Sloppy teen star wins new fans for Japan’s “Game of Generals”

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Tokyo (AFP)

Shogi, the Japanese variant of chess known as the Game of Generals, is popular in their homeland thanks to a lanky teenage prodigy with a rock star fanatic.

Sota Fujii’s incredible success and bizarre charm have made him a household name in Japan, dusting off the musty image of the traditional board game and making it accessible to a new audience.

The 19-year-old became the youngest player to ever reach the highest rank of shogi, ninth dan this summer, and last month became the youngest player to hold three of the sport’s eight major titles.

Fujii launched his bid to finish fourth in the best-of-seven championship series “Ryuo” earlier this month, and his peers credit him for breathing new life into the chess-like game.

“It used to be just shogi fans chasing it, but now general news broadcasts have shogi stories and that has attracted new fans,” professional shogi player Taichi Nakamura told AFP.

“There never used to be a lot of female shogi fans. But since Sota Fujii came here, a lot of women have taken an interest.”

With his unruly head of hair, goofy grin, and high-pitched, buoyant voice, Fujii may seem like an unlikely pin-up.

Shogi, the Japanese variant of chess known as the “game of the generals”, is very popular in their homeland Philip FONG AFP

But his face is glowing from magazines, billboards and television screens across Japan, and his favorite cakes sell out in convenience stores within hours of eating them during the Games.

His comments to the media are usually understated.

“I don’t pay too much attention to the titles themselves,” said Fujii after his recent win.

“The most important thing for me is how strong I can get.”

– Old mercenaries –

Shogi is played on a simple wooden board with figures that are differentiated by painted Chinese characters. It has existed in its current form for about 400 years.

The rules are similar to chess, with the main difference that captured pieces can switch sides and return to the board – a practice reputedly adopted by the mercenaries of 15th century Japan.

“I’ve been playing shogi for over 50 years and I’ve never been bored,” said retired professional Kazuo Ishida, who ranks ninth in the dan.

A student practices during a shogi class in Kashiwa, Chiba
A student practices during a shogi class in Kashiwa, Chiba Philip FONG AFP

“That’s because it’s a game of infinite variety. You never get the same game twice.”

Shogi apprentices must achieve first dan at 21 and fourth dan at 26 if they want to become professionals. There are currently around 160 active professional players in Japan.

Professionals receive a salary from the association and can also earn prize money and commentary on games.

Pro gamer Nakamura says Fujii’s reputation has drawn casual fans who are less interested in the intricacies of the game and more interested in the players themselves.

“The number of people who don’t play shogi but watch professional games has increased significantly,” he said.

“People started enjoying personal story competitions between the two players.”

– ‘Everybody knows him’ –

Popular shogi-themed manga and anime have also helped spark interest, but Fujii isn’t the first superstar the sport has spawned.

Yoshiharu Habu was the original Shogi prodigy and won his first major title in 1989 at the age of 19 before holding them all at once – an achievement that has yet to be repeated.

Habu was awarded the Japan People’s Honor Award in 2018 and has won 99 titles over the course of his career.

Retired player Ishida believes Fujii is stronger than Habu in his heyday but says it remains to be seen whether he can keep up with his continued success.

He believes the way people enjoy shogi has changed “dramatically”.

“I think there were probably more people playing in the Habu era but now there are a lot more fans watching games,” he said.

Shogi, which is played on a simple wooden board with figures that are characterized by painted Chinese characters, has existed in its current form for about 400 years
Shogi, which is played on a simple wooden board with figures that are characterized by painted Chinese characters, has existed in its current form for about 400 years Philip FONG AFP

“Habu fever was special, but I think everyone across the country knows who Fujii is.”

Fujii’s influence can certainly be seen in the Sunday morning children’s class that Ishida teaches in Kashiwa near Tokyo.

He says that since Fujii’s rise, more kids have taken up the sport – and there’s no doubt who their favorite player is.

“Sota Fujii is really cool,” said seven-year-old Soichi Ishikawa, struggling to make himself heard over the clatter of the pieces.

“I want to be a professional shogi player when I get older.”


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