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Traditional Japanese Games in Anime

Some of the most common cultural references in anime pertain to traditional Japanese games. The competitive scenes of Go and other games is a great setting for rivalries and passions to play out in. Let's talk about four of the most popular Japanese games and the shows that they inspired!

by Jankenpopp
Oct 20, 2015 9:37 PM | 12,185 views

Anime based on games is nothing new. Shows like Overlord and Sword Art Online have ushered in a subgenre of "trapped in the video game" shows, while Yu☆Gi☆Oh! and Pokémon revolve around competitive collection games. But traditional Japanese board and card games have a place in anime culture as well. The three games explored here take minutes to learn, but dedicated players devote their entire lives to professional play. Small wonder that they'd appear in anime one day!


Traditional Japanese Games in Anime Go

The oldest game on this list, and one of the oldest games in recorded history. Go—called weiqi in its native China—has been played for at least 2,500 years, and became popular in Japan around the 7th century. Go was mostly confined to east Asia throughout its history, but gained widespread popularity in the West during the 20th century. Nowadays the International Go Federation maintains the worldwide Go scene, organizing tournaments and distributing information to more than 40 million players in 74 countries.

Go is a two-player game on a 19x19 grid of intersecting lines. Each player takes turns placing white and black stones on the intersections, with the object being to surround and thus control as much territory as possible. To strip Go down to its bare essentials, there are really only two rules. First, you must place a stone on a space with at least one empty spot next to it, called a "liberty". Second, you cannot place a stone in a way that would create an infinite loop of moves (yes, it is possible). Those rules dictate the etiquette and strategy of taking territory—which is done by surrounding empty areas of the board—and capturing pieces, which is done by completely boxing in an opponent's stones. The game ends when both players decide that there are no more good moves to be made, and points are tallied based on pieces captured and territory controlled.

The Go community is as tightly knit and organized as the chess community, with strong emphasis placed on rank. Extensive rules exist for the amount of handicap stones a weaker player is allowed to place first, depending on the skill differential between him and his opponent. Professional players dedicate thousands of hours to memorizing and understanding joseki, or patterns of movement similar to chess strategies, and the most powerful among them have whole games memorized. Some famous Go games have entertaining names based on the players' reactions, such as the "Ear-Reddening Game" or the "Blood-Vomiting Game."

Anime Example: Hikaru no Go

Traditional Japanese Games in Anime Hikaru no Go

Elementary school student Hikaru Shindou finds an ancient Go board in his grandfather's attic, haunted by the ghost of a Go master named Fujiwara no Sai. Desperate to play Go again after centuries of imprisonment, Sai possesses Hikaru and encourages him to get into the game. Sai's ultimate goal is to one day make what is known as a "divine move", or "hand of God"—a clutch play that completely and unexpectedly reverses a losing game. This is a real Go term, and is essentially a thought experiment that encourages Go players to carefully consider all situations, even seemingly impossibly ones. Think of this show as Yu-Gi-Oh with board games and a much greater emphasis on skill and study.

Though his instructions breeze an initially disinterested Hikaru through his first few opponents, Sai teaches Hikaru to research and understand the moves he's having the boy make. As the anime follows Hikaru into his teenage years and through a blossoming Go career, it traces the development of his skill and passion in a way that promotes the game to viewers. Each episode even finishes with a brief educational clip starring Go master Yukari Umezawa, in which she teaches viewers a lesson applied in the episode they just saw. The manga and anime, both of which ended in 2003, were responsible for a surge in Go's popularity among young players on both sides of the Pacific.

Other Anime Examples

Traditional Japanese Games in Anime Durarara!!

Though not a pure example of Go gameplay, Durarara!! references it with the character of Izaya Orihara, who passes the time playing a hideously complicated game of his own invention that combines chess, shogi, and Othello pieces on a Go board. Evangeline A.K. McDowell of Mahou Sensei Negima! is part of the school Go club, and the game is used to develop her relationship with other characters. Both Go and shogi are often used to denote intelligence in the same way as chess in many Western media.


Traditional Japanese Games in Anime Shogi

Also known as Japanese chess. Shogi is descended from chaturanga, the same Indian game that spawned Western chess and xiangqi (Chinese chess). The history of shogi is complex and difficult to trace, but the game was in Japan as early as the 11th century. It went through a long series of variations and rule changes, but was codified in today's familiar format sometime in the 1500s. Notably, it was the first chess-like game to introduce a "drop rule", whereby captured pieces could be returned to the board in certain situations.

The object and setup are broadly similar to Western chess, with several important differences; black moves first, for instance. Black and white start on opposite sides of the board, and each player takes turns maneuvering their pieces until the enemy king is checkmated. When a piece is captured, a player keeps it and may place it on his side of the board instead of making a move. Like chess, shogi has a king, pawns, rooks, knights, and bishops, but also lances, silver generals, and gold generals. As the most complicated of all the chess-like games, it was the last for which a computer program capable of beating grand masters was developed, in 2010.

Shogi survived attempted bans during the post-World War II American occupation, part of an attempt to purge perceived "feudal" aspects of Japanese culture. Today it flourishes under the Japan Shogi Association and its sister governing body, the Ladies Professional Shogi-players' Association of Japan. Though it enjoys great popularity in Japan and China, shogi is not widely played outside of Asia.

Anime Example: Shion no Ou

Traditional Japanese Games in Anime Shion no Ou

Shogi is prominently featured in this mystery anime like Go is in Hikaru no Go, but in a much darker context. At the beginning of the show, a murderer kills 5-year-old Shion Yasuoka's parents and challenges her to a game of shogi. The incident renders Shion mute, and she develops an obsession with the game that turns into a quest to find her family's killer. She enters the realm of female professional shogi at the age of 13, guided by a family friend who is also a professional. A 22-episode anime series ran from 2007 to 2008, finishing a few months before the end of the manga.

The show revolves largely around Shion's development as a shogi player, as well as the creation of an integrated shogi tournament to discover the murderer's identity. The gender segregation in the sport—the JSA and LPSA are cooperating but separate organizations, and not considered equal—is toyed with in the show. In particular, one character disguises himself as a girl for a faster route into professional shogi because the female league has looser standards for qualification.

Other Anime Examples

Traditional Japanese Games in Anime Shogi Asuma Sarutobi Shikamaru Nara

Asuma Sarutobi of Naruto: Shippuden is an avid shogi player, always up for a game with his teammate Shikamaru, and uses this game and others to assess his opponents' skill and strategy. Shogi also appears in Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches, in which the shogi club of Suzaku High School orchestrates a coup against the student council for their own purposes. The Fullmetal Alchemist manga introduces Warrant Officer Vato Falman as he explains the rules of the game.

Karuta (Uta-garuta)

Traditional Japanese Games in Anime Karuta

Karuta refers to Japanese card games, which came into vogue after the Portuguese brought playing cards to Japan in the 1500s. It can also refer to a specific genre of pattern-matching card game. Many decks are based on European designs and made for fishing or trick-taking games. Other karuta games descend from Eawase, a game played among medieval Japanese nobility in which participants engaged in speed painting according to a theme.

Eawase (literally, "painting contest") games revolve around matching words and phrases, such as proverbs and poems. Any phrase pattern or theme can be converted into a karuta deck for this purpose. Karuta games test memorization and agility, requiring one to quickly snatch matching cards from a scattered deck as corresponding phrases are read. The most famous karuta decks are inspired by traditional Japanese waka, or poetry, and are used in the small but dedicated competitive karuta community. The All Japan Karuta Association holds annual tournaments at the Omi Shrine in Otsu.

The Eawase decks most commonly used in competitive Karuta are "uta-garuta", in which players listen to the first three lines of a five-line waka and find the card with the last two lines. These poems are from the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, an anthology of 100 poems from 100 poets throughout Japan's history. Exceptional players know the poems by heart and can identify them by the first few syllables alone.

Anime Example: Chihayafuru

Traditional Japanese Games in Anime Chihayafuru

Chihayafuru introduces us to Chihaya Ayase, a bored high school girl who turns to karuta to escape her discouraging family life. She forms powerful bonds with other student outcasts, and aims to become a "queen," or top-ranked karuta player. Two anime series ran from 2011-2013, and the manga has been serialized in Be Love magazine since 2007. A live action film was announced in April. Like Hikaru no Go, this show caused a spike in the popularity of competitive karuta; though the anime was generally well received, the game failed to gain traction in the West.

Chihayafuru and its protagonist take their names from a poem in the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu. These poems are the ones used in competitive karuta—both in real life and in the show—and are memorized word for word by strong players so that they can act on hearing the first couple of syllables. The mental fortitude and dedication required to excel at the game embodies a major theme of the series: according to creator Yuki Suetsugu, high school is a time when "you can dedicate the most genuine part of yourself to something." Karuta begins as a form of escape for Chihaya, and becomes a passion as well as a way to reunite with a beloved childhood friend.

Other Anime Examples

Traditional Japanese Games in Anime Kill la Kill

An Ogura Hyakunin Isshu club appears briefly in Kill la Kill, one of many student organizations that challenges Ryuko Matoi for influence on the student council. The iroha-garuta variant appears in the game Kirby Super Star Ultra, in which the player picks matching cards featuring monsters and characters from the series; the English localization calls it "Kirby Card Swipe." Protagonist Mikumo Osamu of World Trigger uses the game for agility training, only to lose to a young boy and his pet capybara.

Hanafuda (Koi-koi)

Traditional Japanese Games in Anime Hanafuda

Hanafuda, or "flower cards", are another type of Japanese playing cards with a long history in Japanese culture. After the ban on Western playing cards in the early 1600s, new decks were developed based on Chinese art. They were a dominant gambling medium throughout the Tokugawa period, and the gambling community created new decks as fast as popular ones were outlawed. Hanafuda survived centuries of censorship into the modern day; Nintendo began as a playing card company in 1889 and still makes them, mostly themed after its video games.

Unlike Western four-suit decks, hanafuda have twelve suits of four cards each. The cards' designs can be based on any theme, from mythology to pop culture. As the cards have pictures instead of numbers, points are scored in hanafuda games are based on picture combinations rather than numerical card values. Though hanafuda are used in many games throughout Japan, South Korea, and Hawaii, the common objective of these games is to score more points than your opponent. A series of cards is placed face up in the center of the table, and players take turns matching cards in their hands with cards on the table.

The koi-koi variant, one of the most popular hanafuda games, calls these combinations yaku. In koi-koi, a player may either bank his points from a match or call koi-koi, extending the round. If his opponent is able to score first during this period, she gets the points instead. The last person to score wins the round. Two yaku instantly win you the round: being dealt four cards of the same suit or four pairs.

Anime Example: Summer Wars

Traditional Japanese Games in Anime Summer Wars

Summer Wars is a science fiction film about a rogue AI playing elaborate games that threaten to destroy the world—essentially, Japan's answer to War Games. Despite the futuristic setting, in which main character Kenji Koiso is a mod for OZ, a massively multiplayer game linked to all of Earth's major technologies, the soul of the film lies in the centuries-old game of koi-koi. The family of Kenji's crush Natsuki has a history with the game, and Natsuki's great-grandmother introduces Kenji to the game as a test of his fitness as a match for Natsuki.

Koi-koi returns in the film's climax, in which Natsuki challenges the malevolent AI Love Machine to an online koi-koi match, with the accounts of fellow OZ players as the wager. The game is a diversion for the competition-obsessed AI as well as a way to weaken its influence on OZ and thus the world; in concert with Kenji's efforts to shut it down through some skillful hacking, it's also the culmination of centuries of family history and of Kenji and Natsuki's compatibility. The Blu-Ray release shipped with a deck of hanafuda cards themed after the film.

Other Anime Examples

Traditional Japanese Games in Anime Ino Yamanaka Shikamaru Nara Choji Akimichi

Hanafuda and koi-koi are well known enough in Japan for certain yaku to appear as naming devices and themes in many media. Three characters from Naruto—Ino Yamanaka, Shikamaru Nara, and Choji Akimichi—practice a battle formation named after the Inoshikacho combination, also known as "boar, deer, and butterflies". Inoshikacho is a common name for three-man teams or other groups of three; Dragon Ball features a boar/deer/butterfly monster called InoShikaCho, and Chojiro Tokumatsu of Yu-Gi-Oh! Arc-V plays with a hanafuda-themed deck whose chimera-like monsters refer to various yaku.

And Many More...

Games are a common narrative device in any form of media. They test dedication, knowledge, and ingenuity, as becoming a skilled player revolves around studying and understanding strategy and chance. Skills and play styles are often used as shorthand for personality types, and clashes between strategies on a board reflect struggles between the characters that use them. A set of rules is a great test of a character's creativity: once you understand them, the next step is to use them to your advantage. Any character's success depends on playing the best he can with the pieces he's given.

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