In the beginning

Posted 2021-04-04 00:00

The origins of shogi

Shogi today is essentially the same game since more than 400 years ago. It emerged from a milieu of Japanese shogi variants, from dai shogi in the Heian period (13th century) to chu shogi and sho shogi. During this time there was a general trend for the variants to get smaller - dai shogi (literally “big chess”) was played on a 15x15 board with each player controlling 65 pieces in 29 types! Chu shogi (“medium chess”) is on a 12x12 board with armies of 46 pieces in 21 types, and sho shogi (“small chess”) on a 9x9 board with each player using 21 pieces in 9 types. Chu shogi in particular was very popular among the people, and indeed still played even today.

All of these shogi variants allowed for pieces to move, capture, and sometimes promote, but the great innovation came when the drop rule was added: pieces captured from your opponent could be placed back on the board as your own. Suddenly, the game turned from a slow manoeuvring grind into a lively attacking festival. This new type of shogi, played with the sho shogi setup sans one piece (the drunken elephant), was identical to the modern form which we also call “hon shogi” (“real shogi”) today.

The start of the Edo period

The story of hon shogi starts essentially at the dawn of the Edo period. For some context, the different types of shogi existed in various forms since the Heian period (794-1185) and perhaps even earlier, but hon shogi started to emerge in the end years of the Sengoku or Warring States period (c.1467-c.1600). The Sengoku period saw feudal warlords fight for control, culminating in the battle of Sekigahara in 1600. Tokugawa Ieyasu won the battle and came to power, unifying Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate and ushering in the Edo period, a long period of over two and a half centuries of peace and prosperity.

The Edo period was a time of peace where Japanese arts and culture flourished. The shogunate government would recognise certain domains as arts, such as tea appreciation, Noh theatre, kabuki, and flower arrangement. Under the iemoto system, certain family lines, or houses, would be entirely devoted to the teaching and preserving of a specific art over the decades, and the shogunate would provided a stipend to the head of each house, ensuring that their respective traditions would persist through the generations.

Hon shogi’s place in Japanese culture was cemented in the early part of the Edo period in 1612, when the Tokugawa shogunate recognised the then-fresh “new” type of shogi as one of the arts, surprisingly chosen over the still-popular chu shogi. Chu shogi would still remain popular and frequently played until World War II and even beyond that, but hon shogi, or simply just shogi now, would be the predominant variant in Japanese culture.