The first Meijin - Oohashi Soukei I

Posted 2021-04-04 00:00

In 1612, shogi and go were accorded the status of an art. Accompanying this, shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu granted a one-time stipend to eight of the best shogi and go players at the time, among whom was Oohashi Soukei (大橋宗桂, 1555-1634), a merchant from Kyoto. At some point, it became clear that Soukei was the strongest player in the land, and thus took on the title of the first Meijin (also called the shogidokoro) of the game, and the founder of the Oohashi house.

Soukei had been making a name for himself as a strong shogi player before being selected. The oldest recorded shogi game was played in 1607, between Soukei and Honinbo Sansa (本因坊算砂, 1558-1623), who would also be favoured by the shogun as one of the four go players in 1612. Sansa is known today as a founding figure in the go world and the strongest go player of his time, but he was also Soukei’s rival in shogi. They are noted to have played over 120 games of shogi against each other, but only 8 of those game records survive today. This particular game in 1607 was an even game, with Soukei playing sente static rook against Sansa’s gote 4th-file rook; Soukei won this encounter.

In 1616, Soukei presented a collection of tsumeshogi compositions, or mating problems, to the then-shogun Tokugawa Hidetada. This act would begin a tradition of each Meijin gifting of a tsumeshogi collection to the shogunate before or after their accession. These collections have been preserved for posterity, and provide a fine glimpse into the creativity and skill of each Meijin. Some of the collections fully embrace the artistic aspect of problem composition, and are regarded as timeless masterpieces in the field of tsumeshogi even today.

Soukei’s collection, the Shougi Uma no Hou Narabi ni Tsukurimono (象戯馬法並作物) comprised 80 problems of a practical flavour and moderately long (>9 moves). At this point in history, tsumeshogi problems were primarily intended for players seeking to improve their game; Soukei’s compositions thus had a different feel compared to the more artistic style common by the mid-Edo period.

The Shougi Uma no Hou Narabi ni Tsukurimono was in fact an expanded version of the original 50-problem Shougi Zoubutsu that he had previously presented to Emperor Goyouzei in 1603, which is also the oldest tsumeshogi collection on record.

As the first Meijin, Soukei fulfilled and defined the roles of his office for future generations to follow. He passed away in 1634 aged 79, and his eldest son Oohashi Souko (大橋宗古, 1576-1654) inherited the title of Meijin and the position of head of the Oohashi house. Soukei’s grave is located at Reikouji Temple (霊光寺) in Fushimi Ward, Kyoto, in the shape of a shogi piece and with the characters 「桂馬」 (keima) carved into it.