Nihon Zatsuroku
An Online Japanese Miscellany

= Shôgi =

by Anthony J. Bryant


     Shôgi, also referred to as “Japanese chess,” is one of the better known Japanese board games. Like Western chess, it began in India, and was introduced to Japan via China in the Nara Period. Also like Western chess, there were many early variations, primarily identifiable by the number of spaces on the board and the number and type of playing pieces used. It is not clear exactly how shôgi was played in Nara days, but during the Heian Period, several predominant forms emerged.

     Modern shôgi is similar to a Muromachi variant to which had been added two pieces brought in from yet another variation on the game. 


     The shôgiban, or  shôgi board, is a nine-by-nine grid. Each player has 20 pieces (koma) which are all identical — elongated pentagons — that point towards the other player. The pieces lay flat, but they are slightly sloped (that is, the rear is slightly higher than the pointed front). They are uniform in shape, but are distinguished by the characters painted on them. The fuhyô (pawns) are the only characters of different size than the others, being smaller than the rest. (Some beginner’s sets today have the pieces marked to indicate how they may move.)

      Pieces that have been captured are put on the right side of the capturing player’s board, and may be returned by that player to the board as his own pieces. 

Shôgi pieces

   The figure on the left is the face of the koma; that on the right is its reverse.

   The blocked kanji show the official abbreviation of that piece as used in board layouts.

1 per player
1 per player
2 per player
2 per player
2 per player
1 (player 1)
1 (player 2)
2 per player

 NOTE: The three pieces at left have no reverse

9 per player

     The above graphic depicts the pieces in a shôgi set. The kanji displayed below each piece is the conventional “abbreviation” of each name, and is how they’re marked in printed layouts of a game in session. It’s also how the koma are marked in the board layouts below. The reverse of the ginshô, keima, and kyôsha traditionally have different calligraphic variations of the same character — namely “kin” (= gold), as they all share the same moves when promoted (that of the kinshô). The different calligraphic style helps the player keep track of which piece is the narigin or the narikei. Such detail is, of course, irrelevant to beginning players — and, of course, irrelevant in the pieces’ moves on the board.

     Instead of each player having a king, one has a king (ôshô, also called ô) and the other a jewel (gyokushô, also called gyoku). They move identically to the Western chess king — one space in any direction — and are only differenced from each other by the name and the character used to write each. (Interesting bit of trivia: the characters for “king” and “jewel” differ by only the addition of a single stroke. Originally there were two kings on the board, one on either side; but a sovereign in distant antiquity reasoned that, since there was but one sovereign under heaven, there should only be one king on the board — hence the jewel.)

     The hisha resembles the rook in that it can move an unlimited number of spaces forward, backward, or to either side — thus its English name. There is only one per player.

     The kakugyô (also called kaku) moves diagonally an unlimited number of spaces, and so is sometimes called the bishop, whose moves in chess it duplicates. As with the hisha, there is only one per player.

     The keima (also called kei) can move only forward two and then left or right one, identical to a Western chess knight. Unlike the knight, however, as it must go forward it has only two possible moves, while a Western knight can land on one of eight possible squares. Like the Western knight, the kei is the only piece allowed to jump over others. There two per player.

     The kinshô (= gold general, also called kin) moves one space in any direction except diagonally backwards, while the ginshô (= silver general, also called gin) moves one space in any direction except sideways or backward. There are two per player.

     Kyôsha (= lancers, also called kyô) may move an unlimited number of squares straight ahead; it may not retreat. There are two per player.

     The fuhyô, or pawn (also called fu), advances in a straight line one space at a time. Each player has nine.

The moves of the shôgi pieces.

     Like chess, if an enemy piece is on the space where a piece’s movement would end, it may be captured.

     “Nari” is the promotion of a player’s own pieces, and may be done by entering one’s piece into the home territory of the opponent (the far three rows). Whether to take the advancement or not is purely optional, although the advantages are many and the detriments virtually nonexistent. The pieces are turned over to reveal their new names. All save the ôshô or gyokushô and kinshô may be promoted and get new moves. The hisha becomes a ryûô (= dragon-king, ryû for short) and combines the potential moves of the hisha and ô. The kaku becomes a ryûma (= dragon-horse) and can move like the kaku and ô. The gin, kei, kyô, and fu become respectively the narigin, narikei, narikyô, and tokin, and all adopt the move potential of the kin. (Note: when captured, these pieces revert to their original “lowly” status, should the capturing player choose to return them to the board.)

     “Haru” is the use of a captured piece to supplement one’s own supply. One turn may be given to place a captured piece on the board rather than move another one. The piece can be placed in any open square. The only restrictions are that only one fu from either side can occupy a file at a time (a player may not place a second fu in a row where he already has one enfiled), no piece can be put down where it doesn’t have an opening to move, and an enemy “king” cannot be placed in checkmate by laying down a fu.

     The board is set up as in the illustration below at the start of play. (The player who has an ôshô places his in the place occupied by the gyokushô in the illustration instead.) Both sides use this same layout — with the kakugyô on the player’s left and the hisha on the player’s right) so that their kakugyô and hisha will be on opposite sides.

     To make your own quick’n’dirty shôgi set, copy the pieces in the first graphic onto heavy paper (don’t forget the bottoms!) and cut them out, and play on a board marked with 81 squares.

      Alternately, you can order the pieces from one of the resources below. They come in plastic or wood, and in all price ranges. A cheap set of plastic koma are only a few dollars, while the finest handmade wooden ones with carved characters can cost serious shôgi professionals as much as ¥200,000 – ¥800,000 (yes, you’re reading that right; just the pieces can cost up to $7,500). The boards can be purchased separately, and range from good, solid heavy folding wooden ones for about $25 up to big monsters with stands and the whole rig for serious shôgi professionals for about ¥89,000. You can also buy a full shôgi set with the board and pieces; again, these come in all price ranges.

Online resources:

     The Shôgi Net.  

     Shôgi (The Chess Variants Page)

     YouTube Shôgi lessons



  This page was last modified on: 12/21/2014

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