On a chilly Sunday afternoon in January in downtown Osaka, a group of young Japanese women in kimono were drinking green tea and eating chocolate cake while excitedly chattering away. The topic was their respective rankings in the ancient Asian mind sport of go. Later, when the talk died down, six of them formed three pairs who sat facing one another at small tables lined up in rows. And then — silence. The only sounds were soft classical music playing in the background, punctuated by the clinking of polished black and white stones when one of the women dipped her hand into a bowl to pick one up and place it on the board with a gentle tap.

Although most people in Japan associate go with elderly men and smoke-filled salons, the strategy board game has been catching on recently among young women, and events that cater to women have been springing up around the country. Though the number of participants is still small, there has also been a parallel uptick in female players worldwide since the emergence of “pair go,” a mixed doubles version of the game, in the late 1980s..

At the elite amateur level, however, female participation still has a long way to go. At the 33rd World Amateur Go Championships taking place this week from May 13- to16 in Guangzhou, China, just one of the 59 players (from 59 countries) is female.

Nevertheless, in the last few decades women have made great strides in sports that were formerly the domain of men: judo, baseball, even sumo. So why not go?

“Just last year, it started to get more popular,” said Mayumi Otsuka, 29, who has been hosting monthly get-togethers since last year at a go parlor in Osaka where she and her 27-year-old sister, Satomi, have been working (and playing up to 10 times a day) for the past three years.

“I want to make go popular with young women,” said Satomi, and toward this end, the sisters, who are from Hyogo, have been promoting the game on the Internet and through word of mouth.

When they tell people they play, surprise is the most common reaction because “go players are considered geeks,” said Mayumi. “But lots of people told us that their image of go changed after they found out we played.”

Reaching out to young players was something that the main Japanese go organization, Nihon Kiin, seemed to have little interest in. The effort to popularize the game with the younger generation in Japan started in 2006, when a group of enthusiasts formed the Igo Amigo project in Tokyo, aimed at Japanese in their 20s and 30s, explained Doppo Matsubara, one of the organization’s founders.

Two years later, Igo Amigo (igo is the Japanese term for go) started an annual autumn go festival in Tokyo and a magazine, Goteki, to promote the game. Following the event’s success, they eventually decided to aim the magazine at women, said Matsubara, its editor in chief. The goal was to “update go’s image to make it more modern” by riffing off the look and feel of fashionable beauty magazines.

“After we made it a women’s igo magazine in 2010, the number of female igo players started growing,” he said.

Last year, at Igo Amigo workshops, the ratio of male to female players was even for the first time, with women making up 80 percent of the beginners. According to Matsubara, this can be attributed to Igo Amigo’s success in rebranding go as “young, bright and cheerful” rather than “gloomy and for old men.” And since it is an intellectual game, it puts forth the notion that not only can beauty and brains go hand-in-hand, but the game itself is also fun.

For those with a competitive streak, it’s also a fierce battle for territory. Just ask Aya Kitano, 32, and Yasuko Mantani, 26, who were deeply engrossed in a power struggle about 45 minutes after the games had begun at Shinsaibashi Igo Salon. They had already staked out the board’s corners, leaving the middle up for grabs. Whoever could seize it would win.

“Yasuko is playing very aggressively now,” Kitano said, shortly before succumbing to Mantani, who, in her pink, flowery kimono, emerged as the victor, albeit by a narrow margin.

Kitano, an office worker from Osaka, said she started playing about a year ago after seeing a rerun of an old anime about go. This piqued her curiosity, and she now plays a few times a month.

On the other hand, Mantani, a nurse who is also from Osaka, got her first taste of go at age 7 when her mother started dragging her to smoky salons full of old men. At first she hated it and quit. But then, not long ago, she thought she might give it another try. She met the Otsuka sisters who told her about their clean and comfortable go parlor with events for women. “And since there’s no smoking here, I decided to come by,” she said.

Across the room, Mayumi Otsuka, the highest ranked player in the group, was discussing her loss to Ayako Soma, who had received a seven stone handicap because of her lower level as player.

“Ayako defended her area really well,” she said, explaining why she, herself, was unable to make any headway.

With all the practice the regulars have been getting, everyone seems to be improving in leaps and bounds. The question is, how far can women’s go go?

“To facilitate the next big change, we need a model,” said Thomas Hsiang, vice president of the International Go Federation, who likened that “model” to a “Bobby Fischer” of women’s go.

At the moment, the two best bets on the pro scene, he said, are 18-year-old Joanne Missingham, who is a sensation in Taiwan, and Hsieh Yi Min, a 22-year-old prodigy who came to Japan 10 years ago and is now at the top of the women’s game. He described both as “very feminine and strong.” If either can break into the male-dominated elite tier of professional go, he said, “then I think we will see another big change.”

For more information on go: Igo amigo: www.igoamigo.com (Japanese); Nihon Kiin: www.nihonkiin.or.jp (Japanese); 33rd World Amateur Go Championships ranka.intergofed.org (English).

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