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Learning Japanese


Photograph courtesy of Doug Cable of a go board in his living room

After mastering the basics of the game of go, I was eager to improve. There were many strong go players around town that I wanted to challenge. But to do so, I needed to learn more.

As is my wont, I looked for reading material. The successor to “Basic Techniques of Go” was “Strategic Concepts of Go.” I bought that with the expectation that it would bring me to the next level, but I was disappointed that such was not the case. Improvement was not so easily gained.

Ishi Press published another work soon after, “Tesuji,” by James Davies. I eagerly bought and read that but as well, but I was disappointed. It failed to live up to my expectations. (Perhaps I expected too much.)

Here is what I expected (and might be a model for other go writers):

Common joseki illustrated in simplified form, followed by examples from master play in a variety of settings. Tesuji would be shown in a natural setting, proceeding from those sequences.

Complex joseki shown in master games, analyzed by masters to demonstrate the artistry of the game. The aim would be to show the heights to which the art of go is capable of. Tesuji play a key role there.

A test section to grade understanding.

The book “Tesuji” failed me (although it sold well for Ishi Press, the publisher, and is sought by fans online now) and so I concentrated more and more on the Japanese go books in my collection. It eventually occurred to me that learning Japanese to read these books might be an option.

It was funny how that happened. The notes to the games in the Kido Yearbooks were very brief, only a couple of lines. I fooled myself into thinking that if I just learned a few kanji, the Chinese characters that make up much of the Japanese writing system, I could figure out the gist of the commentary. I failed to understand how packed with meaning those seemingly simply sentences were. (They were actually compact summaries using idioms and allusions to convey meaning.)

I was in a used bookstore on Sawtelle, which was the old Japanese section of Los Angeles in those days, when I found a book, “Reading and Writing Japanese,” by Frances Sakade on the shelves. “Hey!” I thought. “I’ll just master the 2,000 or so kanji in there and have it made!”

I took that book and tried to use it to decipher some of the sentences in the Kido Yearbook. I soon learned how wrong I had been! Japanese is filled with grammar, much more so than even English, which is a complex language itself. Within days of groping to understand the text with the Sakade book, I gave up and went back to the used bookstore. I had seen a grammar book there when I picked up the Sakade textbook. It was “Essential Japanese,” by Samuel E. Martin. I bought and took it home to study.

“Essential Japanese” is a simple, but good manual for learning Japanese. (Both “Essential Japanese” and “Reading and Writing Japanese,” by Frances Sakade are still in print, a testimony to their usefulness in learning the Japanese language.) It has dozens of sample, everyday Japanese sentences that illustrate fundamental rules of Japanese grammar. Japanese is a complicated language with a maze of subtleties to be mastered before one can acquire even the slightest fluency. “Essential Japanese” lays out everything in model sentences that people use normally in their lives in Japan.

I just drilled with those sentences every day. Back then, I was in the aircraft leasing business. We traveled around the US (and the rest of the world) every day. I was either in vehicles or flying somewhere all day long. I used that time to memorize the model sentences in “Essential Japanese.” Nights in hotel rooms were the same. That was study time for me.

I have been to Las Vegas at least 75 or 80 times. But I am not a gambler and rarely saw the shows. So why was I there? To sell aircraft! Las Vegas is a prime place for people in the market for aircraft, whether in business or for personal use. I remember the aircraft that we bought or sold there, but at the same time I have many memories of studying Japanese in the town.

Las Vegas was where I really mastered Japanese! However, for anyone wishing to succeed at learning a foreign language, let me give a piece of advice. Get a hobby. My desire to get strong at the game of go was a major motivating factor in my drive to learn Japanese. Remember: there were few books available in English in those days for advanced players. Anyone 2 or 3 dan was out of luck. (Learning Japanese in the context of a hobby is a distinct advantage.)

And then, with the booming Japanese economy in the 1970s and 80s, the leisure industry took off. And go went along for the ride. Kido had been a staple of the go scene from the time it was first published in the 1920s, along with the establishment of the Nihon Ki-in. It was the house publication of the Ki-in, providing information essential for professional go players. But starting in the 1960s, it began gearing its articles and game analysis to the public at large. (At times I have been criticized by translating go books that are too complex for average go players in the West. My counter is that I wish to show the heights to which the game can ascend. With Robert Browning I say, “Oh, that a man’s reach might exceed his grasp/Or what’s a heaven for?”)

That was exactly what I was looking for. I started buying Kido on a regular basis and tried to translate the articles. (Some of the recreations of my first efforts may be found on this website.) I loved the fact that Kido gave glimpses of the professional go world, with all sorts of cultural artifacts turning up in its pages, experts in one esoteric but related field or another displaying treasured objects, cultured people on the edge of the go world presenting things that they had unearthed, and who knows what else? Every month there was a new discovery.

These days, go is not as interesting to me. It’s not so much Japanese anymore. The international world has taken note of the game and made its presence known. The Japanese must now show others who have mounted the stage, due deference. I know from my long acquaintance with Japanese politeness, that this will be done with good grace. The Japanese have always shown a willingness to share with open arms.

Go now belongs to the world. But things will still take time. During the recent AlphaGo-Lee Sedol Match I heard a news-reader on a national broadcast (ABC) read an account of the day’s action in the match. Then she said, “I have no idea what the words I just read mean.”

Hopefully, in the future this kind of ignorance will be overcome and go will take its rightful place in the intellectual and cultural understanding of people everywhere. We started with people coming up and asking, “What is this game?” Now we have international coverage of multi-million dollar events. The road ahead is bright.

Those who wish to comment on the opinions expressed here may send their thoughts to info@GoWizardry.com. The most interesting responses will be addressed in future postings.

Robert J. Terry

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