The Queen’s Gambit: The chess craze everywhere except Japan
Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, about chess prodigy Beth Harmon, was a record-breaking hit, sparking a chess boom across the world – everywhere except for Japan. The narrative structure of the series recalls a typical Japanese spo-kon manga, but the drama was not enticing enough to appeal to the nation, where the game of Shogi takes the place of Western chess.
For many Japanese people, The Queen’s Gambit seemed like a copy of any number of Japanese manga series, such as March Comes in like a Lion, Chihayafuru or Hikaru no Go; it was perceived as reminiscent of Japanese spo-kon dramas. Spo-kon (translating as an abbreviation of “sports guts”) is a major genre of Japanese comics, films, manga and anime, which gained popularity with the general public during the country’s period of rapid economic growth in Japan in the 1960s and 70s.
In spo-kon, with effort and courage, a hero earnestly engages in games and overcomes various hardships as well as the competition. In order to emphasise the challenges that the hero encounters, the drama usually highlights the heroine or hero’s qualities as an athlete, and often involves an apparently unbeatable rival with a contrasting element, such as a hero from a poor background and a rival who is rich. The template in which the weak confront the strong is consistent with the values that the Japanese people embraced during the time of economic growth to “catch up and overtake Western countries.”
Japanese chess: Shogi
In Japan there has never been a king, so since ancient times no “queen” has existed either. The Japanese monarch was called the emperor, and his spouse was the empress, so quite literally, the queen never arrived in Japan – in Shogi or in real life. Shogi has always been popular in the country, even though Western chess is less complicated in terms of the number of pieces and squares on the board.
In chess, each piece has a large space for movement, but a player cannot reuse pieces taken from their opponent. In Shogi, on the other hand, many pieces can only move one square at a time, but reuse of pieces stolen from the enemy is allowed. A chess victory is a matter of thinking about how quickly you can defeat the opponent with a limited number of steps; Shogi requires more imagination when deciding how to win, allowing stolen pieces to hit anywhere on the board and in quick succession.
In terms of the game’s relation to real-life Japanese culture, historically there were far more power struggles within the same groups, so a change of rule did not significantly change the lives of its people. If the overlord changed, it was rather natural for all those who served the previous ruler to switch allegiance – so the idea of reusing stolen pieces sounds more familiar to Japanese people, where subjects’ loyalty was more fluid.
Japanese street chess and shinken-shi Shogi champions
With the Queen’s Gambit-fuelled boom, playing chess for money appears to be getting more popular. Some sites now regularly offer chess markets, and there are now bookmakers for Japanese punters as well. While this kind of gambling was generally prohibited in Japan during the Edo and Meiji periods, shinken-shi, which literally means “serious masters”, were those who made a living by playing Shogi, and they exist as far back in history as records go. There were a number of well-known shinken-shi when Japanese street Shogi flourished, and street games between professionals were considered part of paying one’s dues. Public Shogi gaming was common, just like park chess or street chess, until sponsors disappeared in the 1950s. Nowadays, Shogi is very common among all Japanese, not just middle aged and older people. But street Shogi is uncommon among the young.
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