Favorite Treasures of Shoso-in / Game board reveals ‘playful minds’ of yore

Shitan Mokuga no Sugoroku Kyoku

Shitan Mokuga no Sugoroku Kyoku

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Above: Red sandalwood sugoroku game board with marquetry design of crescent moons, flowers and people riding birds

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Atsuko Anzai, writer
In ancient times, courtiers played a board game called sugoroku during breaks from work and sometimes bet on the outcome. In the game, which was called “da” at the time, pieces on the board are advanced by throwing dice.

On this red sandalwood board, detailed designs of foliage, Chinese phoenixes and celestial beings are created with ivory and colorful wood chips. I imagine this was used by top Imperial family members and court nobility.

The piece reminds me of an episode in “The Great Mirror,” a historical narrative written in the latter part of the Heian period (794-1192), although it takes place when Emperor Murakami (926-967) was in power, a little after this board was created.

In the episode, Fujiwara no Morosuke (908-960), a high-class minister, hopes that his daughter, who entered the court and became one of the emperor’s consorts, will give birth to a boy. He says to himself, “If she’s to bear a boy, let me roll a six.”

The episode ends with a dramatic scene in which he throws two dice and gets a double six. It shows how court nobles became absorbed in the game.

I have heard that a miniature of the sugoroku board was discovered in ruins in Turpan, China. I wonder if the local people there also bet on the game as Japanese imperial court nobles did.

I figure a playful mind is something people have had since ancient times.

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This is the fourth in a series of articles to mark the 60th Annual Exhibition of Shoso-in Treasures, which is being held at the Nara National Museum until Nov. 10. The Yomiuri Shimbun asked people from various fields to introduce one of their favorite pieces from the exhibition.

(The Yomiuri Shimbun Oct. 31, 2008)

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