Backgammon in the Land of the Rising Sun
Steve Herman, 1981
Las Vegas Backgammon Magazine, June 1981
Flag of Japan The Japanese call their nation "The Land of the Rising Sun." But it is after the setting sun that Tokyo, a city of fifteen million, becomes Asia's social center. This lifestyle is a heartbeat from that of other large cities such as New York, Paris, and London. Noting that backgammon is the "in thing" to do at discos, pubs, and coffee houses in the European and American metropolitan areas, "Tokyoites" are now rolling the dice, counting pips, and turning the cube.

Although Japan currently cannot boast of any world class players, it probably will not be long before we see a Japanese name standing alongside the likes of Magriel, Dwek, and . . . ? The most likely candidate at this time would be Makoto Shimada, who recently won the national tournament. The Japanese seem to have a knack Backgammon Game at taking anything Occidental and mastering it, whether it be the art of the assembly line or the competition of volleyball. Considering that the Japanese have a national passion for anything Western, faddish, or anything that involves mathematics, backgammon should soon be a national craze here.

Already there is evidence that "backgammon fever" sweeping Japan will soon be a national epidemic. Every department store has a backgammon corner. In the Roppongi and Harajuku districts of Tokyo, the fashionable bars and night clubs have backgammon boards on hand for their cosmopolitan customers.

Big tournaments are being held in Tokyo with such big name sponsors as the Playboy Club, and big-time prizes such as a new Suzuki car. Last November in the Japan Championship Tournament, Makoto Shimada took the top prize in an exciting tourney that sported 180 entrants. Local tournaments are also being held in the cities of Osaka and Sapporo.

Backgammon is being promoted in Japan by the Backgammon Association of Japan (B.A.J.), which was established seven years ago. It now has 350 members.

Backgammon Tournament The president of the Association is a man known in Japan as "Mr. Backgammon" — Koichi Sugiyama. He is also known to the Japanese public as one of the most famous musical composers in the country. The Tokyo resident is also a self-proclaimed game nut. Recently he has been collecting antique backgammon boards from Japan and Korea.

Many Japanese think backgammon is a new game in their country — an import from Europe or the U.S. In reality, Japanese and Koreans were playing backgammon more than a thousand years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Nobody knows exactly how backgammon first came to Japan; the best guess is that it was sometime in the seventh century and that the first board was brought in from nearby Korea. Backgammon boards still exist in Asia that are more than 1200 years old. While the game was played with the same basic rules as backgammon in the rest of the world, here it was known as ssangyuk.

Temple of Dolls Ssangyuk was initially a game played by the Japanese kisokuwa, or upper society, but as in other parts of the world it was not long before all social classes were throwing the dice. By the end of the Edo Period, however, public backgammon came to an abrupt halt. The "shogunates" made it illegal to play, for it was considered a gambling game.

The ancient games of Japanese backgammon are still preserved today in the city of Kyoto. The old capital is the home of many temples, including the Hokyoji (Temple of the Dolls), where traditional Japanese games are still played. Playing backgammon with an elderly, shaven priestess in a Buddhist Temple in Kyoto has to rank as one of the most unique experiences anywhere in the world.

If you are interested in playing backgammon while in Japan, contact the Backgammon Association of Japan. Their address is

Daini-ishii Bldg. 32-3, 2-chome Shinkawa, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, Japan.

Or while in Tokyo, you can call the B.A.J. at 553-2006. Mr. Horoshi Kondo, the Secretary General of the B.A.J., can steer you in the right direction or will be able to tell you in which bar the author of this article happens to be playing.

More articles by Steve Herman

More articles on the history of backgammon

Backgammon Galore