Fostering Go Players: Produce More Japanese Stars to Restore Game’s Popularity

In the game of Go, South Korean and Chinese players tend to dominate international titles. Japan, once considered the strongest country in the world, should aim to nurture young talent to restore its status as a powerhouse.

Sumire Nakamura, a 14-year-old junior high schooler and a third-dan Go player, will start her carrier as a pro Go player in South Korea on Saturday and compete in official matches there. This reportedly is the first time for a Japanese Go player to move overseas.

Nakamura turned pro in 2019 as the first player in the newly established special screening program for talented children. Last year, she won the Women’s Kisei title at the age of 13.

Nakamura cited opportunities to compete at a higher level as the reason for her move to South Korea. As for her aspirations, she said, “I want to win the women’s title in South Korea.”

This is a new challenge for this girl prodigy who has broken the records for youngest player one after another. Many fans are no doubt excited to see her further growth and success.

Outside of Japan, there are professional Go organizations in China, South Korea and Taiwan, and in recent years, Go associations have also been established in the United States and Europe. China and South Korea have been focusing on training elite players from an early age, and the countries have emerged as prominent Go countries. In South Korea, star Go players of spectacular ability have emerged, and the game is very popular.

The Japanese Go community needs to take this opportunity to actively promote the game and broaden its fan base. To this end, it is hoped that Nakamura will fully demonstrate her skills in South Korea and achieve good results.

According to the Japan Productivity Center’s “White Paper on Leisure,” the Go playing population in 2022 had fallen to 1.3 million, one-third or fewer of the number of players 10 years ago. In contrast, Shogi is expanding its fan base thanks to the success of Sota Fujii, the holder of the Ryuo title.

Since Nakamura went professional, the Japanese Go world has pushed young talented players to turn pro, including 10-year-old first-dan Reo Fujita and 13-year-old first-dan Saki Yanagihara. This move is aimed at narrowing the gap in Go abilities with Chinese and South Korean players, and this can be said to indicate a sense of crisis in the Japanese Go community.

Going forward, it will be important for the Japanese Go community to expand Go classes for children in cooperation with schools and local communities and to introduce online instruction by professional Go players, among other measures, so that talented players can be discovered. Another effective measure would be to develop games and smartphone apps to convey the fun of Go to beginners.

In Japan, people have a strong impression of Go as a part of traditional culture, but in recent years, it has attracted attention as a “brain sport” similar to chess and other games. At the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, last year, Go became an official event, and Japan won bronze medals in both the men’s and women’s team competitions.

To boost Japanese players’ abilities, it is essential to strategically strengthen their skills. Japan should aim to regain the top positions in the world through such steps as increasing the number of matches with China and South Korea so that Japanese players can further their study of tactics.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, March 1, 2024)