National

Youngest ‘shogi’ pro Sota Fujii matches longest winning streak with 28th victory

Kyodo

The nation’s youngest professional shogi player, 14-year-old Sota Fujii, won his 28th straight match on Wednesday to equal the all-time winning streak in official matches of the traditional chess-like game.

Fujii, a junior high school student who holds the rank of fourth dan, has gone undefeated since December. The shogi star is now on a par with Hiroshi Kamiya, a 56-year-old eighth-dan player who set the record for consecutive wins in 1987.

“I know that many people, including those from my hometown, are supporting me. It helped motivate me, and I’m thankful for their support,” Fujii said at a news conference after the match. “I’m glad that I was able to meet their expectations today.”

As for the next match, he said: “It’s a big stage, and the opponent is formidable. I want to stay focused and do my best.”

In his latest make-or-break match during a preliminary round of a tournament played in Osaka, Fujii defeated 25-year-old Shingo Sawada, ranked a sixth dan. It was their second match, following a close game that ended with a win by Fujii.

Fujii has not lost a match since his professional debut in December against 77-year-old Hifumi Kato, a ninth-dan player. His win came two months after he became the youngest professional player ever at the age of 14 years and 2 months.

Last Saturday, Fujii beat 19-year-old Hayata Fujioka, an amateur and freshman at the University of Tokyo, extending his winning streak to 27.

A day before Fujii’s historic match on Wednesday, Kato, one of the most famous shogi players, fell to 23-year-old fourth-dan Satoshi Takano. Kato retired after the match.

Kato, known as “Hifumin” by his fans, started playing shogi 63 years ago and has been a well known face on TV.

Fujii has also raised the profile of shogi and inspired younger people to take up the board game.

Shogi is a strategy game similar to chess, as its objective is to checkmate the opponent’s king. Shogi can be more complicated than its Western counterpart because players can deploy captured pieces from opponents back into the game as part of their own.

The number of children attending shogi schools in the Tokyo Metropolitan Area rose to 502 in May from 366 a year earlier, according to the Japan Shogi Association.

In the Kansai region, the number of young players taking instruction rose by about 50 percent this year, compared with the average, the association said.

Kai Nagasawa, 10, who joined a shogi school run by Fujii’s teacher in Nagoya in January said, “Fujii, who ranks fourth dan, is so strong and I admire him.”

Professionals rankings include a scale starting from fourth dan and reach to ninth dan, the highest level.

A shogi school in Aichi Prefecture where Fujii trained is also gaining popularity. There were only 15 students between the ages of 5 and 10 at the school in Seto when Fujii had been in attendance, but the figure has tripled since the prodigy’s professional debut and subsequent achievements.

“The number of shogi players is growing across Japan. We are seeing a tremendous impact,” said Rikio Fumimoto, 62, who operates the school in Seto, Fujii’s hometown.

Official Fujii merchandise — such as Japanese-style fans and autographed plastic sleeves — are proving popular, and some people are even considering starting a fan club.

Experts attributed the frenzy around Fujii to his outstanding mental strength and talent. “His biggest charm is that he can beat adults even though he is a junior high school student,” said Kimiaki Nishida, professor of social psychology at Rissho University.

Shoaki Kitada, a 77-year-old resident from Osaka, was among those who came to the tournament hall to cheer Fujii on.

“I became interested in shogi after fourth-dan Fujii appeared. Together with my niece, who is an elementary school pupil, I am rooting for him. I hope he will win again today,” Kitada said.