In the news: Oldest ‘suizo’ shogi piece found sheds new light on game’s evolution

The Asahi Shimbun October 25, 2013

Kanji characters for a “suizo” (drunk elephant) are written on the face of a wooden shogi piece found in the remains of a well in Nara. (Kazunori Takahashi)

Kanji characters for a “suizo” (drunk elephant) are written on the face of a wooden shogi piece found in the remains of a well in Nara. (Kazunori Takahashi)

By KAZUTO TSUKAMOTO/ Staff Writer

KASHIHARA, Nara Prefecture–Believed to have originated in India and then passed through China, shogi may have begun to evolve into its Japanese variant even earlier than believed, with the discovery of a wooden “suizo” (drunk elephant) piece, in the remains of a well from the Heian Period (794-1185) in the city of Nara.

A prefectural research institute on archaeology said on Oct. 24 the suizo from the ancient board game is believed to be the oldest of its kind found in Japan.

“Suizo is a piece unique to Japan. In the temples of the Heian Period, people could have transformed this form of overseas culture into a Japanese style by adding new pieces to conventional shogi,” said Noboru Kosaku, a senior researcher at the Institute of Amusement Industry Studies at the Osaka University of Commerce.

The suizo piece, which is 2.5 centimeters long, 1.5 cm wide and 0.2 cm thick, is apparently several hundred years older than one previously believed to be the oldest, said researchers at the Archaeological Institute of Kashihara, Nara Prefecture.

The remains of the well are located in the city’s Noboriojicho district, which was a former compound of Kofukuji temple, they added.

Suizo pieces are used in some variations of shogi, a traditional board game also known as Japanese chess. One of those forms is chu-shogi, which literally means “mid-sized shogi.”

Kanji characters for suizo were confirmed on the face of the piece found in the well. No characters were found on the back.

Along with the suizo piece, three other shogi pieces were also discovered in the same remains. One of the three was a “keima” (knight), and another was a “fuhyo” (pawn). However, it was impossible to determine the identity of the remaining piece from the kanji written on it.

The remains of the well are located on the site where Kofukuji’s branch temple Kanzenin used to stand. A wooden strip bearing “Jotoku ni-nen” (the second year of Jotoku, which means 1098) was also found in the same remnants.

In chu-shogi, a suizo can be moved adjacently to any square except backward. If it advances into the enemy’s position, it can be promoted to a “taishi” (crown prince) piece, which can move adjacently to all squares in any direction like a “gyokusho” (challenging king) piece.

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