Obituary: Yasuharu Oyama

Yasuharu Oyama, shogi player, born Nishi-Achi Japan 1923, died Kashiwashi 26 July 1992.

SHOGI (Japanese chess) is enjoying growing popularity in the West. All the good games shops in Europe have shogi sets displayed in their windows alongside chess, draughts and backgammon. An international bulletin devoted to the game, Shogi World, first appeared in January 1976, jointly published by Ishi Press International (Mountain View, California) and the Japan Shogi Federation, the official body that oversees the activities of 15 million players in Japan.

Yasuharu Oyama was one of the game's Grand Champions (Meijin). He was the most successful shogi player in the history of the game. From the age of 17 until his death he was a dedicated and deeply respected professional player. He won 124 tournaments and 80 titles, including the highest-ranking one, Meijin, which he held against all comers for 18 years, records which have never been paralleled by any other player, and are not likely to be equalled in the future. The most impressive fact is that at 79, when he died, he was still an active player ranked among the top 10. This is all the more remarkable when we consider that the average age of this group is 32.

As a small boy in Nishi-Achi (now part of Kurashiki, a beautiful city devoted to traditional and modern arts, in Okayama Prefecture), a district then famous for its gamblers, he used to watch games of shogi being played for money, and soon started to learn the game himself. He had a very understanding father who encouraged him by sending him to a good local shogi teacher, with whom he made such excellent progress that he was recognised as a budding genius at the game. So in 1935, at the age of only 12, he was sent to a nine-dan master in Osaka, Kinjiro Kimi. On his departure from Kurashiki station, schoolmates and well-wishers came to see him off, bearing congratulatory banners reading 'Oyama (Big Mountain) Shonen (Boy)'. One of them was inscribed with a fairly amateur haiku: Ikku saki wa / hanaga aru aru / haru no yama whose melodious repetitions in 5-7-5 syllables may be translated thus:

Where you are going

many flowers await you -

mountain in springtime.

On his first day's apprenticeship he played another disciple of the master, Kozo Masuda, his senior by five years, who roundly beat him three times. His teacher Kimi told him: 'I shall not teach you. You must find your own way. But whenever you cannot find it, come and ask me.' This is typical oriental teaching technique. The senior disciple, Masuda, was to become his great rival, but also his close friend. The shogi world followed their contests with great excitement in the 1950s and 1960s. Masuda had an aggressive, attacking style, while Oyama was a quieter, defensive player. In 1952, he beat the 'unbeatable' Grand Champion Yoshio Kimura, and thus became Japan's 15th Meijin. Masuda died last year, so the shogi world lost two Grand Champions almost in the same year.

In 1990, Oyama was awarded the Order of Cultural Merit, the first time it had ever been given to a shogi player. At his celebration party for the award, he made a typically modest, gentlemanly speech, saying: 'I am just so glad to find that shogi is about culture, not just about winning and losing.' Towards the end, his doctor, with whom he often relaxed over a game of mah-jong, commented that Oyama was looking very thin. Oyama's response was to ask him when he could start playing golf. The doctor absolutely forbade such exertions, whereupon Oyama confessed he had already started playing it again. He was a simple man, unconscious of his greatness, who never retired but travelled around the country playing friendly games and meeting his innumerable fans, carrying on his trips only a furoshiki (a large square of cloth) to bundle his possessions in.

Oyama had no schooling above the primary school level. In that respect, he was like many Japanese poets and artists who dropped out of the educational system before it could break them. But he always regretted not having gone to university, and said it was that constant regret that made him work so hard to become Grand Champion. Members of the Japanese Imperial Family write waka or 31-syllable poems, but they also play shogi, a game that the former Showa Emperor liked, and which is played today by Emperor Akihito. In a certain sense, therefore, Oyama may be called the King of Shogi, and his memory as such will always be venerated, in Japan and, eventually, all over the Western world.

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