton is the game we play at our backyard barbecues when there’s no one athletic enough for Jarts or croquet at the party.  Sure, I realize that badminton is actually an Olympic sport, but so are synchronized swimming, curling, and racewalking, so it’s not like the title “Olympic” really makes it a sport.  

Hanetsuki, just like our badminton, has rackets and a shuttlecock or birdie, but they don’t have a net.  Instead of two players or teams competing from opposite sides of the net, Hanetsuki players simply smack the birdie up in the air, back in forth in a cooperative effort to keep it aloft as long as possible.  We’re not sure if there’s any competition involved in this game, but we did find that the player that allows the shuttlecock or hane to fall is marked on their face with ink.  The purpose of the game wasn’t necessarily to win, but the game was traditionally played on New Year’s Eve by young girls.  The winning player didn’t get a trophy or a medal, but was said to have greater protection against mosquitoes in the upcoming year.  I have to assume that the losing player, shamed with black ink marks across their face, was taken away to a dark cave somewhere by swarms of giant insects – at least that’s my version of the game, and it’s waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay more interesting my way.    

When I was growing up, there was this sad, lonely kid across the street from me.  He would shoot baskets in his driveway for hours at a time, but never make any.  In fact, he was so bad, that most of his shots missed not just the hoop, but the whole backboard, causing him to chase nearly every shot out into the grass, down the hill, and into the street.  He spent more time running back and forth than he did shooting the ball, but he never gave up.  The other version of Hanetsuki reminds me of that kid – in that game, a girl, all by herself, tries to keep the hane in the air as long as possible.  I expect we’ll never see this on ESPN.  

Both versions of the game use the same type of racket, a hagoita, which were usually beautifully decorated rectangular piece of wood.  Often times the rackets were painted with images of Kabuki actors and scenes.  I can’t imagine why, but Hanetsuki has become less and less popular over time.  Despite that decreased popularity, hagoita rackets have remained fashionable, and intricately designed ones are collected all over the country.  

East and West, we have quite a few similarities, but if you take some of the most popular games as any indication as to how our lands are different – you can certainly say that the Japanese must have loads more patience that we do over here.  Those games sound interesting and are a great way to look at another culture, but until you throw in those giant, kidnapping bugs, or maybe make the dragon horse come to life – I’ll stick with my Madden Football on XBox.  
2 Comments leave one →
  1. Sydney Bebar permalink
    October 16, 2011 6:22 pm

    I find it almost funny how some of the Japenese games are so similar to ours, when others are so different. For example, the chess games are completely different, but the badminton is almost the same but with no net or competition.

  2. October 16, 2011 8:58 pm

    I find it interesting that the Japaneese have such complicated games. I think that this is because they were ment for peole to think. Our American games dont requrire much thougt – compared to the Japaneese games. The Japaneese games are more involved too. That tells you how seriously they take their games.

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