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Do Not Pass Go
Hikaru, a cartoon character with attitude, gives an ancient strategy board game fresh appeal for Japanese youngsters
By YOKO SHIMATSUKA

Like many Japanese 10-year-olds, Mizuki Ito is going through cram-school hell that his parents hope will propel him into the right school and university. But when he's not hitting the books, Ito has one great passion: learning the mysteries of the game of Go. He has even dropped out of baseball sessions with friends. Instead, Ito takes Go lessons three times a week, watches professional Go competitions on TV and plays in the occasional weekend tournament. "I love the feeling when I win," he says. "It would be great if I could become a professional player in the future."

Schoolboys across Japan have similar aspirations — an inexplicable development given that Ito's generation was reared on fast-twitch Nintendo duels. Go is an ancient, contemplative board game played not with joysticks and headsets but with smooth black and white stones. To Japanese youth, it should have all the appeal of a tea ceremony. But the kids have a new hero: Hikaru (pictured left), a bleach-blond comic book character who plays a whup-ass game of Go, aided by the spirit of a long-deceased Go master (Obi-Wan Kenobi, please call your copyright attorney).

Thanks to the popularity of Hikaru No Go, a manga (comic) that started out two-and-a-half years ago as a serialized cartoon in the magazine Shonen Jump, the game and its strategies are being studied, replayed and debated in schoolyards and on the Internet. There are no official figures on how many young fans the comic has inspired. But Go masters are suddenly in demand. "The size of my class has doubled to 100 [over the past year]," says Noriaki Oohashi, a retired Tokyo computer programmer who teaches the game as a volunteer. Critical mass may be imminent: an animated TV series featuring Hikaru (think of him as a hand-drawn David Beckham) is expected to be released later this year.

For the Shueisha publishing house, producers of Hikaru No Go, building a story around a game that moves at the speed of rice germinating was a gamble. "Not many kids can relate to Go," says a company spokesman. "It's not like soccer or baseball. There weren't many positives when we launched the series." Nevertheless, 7.5 million copies of the comic have been sold in Japan to readers wanting a glimpse into the cloistered world of professional Go players. Like other sports, pro Go is rife with jealousies, accusations of underhanded tactics and the emotional swings of competition. (Some 500 pro players in Japan contest 23 tournaments a year.) "The story captures the lives of professionals very well," says teacher Oohashi. "Even adults can enjoy it."

Hikaru No Go's true-to-life storyline (true-to-life if you discount the existence of Sai, Hikaru's spirit advisor) is the result of consultation between the publishers and the Japan Go Association. Expertise is essential to the story. Go is so complex it has been described as making chess look as simple as checkers. The aim is for players to encircle as much territory as possible on a 19 x 19 grid.

The association helps the manga editors with information about life on the professional circuit; affiliated players provide advice on winning moves. "We get calls from kids asking what they need to do to become professionals," says Japan Go Association spokesman Tadao Sakamaki. "We never got any calls before."

Hikaru's exploits are carefully monitored by his young fans, who consume the series as they would an instruction manual with a plot. "I learned the basics of the game from the comic," says devotee Ito. Now he routinely beats his father, but still has lots to learn about sophisticated strategies. "It will be difficult for [Ito] to become a professional," says his mother. "But I'm not against him trying. Even if he doesn't become pro, he can have fun." The association's Sakamaki says the game offers timeless lessons in diligence and perseverance. "Go teaches responsibility," he says. "Unlike computer games, you can't just hit the 'reset' button and start again when you lose."

There is no official talk of a digital version of Go. Trendy now, it is still a board game and its shelf life may be running out. "There is potential for another boom, but if there is one, it will be only gradual," says Norio Kamijyo of the think-tank Dentsu Institute for Human Studies. But don't write off Hikaru too quickly. The parent company of the publishing house came up with another animated series with considerable staying power: Anyone remember Pokemon?

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   Updated February 9, 2005
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