The game of Go, the game of the divine, my game. Before me an empty space of infinite possibility. I click my stone to the grid like a black star winking into existence, the first of my creations. My universe. A lonely speck, but soon others will join it.
Click! A white star appears, disturbing my aesthetic. Unacceptable. I place another black, expanding my cosmos, and then I lean back, smiling. This is my space; I will not suffer intrusion.
Click! Now there are two white stars in my universe! I place another black stone. I will be the largest, uncontested and unassailable. Another white paints the grid. I build my network of black, claiming my territory even as White claims his. I ponder my opponent’s boldness; we are destined to clash. There can only be one.
It was a lazy Friday afternoon. Most of the students at Nakacho Elementary had already left for home, and I sat in the teacher’s office listening to the clock quietly tick away. The sun beamed through large windows, and the spring sky was so clear I could see Mt. Fuji rising in the distance. The weekend beckoned.
It began with a strange, low groan, like the bowels of a wooden ship on choppy waters. Tables rattled. My desk vibrated. Pictures fell and trees swayed.
My black stars pulse to life in the field of white as I test my opponent, gauging his strength, and how he’ll react when I invade. I click my stone, and my opponent draws back, raising a hand to his mouth.
This conflict between black and white has repeated itself over four thousand years. The ancient game of Go. Eloquent in simplicity. Mesmerizing in complexity. To which there are more possible outcomes than atoms in the universe.
To be of the gentry in dynastic China one must learn its moves. In Japan, even the samurai bowed to a master of the art.
Two opponents sit across from one another and exchange a traditional Japanese greeting with a slight bow. “Onegaishimasu.” They take turns laying black and white stones that click when placed on the board. Whoever controls the most territory emerges victorious.
A white star flashes near my lonely black; a solid if not conservative response. But I do not play conservative.
The board, a simple 19×19 grid, hides the enormous depth of the game under a façade of ink. The wood is Kaya, Japanese nutmeg, prized for its pleasant sound, strong yet subtle grain, and delicate cinnamon aroma.
The scent tingles my nose as I lift another black stone from my bowl. I smile. Well done, white, but you cannot stop me now. Instead of retreating to the center, I dive into white’s strength. He struggles as my cluster grows, slicing like a knife through his feebly constructed barriers. My dominance is assured.
After almost three years in Japan I’d come to accept the occasional tremor as ordinary, and the thirty-second rumbles didn’t faze me anymore. But this was something different, like facing a rabid dog after knowing only puppies.
In six long minutes the entire island chain of Japan shifted eight feet and the earth’s axis tilted four inches.
The rocking continued beyond the main jolt. For hours the ground hummed, swaying the dead oaks outside the office windows. Saitama Prefecture escaped the worst of the shock, but we knew something terrible had happened.
My colleagues tuned into NHK’s disaster report. 9.0. We’d experience one of the largest quakes in recorded history with the epicenter several hundred miles off the northern Tohoku coast.
We listened in stunned silence as the newscaster announced…
Go is played on a razor’s edge, and the smallest move can have the most profound impact. Frustration is your greatest enemy. It leads to desperate, ill-planned plays and ultimate failure. Understand that a loss may only be the avenue to greater victory.
Our conflict rages across the grid as stars flare to life, spinning an intricate web of black and white.
However, White has erred, and the advantage is mine. I will crush this upstart and claim my victory. Everywhere white stars fade from the board.
Racing across the Pacific at five-hundred miles per hour, the waves slowed as they reached the shore, growing in places as high as one hundred and thirty-feet. They smashed into the northeastern Tohoku coastline in one relentless wall after another.
We watched on live television as cars floated through the streets like specks in a river, and people ran from the deluge only to be consumed by the flood.
My anger boiled at the newscasters, safe in their helicopters. Each of them could have potentially saved a life: a mother clinging to her baby, a man desperately racing for high ground, people huddled on rooftops; the deluge claimed them while newscasters hovered, filming homes crack from their foundations like sandcastles in the surf.
We stared in disbelief, later learning that fifteen thousand people had lost their lives. Fifteen thousand! Could I even comprehend that? Though it happened so close, the distance reflected in the screen made it unbelievable.
In Go it is polite to resign when you can’t win, and the height of rudeness is to continue a lost game.
Click! White plays again, this time challenging my cluster near the center. We spiral around one another. I smile and drive white’s failed assault right into my waiting wall of black. My opponent shakes his head, and I smile in anticipation as I lean back, waiting to hear the word of defeat: “Makemashita. I resign.”
White breaths a heavy sigh, but it’s not a sigh of resignation.
The ocean twisted in chaos when the waters receded. At the town of Oarai a whirlpool spun a hundred times larger than the funnels of the Naruto Maelstrom between Awaji and Shikoku.
The supermarkets were barren. Following the advice of my religious leaders, I had kept twenty kilograms of rice aside as emergency food storage. This helped not only myself, but also others in my apartment complex while stores struggled to replenish their stock.
Miraculous stories of survival emerged in the days that followed. Susumu Sagawara took his boat and charged directly into the oncoming waves. He and his boat survived and both provided invaluable service in the rescue efforts during those crucial days that followed.
Hiromitsu Shinkawa clung to the roof of his house as the currents carried him ever further from land. His wife had disappeared under the waves. He survived alone for two days in the glare of the Pacific sun. Rescuers discovered him ten miles off the coast; one of them handed him a bottle of water. He swallowed then burst into tears.
The call for volunteers came months later, and I went to assist in the cleanup. As I walked through Otsuchi, one of the worst hit towns, much of the rubble was gone and the floated cars now sat piled atop one another. On the other side of town, a tourist boat stood in testament of the tsunami’s height.
It rested atop a two-story guesthouse.
Though half-inundated the city hall still stood, one of the few buildings that did. The clock over the entryway ticked no more, its hands forever frozen at 2:49, the time the first wave hit.
I tilt my head at the new white stone, now glistening in my sea of black. I lean forward and examine the move. Inconsequential. My eyes widen as I draw back and scan the entire board.
Sweat beads my forehead. I retaliate. White responds. Our battle continues as my victory, once so secure, fades like wisps of steam on a summer’s day. My strategy fails, and across the grid my black stars wink from existence.
How could my opponent have seen such a move? White’s play, stimulating and beautiful, precise and exacting. It was a Kami no Itte, a divine move, something to which lowly mortals aspire and in deep contemplation only true gods can inspire.
The destructive power wrought by nature awed me, but even as I stood amidst the foundations of buildings swept aside, I struggled to understand the true magnitude of this disaster. At the base of a hill, I walked past the overturned tombstones of the city cemetery, gazing at the devastation. In the debris was a small stone. I bent over and picked it up.
It was a Go stone.
All of the weight of lives lost and communities destroyed fell on me as I rolled the tiny, black piece around my fingers. Here in my hand was a universe, someone’s universe. Every skeletal foundation represented the life of someone who’d lost the chance to play. Tears filled my eyes.
I stare at my opponent, his face still in deep contemplation, showing none of the overconfidence and condescension that was my downfall. I hesitate, squeezing the black stone in between my trembling fingers. I sigh and slowly drop it back in the bowl and hang my head.
“Makemashita,” I say.
My opponent bows as I surrender my universe. “Arigatou gozaimashita.”
I sat in the graveyard and stared at the tiny stone resting in my palm. Did the owner of this piece play a divine move and survive the flood against hopeless odds? Or did he bow his head in silent resignation as the swirling morass overtook him?
I kept that stone as a reminder of the lives lost and games never played. Someday, once the scars have healed and the town rebuilt, I’d like to travel back to Otsuchi and present the city with this small, but personally significant gift; the discovery in a ruined landscape that painted a human face on a faceless disaster. The last Kami no Itte of a simple black stone.