An Encounter with a Go Legend: Sakata Eio, Honorary Honinbo

by Bob Terry

In October of last year I traveled to Japan to spend some time at the Nihon Kiin and to try to arrange for the translation rights to the book "Killer of Go" by Sakata Eio, Honorary Honinbo. I had written to Sakata Sensei before I left the US, and had sent a copy of my letter to John Power, editor of Go World and a longtime consultant in the Overseas Department of the Kiin. As a matter of fact, John was quite helpful in facilitating matters with Sensei, as was the Manager of the Overseas Department, Kurita Tadao. As a matter of fact, John sent a FAX the day before I left for Japan stating that Sensei had agreed to the conditions I outlined in my letter. Unfortunately, however, John sent the FAX to the offices of Yutopian Enterprises in northern California and by the time it was relayed to my office in southern California, I was already on a Northwest Orient 747.

I met John at the Kiin on the second day after I arrived in Tokyo. The fourth game of the Meijin Title Match was being completed that day and John invited me to attend a lecture on the game given by Abe Yoshiteru 9 dan in the large auditorium. I would have been delighted to do so, but my hotel arrange ments were still up in the air (actually, I had been hoping that someone at the Kiin could give me a tip on reasonably priced accommodations!) so I had to find a room instead. I finally did find a room at a traditional Japanese inn (ryokan) in Asakusa for about $60 a night. That's fairly cheap these days in Tokyo! I took a taxi from the inn to a place across town one night and it cost $95!

John did inform me of Sensei's decision, so right from the start I was relieved that one of my principal aims in coming to Japan had been fulfilled. But there was still a question of whether I would be able to meet Sensei in person and sign a contract with him. Actually, it was only on the day before I was scheduled to leave Japan that Sensei agreed to a meeting.

I had called the Kiin and John told me that Sensei agreed to meet me at his condominium in the south central district of Tokyo. He said that when I got to the Kiin he and Mr. Kurita would give me detailed directions on how to get there.

True to their word, when I got to the Kiin, John and Mr. Kurita had a photocopy of a map ready for me, and gave some last minute advice on what to expect from Sensei when I met him.

Using the Japan Rail pass that I had purchased in the US for about $265 (for a seven day pass) I rode the National Railway to the closest station to Sensei's condo. It was about a mile to his residence, and I was advised to take a taxi there, but I enjoy walking and I had given myself plenty of time to get there.

I was announced by the receptionist in the lobby of the large building, who called up to Sensei's residence on the 25th floor. I was met at the door by Sensei's nephew and then his wife met me in the living room, where I gave her a gift of pastry that I had bought that day. "It's a trivial gift," I told her, but I just want to show my respects."

I was asked to take a seat in the living room while she went call Sensei. In the meantime, I introduced myself to a gentleman who was already seated there, a Mr. Tanaka Kodo, who turned out to be the head of the Publicity Department of the Kiin. It seemed that he was there to aid with the meeting, and, as it turned out, I was glad that he was there.

Sensei appeared and stretched out on a divan opposite the chairs where Mr. Tanaka and I were seated. I stood and bowed as he entered the room and I was directed to take my seat again. It seemed that Sensei was about five foot five or six inches tall and rather thin. He sported a moustache which gave him a jaunty air and there was a twinkle in his eyes when he spoke. He seemed to enjoy the novelty of conversing in Japanese to a foreigner and to be discussing the financial details of the contract that I presented to him. One thing that struck me immediately was that it was somewhat difficult for me to understand his speech: he mumbled quite a bit when he spoke and in general spoke like the old man he is. (Sakata Sensei turned 74 on February 15th of this year.) An interesting feature of Japanese is that different people in different walks of life or at different ages use different expressions, almost like a dialect. If one is not accustomed to that speech, one can get confused. It was there that Mr. Tanaka was a real help, "translating" Sensei's words into standard Japanese!

We began our conversation by discussing the terms of the contract. Sensei was amenable to almost everything I had included in the copy of the contract that I presented him with. His only stipula tion was that he wanted it spelled out when royalty payments would be sent to him. "It's not an important point," said Sensei, "I just want to make sure that we are clear on everything in the contract."

Sensei also wondered why I wanted to translate his book, which had first been published more than 25 years ago. "Why, for instance, don't you translate a newer book, one written by Kobayashi Koichi, for instance. Isn't he more popular these days?" asked Sensei with a twinkle in his eye. I told him that, "Yes, there many good go books being written these days, but `Killer of Go' is a classic. There is more wonderful information contained in it than practically any book in print. I have read and reread it many times and every time I do so, I learn something new. It would be a shame if such a great book were unavailable to English-speaking readers." (I should mention that the book went through more than one hundred printings in Japan during the late '60s and in the '70s! That bespeaks the popularity of the work more elegantly than anything else.)

I had been there for about forty minutes when Sensei suddenly stood up and said to me, "I must shake the hand of a man who has come many thousands of miles to see me." He shook my hand vigorously and then lay down again on the divan. Mr. Tanaka remained seated where he was, so although the whole thing seemed strange to me, I sat down as well. After a few minutes of more small talk, Sensei again stood up and said that he was sorry, but that he tired easily and must cut the meeting short. I thanked him and got ready to leave.

Just then Mrs. Sakata came into the room and also thanked me for coming. I reminded her that we had met in New York in 1986 when I inter viewed Sensei for a biography I wrote for Go World magazine. She said that next time I visited Sensei would be pleased to treat me to dinner at a local pub. "It's a small and rowdy place, but it does have its charm." (This is a standard polite phrase in Japanese.) I told her that I was leaving Japan the next day, but I was grateful for the invitation. At that point she told me to sit back down. "My husband and I have some business to discuss with a salesman in the next room, but after that I insist that you stay and have dinner at the pub."

As Sensei and Mrs. Sakata disappeared into the next room, I looked uneasily at Mr. Tanaka. "Is this really alright?" I asked. "I don't want to impose." Tanaka assured me that it was and then Sensei's nephew took the two of us on the balcony to admire the night view of Tokyo Bay and Yokohama in the distance. A half hour later the three of us, along with Sensei were on our way to the pub.

I was surprised that Sensei took the lead and walked briskly and forcefully across the grounds of the building, pointing out the tennis courts there, before he strode purposefully into the street and walked across to the pub.

During dinner we discussed many things. Sensei asked me if I had any questions that I'd like to ask him, and I said, "Sensei is without doubt one of the greatest go players of all time. Only Go Seigen could be considered a rival for that title. I'd be interested in knowing Sensei's opinion of the matter." As the others chuckled at my impertinence, Sensei said, "This one really asks tough questions! Well, Go Seigen's time at the top of the go world was actually short." I agreed, and added that during that period, Sensei had been the only one to defeat Go Seigen, in a six game match in 1953. I also asked him if he felt that Kobayashi Koichi could compile a record of ten straight Kisei titles. "Another tough question!" exclaimed Sensei, who surely regrets that he was unable to capture more than seven straight titles in the Honinbo matches from 1960 to 1967. "It's up to someone to take the title away from Kobayashi. If another player can demonstrate the necessary strength, the title is theirs."

We also reminisced about great players of the past. I mentioned that one of the most amazing things I had ever seen was the great fighting player, Miyashita Shuyo 9 dan, who was known as the "Wild Bull of Fukushima", defeat one of the top club players in Los Angeles, giving a nine stone handicap! What impressed me even more at the time was that Miyashita had accom plished this after a hard night of drinking! It is a memory I cherish to this day. Sensei had engaged in many a battle over the board with Miyashita, and he was amused at my story. This time Sensei praised me: "He really knows his go history!"

After an evening of sashimi and other treats of Japanese cuisine, (and where Sensei more than held his own drinking sake!) I thanked Sensei for his hospitality and good grace in allowing me to translate "Killer of Go" and then said good night, with Sensei returning to his residence while I went off with Tanaka.