Keywords: Culture & History, People
Honinbo Shusaku
Japanese: 本因坊秀策
Chinese pinyin: běnyīnfāng Xic

Table of contents

Honinbo Shusaku (本因坊秀策 Hon'inbō Shūsaku, a.k.a. Kuwahara Torajiro, Yasuda Eisai, Yasuda Shusaku or Kuwahara Shusaku, 1829-62) is considered by many to be the greatest player of the golden era of Go in the mid-19th century. He was nicknamed Invincible Shusaku because of his perfect score of 19 successive wins in the annual castle games.

The Prodigy

Shusaku was born Kuwahara Torajiro (桑原虎次郎 Kuwahara Torajirō) on 6 June 1829 [1], the son of merchant Kuwahara Wazo, in a village near the town of Onomichi. His talent for Go was discovered early, and by the age of six he was already known as a Go prodigy in the environs. Lord Asano, the daimyo (lord) of the region, heard of the child's qualities. After playing a game with him, Asano became his patron, and allowed him to get lessons from his own personal trainer, Hoshin, a player of professional level. In January 1837, Ito Showa, one of the strongest players of the day, visited Onomichi, and played a game with Shusaku, who by this time was already near (professional) shodan. Showa was impressed with the boy's ability.

Because he could no longer get adequate teaching in Onomichi, in November 1837 Shusaku was sent to Edo to become a disciple of the Honinbo house (school). On 28 November 1839, Shusaku was awarded a shodan diploma at age 10. The next year, in 1840, during a one-year visit back home, he was awarded a yearly stipend by Lord Asano. Arriving back in Edo in September 1841, Shusaku was given the name we now know him under and promoted to 2-dan. In 1843, still only 14 years old, he was promoted to 4-dan. In 1844 he left for another stay at Onomichi, this time staying there for eighteen months.

The Encounter with Gennan

In July 1846, during his travel back to Edo, Shusaku met Gennan Inseki 8-dan, who is said to have been of Meijin strength, but had the bad luck of living in a time when there were several other extremely strong players, especially Shuwa. In the first game of this encounter, Shusaku took two stones. Gennan, realizing that he had no chance of winning, left the game unfinished, and the next game was played with Shusaku just taking Black. This was actually a great honor, Gennan indicating that Shusaku's strength was much greater than his degree indicated.

The first game on just Black, is Shusaku's most famous game of his career, and contains one of the most famous moves of all of Go history: the Ear Reddening Move. The game, which Shusaku won by a two-point margin [3] despite a mistake in a new variant of the taisha joseki, is considered a lifetime masterpiece for both players.

They played three more games, of which one was left unfinished and the other two were also won by Shusaku. Shusaku, who on his arrival in Edo heard that he had been promoted to 5-dan, must already have been 6-dan or 7-dan in strength at the time.

Shusaku Heir to Honinbo

Back in Edo, Shusaku was asked to become the heir of Shuwa, who was to become the next head of the Honinbo house, but he refused, because of his obligations towards Lord Asano and towards his own family. After some mediation, the Asano clan relinquished its claim on Shusaku, so in early 1847 Shusaku could become Shuwa's heir. It was also decided that he would marry Jowa's daughter. In the meantime, Shusaku and Shuwa played a famous series of seventeen games in October 1846 to September 1847.

Later that year, Josaku died, and Shuwa became the new leader of the Honinbo house. Shuwa was already recognized as the strongest player of the day. In 1848 Shusaku was officially recognized as Shuwa's heir, and in the same year he was (finally) promoted to 6-dan, still no more than 19 years old. In 1849, he took part in the castle games for the first time. In the years to come, he would play a total of 19 castle games, and win them all. He also got his promotion to 7-dan somewhere in these years; some say it happened in 1849, others claim that only in 1853 was he promoted to 7-dan.

The Clash with Ota Yuzo

In 1853, Shusaku played a famous sanjubango (thirty-game match) against Ota Yuzo. Although Shusaku was regarded by most players the strongest player of the day (with the exception of Shuwa), Ota Yuzo was not so sure. Shusaku had many problems with Ota Yuzo, and only in 1849 managed to reach tagai-sen (playing on even) against him. Still, in the match itself, Shusaku proved the stronger player, managing to win the majority of games, and not losing a single one of the games in which he played Black.

After 17 games he forced Ota Yuzo to a sen-ai-sen handicap (meaning that Ota took Black 2 out of 3 games), and after game 23, in which Ota Yuzo managed to get a jigo with White, Ota Yuzo discontinued the series. Although Shusaku had convincingly beaten Ota Yuzo, it was not only recognized that this was because of Shusaku's strength rather than Ota Yuzo's weakness, but it was even seen as evidence of Ota Yuzo's strength that he had managed to keep Shusaku at tagai-sen for so long.

An Early Departure

In the years that followed, to Shusaku's dismay, it happened in more than one year that the castle games were not played. He did not play many games in these years. One important match was a jubango (ten-game match) against Shuho, who was intended to become Shusaku's heir. Shuho, playing all games as Black, won this match with a score of 6-3 and one jigo.

In 1862, a cholera epidemic broke out in Edo, and several disciples of the Honinbo house caught the disease. Shusaku involved himself in caring for the sick, which resulted in his catching the disease himself. On 07 September 1862, still only 33 years old[2], he died.

Shusaku is known for being undefeated in all of his nineteen castle games, and for the Shusaku fuseki, which still remains popular. Because of his talent and achievements, he has been given the title of 'Go saint' (Kisei) by later historians of Go. Of all players in Go history, only Dosaku has received the same honour.

Dave: Read John Fairbairn's [ext] feature on Jowa. It has an interesting look at how Jowa was called Kisei while Shusaku was ignored during his lifetime and immediately after. Only in the early 1900's did Jowa's reputation decline (mainly due to his political intrigues) and Shusaku's rise. I particularly like this from John:
"Today, Shusaku's reputation is still somewhat inflated in the West [4], where most readers have access only to a limited number of texts. Jowa, for similar reasons, is probably underestimated. In Japan, where the go public has access to much more literature, a more objective balance has been struck. I would guess that the parents of any budding professional would love him to grow up like Shusaku, a perfect filial son and pupil. He himself would probably love to play like Jowa."


  • 1829: Kuwahara Torajiro - birth name
  • 1835: Yasuda Eisai
  • 1841: Yasuda Shusaku
  • 1848: Kuwahara Shusaku - only 5-games under this name
  • 1848: Honinbo Shusaku

Shusaku in fiction

In the anime and manga series Hikaru no Go, a spirit of a deceased Go master named Fujiwara-no-Sai enters Shusaku's consciousness and makes him into a master Go player.

Related Material

Authors: Arno Hollosi, Andre Engels, and others.

External links

The official Shusaku website (in Japanese) with pictures: [ext]

Another, more recent picture: [ext] (as of Nov 2004, the link is no longer valid)

See also The Ear-Reddening Move of Shusaku, a mystery short story by Jonathon Wood.

[1] (About his birth date)

Bill: Richard Bozulich gives 29 May 1829 [ext]

It was Bunsei 12-V-5 (Japanese date style according to the Emperor of the era): that's 1829-06-06. You need to see the note in Invincible telling you that lunar dates were represented in western format there. John Fairbairn

[2] (About his death date)

Quoting John F. in [ext] discussion page

"In lunar year terms, Shusaku's life was 1829-V-05 ~ 1862-VIII-10 (using the convention of Roman numerals for lunar months), In modern terms that is 1829-06-06 ~ 1862-9-07.
As regards the age in years, scholars in English usually make it plain which is meant by saying '34 by the Oriental's count' or similar."

[3] (About score)

John F.: It was a 2-point margin, though this was not discovered till recently. The traditional accounts are marked B+3.

[4] (About his strength)

Harpreet: I'm not trying to start a fight, really, but to what degree do people here feel that Shusaku has been overrated? Never mind that he had an ancient spirit playing his games for him [fictionally, c.f. Sai in Hikaru no Go], he still was not able to best Honinbo Shuwa. It seems to me that at least some of his winning percentage comes from the fact that he was a bit of a sandbagger for quite some time. He was not promoted quickly enough to reflect his strength and so he unfairly had to play as Black more than he should have.

Yes, they're all dead now but I feel a little badly for Shuwa who seems to have been stronger than Shusaku. Also I feel badly for Shuho who just had a lot of bad luck in his life. The jubango against Shuho (who took all Black) was lost by Shusaku. That's not domination, just unfair overshadowing.

Dieter: I don't know about the Shuwa-Shusaku statistics but I do remember having read that at some point Shusaku would move to White, which was refused. Also, even if he occasionally found a tough opponent (such as Ota Yuzo), he still was the best player overall.

Andre Engels: Yes, he would move to White, but that would still be only at sen-ai-sen, that is, Shusaku would have played as Black in 1 out of every 3 games. He clearly was able to score much better than 50 percent with Black, but we don't know what he would have done as White. Invincible contains a list of all known games between the two. In the 17-game series (1846-1847), Shusaku scored 13 wins, 4 losses, of the games after that (1849-1851, plus one suspended in 1860) he came to 3 wins, 1 loss, 2 games unfinished. All of these were played with Shusaku as Black.

Hyperpape If he's winning 76% of the time with Black, and then moves to sen-ai-sen, that already gives him a (slightly) better than 50-50 winning rate. So if he can win a decent fraction of his games as White, that's enough to promote to even over a long series. There would be some interesting room for a statistical analysis here, comparing winning rates as White and Black for different players. A post by John Fairbairn at L19 is relevant here: [ext] He notes that Shusaku won just over 50% as White, though presumably Shuwa could hold him to a bit less.

Spirit: I agree with you Harpreet. The commentary in Invincible also heavily favours Shusaku over other players and it's almost the only book on go history available in English, so it's nigh on impossible to get a fair perspective on things. If I read some other background material though it's mentioned time and again that Shusaku's reputation is overrated in the West. Personally I'd love to know more about Shuwa and Shuei but information is almost impossibly sparse on both. It really is a pity.

Velobici: Please read Andrew Grant's 400 Years of Go in Japan and the history sections of The Go Player's Almanac for additional historical material.

Anonymous: It is also stated in Appreciating Famous Games that Shusaku refused, out of politeness, to move up against his master, so that if Shuwa lost, he could always have the excuse of playing white. Therefore, it is not known for sure which of the two was stronger.

Zengarden Mention should also be made of, Invincible, John Power's classic biography of Shusaku with deeply annotated games and a wealth of information about both his life and competitive go conditions during his times. The book, published by Kiseido in 1982 is still widely available, and is in my opinion the finest Go book written in English.

Shusaku last edited by on February 16, 2013 - 23:50
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