Sexual Discrimination in Japanese Go

By Samuel H. Sloan

Go is a major game in Japan, China and Korea, comparable to chess in the West. Originating from China more than three thousand years ago, it is played on a 19 x 19 board by players with white and black stones trying to surround each other.

Go is also big business in Japan. Kobayashi Koichi, the top go player in Japan, earns the equivalent of about $800,000 per year in prize money. His actual income from writing, teaching and personal-appearance fees is estimated to be double of that. There are 304 professional go players in Tokyo alone, of which 38 are women. Go in Japan is controlled by a professional go-players' guild, the Japan Go Association, and admission to that guild is strictly regulated.
Rui Naiwei

However, beneath the surface of Japanese go, there has been a simmering controversy regarding the emergence of leading Chinese women players in Japan.

Woman go players in China are far stronger than their Japanese counterparts. However, the matter does not end there. It appears that the top Chinese woman go player might be able to defeat the best Japanese man at go, if only she were allowed to play him, that is.

The situation was heightened in the beginning of March with the conclusion of the two rounds of the Fujitsu Cup World Go Championship in Tokyo. There were five matches between a Japanese player and a Chinese opponent. In all five matches, the Japanese player lost. Kobayashi Koichi, age 40, the number one player in Japan, lost to a virtually unknown player named Che Ze Wu, aged 23, of China.

There are five top Chinese woman players now resident in Japan, who have left China under various pretexts. The conditions of their presence here is that they not compete in professional go tournaments, where only members of the Japan Go Association and the Western Japan Go Association are eligible.

The best among these Chinese women players is Rui Nai Wei. Just prior to coming to Japan, she finished third in a major tournament in Beijing against the top nine Chinese male players. The only two who finished ahead of her were Nie Wei Ping and Ma Xiao Chun, who are not only the two best players in China, but might be the two best players in the world. Rui Nai Wei has defeated Nie Wei Ping, widely regarded as the strongest go player in the world, in individual tournament games.

However, Rui Nai Wei is not permitted to play go in Japan, except for teaching games. The reason: She is too strong for any Japanese woman even to be able to sit down at the same board with her, and the Japanese men are all afraid of her.

Among the top echelons of Japanese go, the opinion is almost unanimous that under no circumstances is this girl to be allowed to play go. "Everybody opposes it," says one official, "especially the Japanese women, who say that their means for a livelihood would be destroyed if this Chinese woman were allowed to play against them."

One alternative which has been proposed is that there be a gentlemen's agreement. Rui NaiWei would be allowed to play go, but with the secret understanding that she would never enter a woman's tournament and would not try to win any of the women's titles or prize money.

However, the Japanese women have rejected this on the grounds that no matter how hard an effort were made to keep this deal a secret, it would quickly become obvious after Rui Nai Wei beats one top male player after another, that she was not playing against the other women because she was too strong.

A further problem has been opposition from the Chinese Go Association. The Chinese insist on keeping control over their players, and further insist that any prize money won by a Chinese player must be turned over to the Chinese government They say that if Rui NaiWei wants to play go, she must first return to China.

Rui Nai Wei has recently received an official personal invitation to compete in the Ing Cup, Taiwan's version of the World Go Championship, in early May. Right now, she is studying go 16 hours a day in preparation for the big event. The Chinese are boycotting that tournament in retaliation for the invitation given to Rui Nai Wei.

Rui Nai Wei has played a few games against Japanese men. She played three games against Komatsu, age 25, one of the rising young stars in Japanese go, and won all three games. However, Komatsu, at best, could only be considered in the top 20 players in Japan. Rui Nai Wei is clearly too strong for him. She also beat Awaji, a frequent challenger for the prestigious Honinbo and Meijin titles.

It has also been suggested that Yoda, age 26, another rising star in Japanese go, might be willing to play a match against Rui Nai Wei. However, most experts agree that Rui Nai Wei is even too strong for Yoda. The only meaningful Japanese opponent for Rui Nai Wei would be none other than Kobayashi Koichi, the top player in Japanese go.

However, such a match would far in the future. She would first have to be allowed to enter tournaments in Japan. Once allowed into these tournaments, she would have a fighting chance to become a challenger for one of the big titles, and then Kobayashi would have no choice but to play her.

Rui Nai Wei has been accepted as a 9-dan professional player in Japan, the highest rank available. She is allowed to receive fees commensurate with that of other 9-dan players for giving lessons and playing exhibition games. However, she is prohibited from entering any of the open tournaments for professional go players in Japan.

Everyone agrees that if Rui Nai Wei were able to compete in Japanese go tournaments, it would be just be a matter of time before she won at least one of the seven major titles. Even the most conservative estimates place her in the top twenty go players in the world. Yet, in one and a half years in Japan, she has yet to be allowed to play her first official tournament game.

While not being allowed to play in tournaments, she always attends them, but only as a spectator. She is also always there at the practice and playing sessions conducted among the professional players. She stands demurely and at a respectful distance from the male Japanese players, watching every move they make, but saying nothing. As result, she knows every thing about their style of play, but they know almost nothing about hers.

Born on December 28, 1963 in Shanghai, Rui Nai Wei first came to Japan on a "Go Friendship Tour" in 1982, at age 18. She won all seven of her games as a member of the Chinese National team. At that time, the Japanese were maintaining that go was at a much lower level in China. Although she won her place on that team in competition with male opponents, she was paired mostly against women and amateurs.

Rui Nai Wei was only able to leave China in 1990 by officially "retiring" from professional competition. "Retirement" is a ruse adopted by many top Chinese sports figures who want to be allowed to leave China legally. Rui Nai Wei came to Japan supposedly as a translator for an insurance company. However, her actual job in Japan now is to play simultaneous games of go on a computer network. Anybody with a modem can log on and play against a 9-dan professional player like Rui Nai Wei, for an hourly fee, of course.

Japanese officials point out that Rui Nai Wei has never submitted an official application to compete in tournaments. However, a few years ago, a professional 3-dan woman player from China did apply. It was made clear to her that her presence in go tournaments in Japan would be most unwelcome, and she withdrew her application. She says that, under the circumstances, she does not want to play go any more. That Chinese woman player has since married Michael Redmond, the only American who has ever been accepted as a professional go player in Japan.

An attempt was made to interview a top official at the Japan Go Association in Tokyo about this. When the question was raised about allowing Rui Nai Wei to compete against Japanese men, he responded, "We are very busy now. We have a lot of work to do. Come back some other time."

For her part, Rui Nai Wei will only say, "I may not be able to play them now, but when I do, I know I will beat them!"

(Copyright 1992 Samuel H. Sloan & The Ishi Press, lnc.)

Here is a link: Obituary of Ing Chang Ki

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