Book Review – THE MASTER OF GO by Yasunari Kawabata

The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata

The Master of Go Synopsis :

Go is a game of strategy in which two players attempt to surround each other’s black or white stones. Simple in its fundamentals, infinitely complex in its execution, it is an essential expression of the Japanese sensibility. And in his fictional chronicle of a match played between a revered and invincible Master and a younger, more progressive challenger, Yasunari Kawabata captured the moment in which the immutable traditions of imperial Japan met the onslaught of the twentieth century. The competition between the Master of Go and his opponent, Otak ‘, is waged over several months and layered in ceremony. But beneath the game’s decorum lie tensions that consume not only the players themselves but their families and friends – tensions that turn this particular contest into a duel that can only end in one man’s death.

Luminous in its detail, both suspenseful and serene, The Master of Go is an elegy for an entire society, written with the poetic economy and psychological acumen that brought Kawabata the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Translated by Edward G Seidensticker


Forgive me for the outrageous generalization I am about to make based on my very limited knowledge of the subject matter… Only in Japanese literature would you find a highly successful novel whose focus is ostensibly a single instance of a board game. And while chess may come close as a European parallel, only in Japanese society would such reverence and artistry be attributed to a board game and those who devote their life to it.

I make these generalizations with the utmost admiration for that society’s respect for tradition and those with the persistence and dedication to hone their skills over a lifetime. It honours a quality that has been all but marginalised by rampant consumerism and instant gratification so popular in today’s society.

I say whose focus is ostensibly a single instance of a board game, because the success of this novel is not in the detailed descriptions of the individual moves made within the match being played – if I am being honest it is those passages where my interest faltered on occasion – it is in the way the game play and the characteristics of those involved mirror changes occurring within Japan at that time.

The Master of Go speaks to the tension between the old guard and the new; respect for tradition and artistry versus strategic pragmatism and more democratic principles. There is also an intriguing perceptiveness and duality to Kawabata’s narrative. Outwardly the narrator respects and admires the Master, his status experience and even obsession, but it’s as if something is gnawing at his own conscience, acknowledging the darker undertones present and potential merits of the younger opponents viewpoint.

It is in its oblique consideration of the obsessive and at times oppressive nature of tradition that The Master of Go shines. For this reason, along with the poignancy of Kawabata’s descriptions of the seemingly commonplace, the characters involved, the venues and the changing of seasons, I found myself somewhat surprisingly engrossed.

BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 4.5 / 5

The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata
Available from:
Book Depository | Booktopia(Aus)B&N | Amazon

Genre: Drama, Literature, Translations, Historical

January in JapanI have reviewed this title as part of Tony’s January in Japan initiative.


Author Information: 

Yasunari Kawabata, winner of the 1968 Nobel Prize for Literature, was one of Japan’s most distinguished novelists. Born in Osaka in 1899, he published his first stories while he was still in high school. Among his major novels published across the world are Snow Country (1937), Thousand Cranes (1949), The Sound of the Mountain (1949), and Beauty and Sadness (1965). Kawabata was found dead, by his own hand, in 1972.

Other reviews of The Master of Go: The Truth About Lies ; Tony’s Reading List ; Inverarity ; Japan Kaleidoskop