Shogi bears fruit with a champion for Japan's youth

Local Heroes 13 : Yoshiharu Habu
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The Independent Online
Japan, a country of powerful groups rather than charismatic individuals, has never been a great breeding ground for heroes, but the last year has seen the emergence of a surprising number.

Sumo wrestling fans have been electrified by a pair of boyish brothers named Wakanohana and Takanohana. The ace baseball pitcher Hideonomo, who last year transferred to the Los Angeles Dodgers, has gained a following across America. But this year the spotlight has fallen on a different, and unlikely role model: a skinny, bespectacled 25-year-old named Yoshiharu Habu.

Habu is a grand master of shogi, an ancient Japanese game with rules and terminology very similar to chess. Shogi is played on an 81-square board, with flat wooden counters each bearing a Chinese character; as well as familiar pieces like kings, bishops and knights, the player manipulates jewels, lancers, and gold and silver generals.

Like chess, it requires a combination of precise technique and imaginative intuition, qualities central to Japanese culture, from judo to landscape gardening. "Habu's most powerful weapon is the inspiration he gets from the right side of his brain," explained a eulogistic profile in the weighty Yomiuri newspaper. "This inspiration is being called `Habu magic'."

There are 20 million shogi players in Japan and in February Habu climbed to the very top of the heap by winning all seven of the major championships. His frowning countenance has appeared in countless newspapers and magazines, and even on a promotional poster for the Tokyo metropolitan police. But shogi skills alone do not explain this sudden celebrity - Habu's appeal lies in the combination of his youth with a very old fashioned and traditional sensibility.

In appearance he is unprepossessing to the point of nerdishness - pale, skinny and owlish, habitually photographed hunched over the board in the traditional male kimono, wafting himself with a paper fan. Shogi players are by nature a reticent bunch but Habu has surprised even them with his undemonstrativeness.

Even after clinching the grand slam he did not allow himself the traditional clenched fist victory salute, although he caused a minor scandal when he was seen applying lip balm before a crucial game. The significance of this action is elusive, but it raised eyebrows in the rarefied shogi world. "Such a gesture may not have appeared altogether appropriate for a top player on the verge of winning all seven titles," the Yomiuri's critic cautioned.

The younger generation of Japanese - well-fed, well-off and bored - are the cause of much anxious talk among journalists and theorisers, and commentators are in no doubt about the significance of Habu's rise, and that of his sporting compatriots.

"Unlike the traditional image of a genius - an aloof person with a strong sense of individuality - all of these young heroes are polite, quiet and thoughtful, and have pleasant personalities," observed one profile.

Evidence suggests, however, that Habu is more fun than he looks. Despite his sober demeanour, he won the envy of young men all over Japan last month by marrying Ire Hatada, a beautiful actress popular for her roles in several television dramas. The ceremony was a traditional rite held at a local Shinto shrine, but Ire's world could not be further from Yoshiharu's: a few weeks before the wedding there was great excitement when she was assaulted in Tokyo's station, apparently by a crazed male fan. Shogi is an all-consuming game, and the emotional and intellectual demands have been the death of more than one marriage. An old folk song tells the tragic story of a man whose obsession with the game cost him everything. Much of its pathos is lost in translation, but the first line is salutary: "I have staked my life on little shogi pieces which would disappear if I blew on them."

But if anyone can combine the demands of domestic bliss and shogi mastery, it is Habu, as he made clear at the couple's post-nuptial press conference. "We will combine our energy to build a happy household," the champion vowed, his lovely bride at his side. "I am cleaving to a fresh resolve but I must act responsibly - both as a shogi player and as a member of society."