Top-flight go player slams glass ceiling

by Hitomi Hanada


In 1990, two years after becoming the first female go player in the world to earn the rank of 9th dan, Rui Naiwei left her homeland, China, for Japan, hoping to take on top professional Japanese players.

But Rui, now 38, never had a chance to realize her wish, and has never even had an opportunity to take part in official professional go tournaments in Japan.

In fact, the only professional encounter she has ever had with a high-ranking Japanese go player took place in Taiwan, where she went up against Hideo Otake, also a 9th dan, in the semifinals of the Ying Changqi Cup, a global go tourney held every four years.

When she lost the third game of their best-of-three match, tears welled in her eyes. “I wasn’t frustrated at losing, but it was painful to think I had no more stones to move on the board,” she said.

Rui learned go from her father as a fourth grader in Shanghai, where she was born, as China underwent its Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. She rapidly climbed the ranks and was named a member of China’s national go team in Beijing in 1980.

Disagreements with her team manager, however, and the glaring differences in how male and female players were chosen eventually prompted her to leave the national team.

She returned to Shanghai in 1989, but was not permitted to play go. It was then that she decided to come to Japan.

Several weeks after her arrival in Tokyo, she called on Nihon Ki-in (the Japanese go association) to ask for permission to take part in professional go tournaments. She was stunned when an association director showed her a document in response.

“Chinese nationally ranked go players are not permitted to participate in professional tournaments in the nation in question, except for those who have been dispatched or authorized by the Chinese Weiqi Association.”

The document, dated about a month before her arrival in Japan, was apparently a product of China’s fear that its players might leave their homeland to play elsewhere.

Many active foreign players, including “Kisei” titleholder O Rissei and Cho Chikun, holder of the “Oza” title, came to Japan when they were young and belong to Nihon Ki-in or Kansai Ki-in.

Rui, however, turned pro in China, effectively barring her from such status in Japan. Nevertheless, she decided to settle in Tokyo, where she soon got a job as an assistant on a videotaped go-teaching program.

Fortunately, this job provided her the chance to meet Go Seigen, who has long reigned as a genuine go master.

She soon became Go’s student, working part-time as a go teacher at a life insurance company while honing her talent in a private study group that included such luminary go professionals as Rin Kaiho, another 9th dan.

Yusuke Oeda, also a 9th dan and a director of the Nihon Ki-in, began hearing talk on the go circuit that Rui would rob her Japanese counterparts of women’s titles if she played in Japan, and that as a Chinese pro she ought to be playing in China.

He said the question of whether she should be admitted to Nihon Ki-in had never been brought up at meetings of its directors.

“Even now, Chinese go players remain unable to play in Nihon Ki-in, because there are still some who believe many Chinese go players would flock to Japan.”

The Chinese go association has allegedly sent a document to Nihon Ki-in rescinding its earlier ban on Chinese players’ participation in go games in Japan, but a spokesman at the Japanese go association said he has not seen it.

Rui’s mentor, Go, understands. After arriving in Japan from China in 1928, he was expelled from Nihon Ki-in in 1947.

Though he was subsequently named an honorary guest member, he said he still does not fully understand the association’s actions, and feels it is wrong to exclude Rui.

About 36 million people worldwide play go, according to Nihon Ki-in’s estimates, including 20 million in China, 8 million in Japan and 7 million in South Korea.

In October 1996, without having played in a single official tournament in Japan, Rui and her husband, Chinese pro go player Jiang Zhujiu, left for the United States, where they established a pro go organization and participated in world championships as U.S. representatives.

Rui moved to Seoul in 1999, where she was welcomed as a guest player by the Korea Baduk Association, which was part of an effort to enhance the level of female go players in the country.

She was awarded the highest South Korean title, of “Kokushu,” in 2000, and won a clean sweep of all major women’s titles last year.

The “Iron Lady,” as her numerous South Korean fans call her, is now a full-fledged member of the South Korean go association, and even receives research funding from the group.

Go, Rui’s mentor, said the growing number of international tournaments is reducing the need for foreign players to come to Japan.

“By closing its door on foreigners, Japan has tumbled down from the world’s No. 1 position,” he said.