The origin of the Meijin tournament, a summary

Summarised from John Fairbairn’s excerpt from GoGoD, posted on Life in 19x19.

THE IDEA OF a tournament to find a Meijin, rather than relying on the traditional system of inheritance, was in the air once the principle had been established by setting up the Honinbo tournament just before World War II. (…) The legacy of the last lifetime Meijin, Honinbo Shusai, really lay with the Nihon Ki-in, and in October 1949, when it published its rules of go for the first time, it included a section on appointing a Meijin. (…) On 15 June 1949, Fujisawa Kuranosuke had become the first 9-dan, and as further 9-dans were likely soon, a view had to be taken on whether a 9-dan was a Meijin.

The Meijin regulation specified the following:

  • A player earned 9-dan if he scored the requisite promotion points as an 8-dan in the Oteai.
  • There could be two or more 9-dans, but only one person could be a Meijin at any one time.
  • A Meijin would retain his status until he retired or was defeated in a challenge match.

To become a Meijin it was necessary:

  • to first become a 9-dan through the Oteai
  • to achieve an outstanding performance there
  • to be or have been a Honinbo. [Honinbo title holder]

A player of such acknowledged merit could then be recommended for the post by the Nihon Ki-in. Outstanding performance in the Oteai meant scoring an average of at least 65 per cent against players of 7-dan and above over 18 games.

On 22 February 1950, Go Seigen was recommended for 9-dan by the Nihon Ki-in in view of his outstanding results. This meant that there were seemingly two conceivable candidates for Meijin. However, Go’s results, though of the requisite level, were in newspaper-sponsored events, not the Oteai, and Fujisawa was not performing well enough. Moreover, neither had been a Honinbo - only Hashimoto Utaro and Iwamoto qualified on that score, but both were only 8-dan (the other two 8-dans were Kitani and Sakata). (…)

In 1952, Asahi Shinbun announced formally that it was setting up a Meijin tournament. (…) The Asahi felt it could afford to be assertive because it was the Nihon Ki-in’s number one sponsor. (…) The Asahi tried to cement its proposal with cash. In the early 1950s, when an annual tournament was reckoned to cost about ¥2 million, it offered ¥10 million. (…) [Go Seigen] said he would play in a new Meijin tournament to support the wider go world. (…)

The action therefore swung back to the Nihon Ki-in (…) [and] a committee of seven players (…) The committee was split 4-3 against accepting the new event. When they put the matter to the players’ group as a whole, the vote was reversed to 28-27 in favour. (…) [However], there were surprising and more serious voices among those against the new event. The most prominent was Kitani Minoru’s.

Kitani had a quixotic view that Meijins were not made - they happened. He was, and had been all along, opposed to any event to create a Meijin. Honinbos were different. They were just family heads and had to be created. He was believed to be supported by other older players such as Iwamoto and Hasegawa, who were also directors. (…)

There was also a view that the Oteai itself was causing problems. Translated into modern terms, it was creating grade inflation. This was a major economic problem for the Nihon Ki-in which could effectively cancel out the benefits of the much higher income from the Asahi. As the number of high-dan players increased, their stipends and pensions would create a long-term burden for the Nihon. (…) There was therefore a view that the Oteai had outlived its usefulness, and should be replaced by more conventional tournaments. Going along with the Asahi would naturally mean perpetuating the Oteai system and storing up problems. (…)

The upshot was that the Asahi Shinbun’s plans were quietly shelved (…) The Asahi therefore decided to use the 30th anniversary of its support for the Oteai in 1953 to announce a shake-up in the form of a Saikoi - Top Position - section. The format was a mini-league of the four 8-dans who played each other twice, with Black and White, at no komi.

This produced a ranking of 1. Sakata, 2. Iwamoto, 3. Kitani and 4. Miyashita. Because Shimamura Toshihiro had been promoted to 8-dan during the course of the event, he was added as the fifth-ranked player. The 7-dan group were tagged on in order of results in that year’s Oteai: 6. Takagawa, 7. Maeda, 8. Sumino, 9. Fujisawa Hideyuki, 10. Hasegawa, 11. Sugiuchi. (…) Go Seigen was not a Nihon Ki-in member and so was excluded (as, of course, was Hashimoto Utaro of the Kansai Ki-in). (…)

After a two-year trial period with this event, the Saikoi began for real in 1955 with - confusingly - the 1st Term. (…) Because it was an extension of the Oteai, there was no komi, but results were scored 75 and 45 points according to colour for use in promotion calculations. During the span of this league, Sakata was promoted to 9-dan and Takagawa to 8-dan. (…)

With no one player able to stake a convincing claim, the way was still open to set up a Meijin tournament, and that is precisely what the Yomiuri Shinbun did. Acting with its old assertiveness, it cleverly paved the way by running a lead-in event called Japan’s Strongest Player Tournament, the Nihon Saikyo. This was to run for just three terms before morphing into the Meijin tournament. (…) Meanwhile the Saikoi, the wind taken out of its sails, juddered on for a few more terms before the Asahi Shinbun scuttled the failing ship altogether. After just six terms, but also after nearly 40 years of support, the Asahi announced it was quitting altogether. (…)

The impetus that finally cut off opposition to a Meijin tournament in name as well as fact was an economic one. The Nihon Ki-in finances began to look shaky in 1957 and 1958. Pros themselves began muttering about the desirability of a new tournament. It so happened that the 4th Saikoi was won by one of the younger players, Fujisawa Hideyuki. (…) [There were] talks between him and the Asahi Managing Director, [however,] Fujisawa got distracted by becoming challenger in the Honinbo. The money on offer had also not been satisfactory (…) Into this breach stepped the Yomiuri, who took over the negotiations with Fujisawa, and the 1st Meijin tournament at long last began in January 1961.