Fujii’s feat augurs new shogi era as youngest to ever hold 3 titles

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Souta Fujii. At the Shogi Kaikan in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo on September 10, 2021.

A young genius has again rewritten the history of the shogi world. It can be said that he has steadily risen through the ranks to become the strongest shogi player representing the Reiwa era.

In the Eio championship match, Oi and Kisei titleholder Sota Fujii beat defending champion Masayuki Toyoshima, who also holds the Ryuo title. At 19 years and 1 month old, Fujii became the youngest player to hold three of the eight major titles in Japanese professional shogi, greatly eclipsing the previous record of 22 years and 3 months set by ninth-dan Yoshiharu Habu.

From the time Toyoshima had first played against Fujii, he won six consecutive matches, posing a formidable obstacle for Fujii. Since then, Fujii has continued to evolve, and the latest Eio championship battle lasted until the final game of the best-of-five series, with Fujii showing his brilliance in his endgame moves to win the championship.

The emergence of a teenage triple titleholder has brought cheerful news to a society that has been in a melancholy mood amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. Fujii’s feat is sure to encourage people of the same generation. He deserves a round of applause.

Since he became a professional shogi player in 2016, Fujii has set numerous records, including winning 29 consecutive matches and becoming the youngest player to win the championship of an official match other than the eight major titles. In July last year, at 17 years and 11 months, he captured the Kisei title, breaking the mark that had stood for 30 years for youngest-ever holder of one of the eight major titles.

Fujii’s incomparable accurate reading of games is considered to have been cultivated in traditional tsume-shogi checkmate puzzles. He also uses shogi software to study strategies that help him make brilliant moves unexpected by opponents. In recent years, his flexibility and accuracy have been outstanding enough to respond to any type of battle.

At the end of January this year, Fujii left high school voluntarily because he “wanted to concentrate on shogi.” During the downtime when he had no school to attend nor shogi matches to compete in due to the coronavirus pandemic, he said he reexamined his approach to shogi. His feat must have come from untiring efforts.

In a recent book, ninth-dan Koji Tanigawa compared Fujii to a pitcher in baseball who “throws over 160 kph and not only has excellent control but also a variety of pitches.” How much stronger will he become? Even for people who are not shogi fans, interest in Fujii will not fade.

Fujii’s outstanding results since his debut have become a national topic and ignited an unprecedented shogi boom. With the online broadcast of his shogi matches, the fan base has expanded, with attention also being paid to the meals he eats and traditional kimono he wears during official matches.

When Fujii plays, he has a serious look on his face as if winning is the only thing that matters, but away from the board, he gives off an innocent appearance. He is also modest and polite, making his personality a great attraction.

In recent years, the shogi world has been described as being in a time led by a strong quartet in which four players share the eight major titles: Akira Watanabe holds three titles, Toyoshima the Ryuo, Takuya Nagase the Oza, and Fujii. Will his achieving the triple crown herald the era of Fujii’s dominance?

In October, the Ryuo tournament, regarded as the most prestigious title, will begin. Fujii again has Toyoshima in his sights as he aims for his fourth title.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Sept. 15, 2021.