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Shogi, The General’s Board Game – History and Origin

Date Published: Last Update:2015/05/22 Traditional Culture , , , ,

In my last series of posts, we learned about the board game Go. Another popular Japanese board is the Shogi. It is also known as the Japanese chess or the General’s Game. In this series, we will learn its history, how to play it, and its influence to popular culture.

Origin of “Shogi”

The word shogi (spelled as shougi in romaji) is from two words, shou (将) which means commander or general and gi (棋) which is a chess piece. It is a two-player strategy board game which is the same family as the Chess, Chaturanga of India, Makruk of Thailand, the Persian shatranj, and the Chinese xiangqi. It is one of the popular chess variants and is native to Japan.


It is not clear when chess was brought to Japan. The earliest generally accepted mention of shogi is “Shin Saru Gakuki” by Fujiwara Akihira. The oldest archaeological evidence is a group of 16 shogi pieces excavated from the grounds of Kōfuku-ji in Nara Prefecture. As it was physically associated with a wooden tablet written on in the sixth year of Tenki (1058), the pieces are thought to date from that period. These simple pieces were cut from a writing plaque in the same five-sided shape as modern pieces, with the names of the pieces written on them.

shogi pieces

The pieces of Shogi. It is pentagon-shaped and the name of the piece is written on it. (Photo by Ishikawa Ken on Flickr)

The dictionary of common folk culture, Nichūreki, a collection based on the two works Shōchūreki and Kaichūreki, describes two forms of the game, large (dai) and small (shō). These are now called Heian shogi (or Heian small shogi) and Heian dai shogi. The former is the version on which modern shogi is based, but the Nichūreki states that one wins if one’s opponent is reduced to a single king, indicating that drops had not yet been introduced. According to Kōji Shimizu, chief researcher at the Archaeological Institute of Kashihara, Nara Prefecture, the names of the Heian shogi pieces keep those of chaturanga (general, elephant, horse, chariot and soldier), and add to them the five treasures of Buddhism (jade, gold, silver, katsura tree, and incense).

Both standard shogi and Go were promoted by the Tokugawa shogunate. In 1612, the shogunate passed a law giving endowments to top shogi players. During the reign of the eighth shogun, Tokugawa Yoshimune, castle shogi tournaments were held once a year on the 17th day of Kannazuki, corresponding to November 17, which is Shogi Day on the modern calendar.

After the Second World War, SCAP (occupational government mainly led by US) tried to eliminate all “feudal” factors from Japanese society and shogi was included in the possible list of items to be banned along with Bushido (philosophy of samurai) and other things. The reason for banning shogi for SCAP was its exceptional character as a board game seen in the usage of captured pieces. SCAP insisted that this could lead to the idea of prisoner abuse. But Kozo Masuda, then one of the top professional shogi players, when summoned to the SCAP headquarters for an investigation, criticized such understanding of shogi and insisted that it is not shogi but western chess that potentially contains the idea of prisoner abuse because it just kills the pieces of the opponent while shogi is rather democratic for giving prisoners the chance to get back into the game. Masuda also said that chess contradicts the ideal of gender equality in western society because the king shields itself behind the queen and runs away. Masuda’s assertion is said to have eventually led to the exemption of shogi from the list of items to be banned.

The closest cousin of shogi in the chaturanga family is makruk of Thailand. Not only the similarity in distribution and movements of the pieces but also the names of shogi pieces suggest intimacy between shogi and makruk by its Buddhist symbolism (gold, silver, Cassia and Incense), which is not recognized in Chinese chess at all. In fact, Chinese chess and its East Asian variants are far remoter relatives than makruk. Though some early variants of chaturanga more similar to shogi and makruk are known to have been played in Tang Dynasty China, they are thought to have been extinguished in Song Dynasty China and in East Asia except in Japan probably owing to the popularity of Chinese chess.


1. Shogi. Wikipedia.

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