Nihon Zatsuroku
An Online Japanese Miscellany

= Sugoroku =

by Anthony J. Bryant


     The game known in the West as “backgammon” was also known and played in Japan. There, it was called “sugoroku.” To the Chinese, it was shuanglu, and in Korea it was called ssang-ryouk. It seems to have been virtually identical to the game as we know it today, with two players facing each other across a divided playing board with a pile of discs arranged on the board, and the object being to clear one's pieces from the board first. (Oddly, although sugoroku required dice to play, unlike the West, no specifically dicing games seem to have developed in Japan apart from the traditional “odds-or-evens” game played in Edo gambling dens.)

     Early boards, based on Chinese models, mark each file with a rosette or other floral motif rather than the now common elongated triangle. The central zone, where pieces knocked out of play rest until they can be returned to a file, were originally demarcated with crescent moons. An early sugoroku-ban (= sugoroku board), possibly a Chinese import, is in the imperial repository of Nara's Shôsôin and pictured below on the left. It is believed to be typical of Nara and early Heian models, and is a low-standing, open board.


     Later models, appearing in the Heian period and dominant in the Muromachi and Momoyama periods and produced well into the Edo, were shaped like large wooden double boxes. One example is pictured above on the right. The “lid” came all the way to the ground, covering the bottom, which could store the pieces and dice and cup when the game wasn't being played. The illustration here is of one of those later models, which tended to be heavily decorated with lacquer, mother of pearl, and gold inlay work.



     The board is laid out at the start exactly like a modern backgammon board, as pictured on the right. Play proceeds in the same fashion. Players take turns rolling a pair of dice, and can either move a single disk the number of spaces of the total dice roll, or two disks each the number of one of the dice.

     Players can only land on unoccupied spaces or spaces occupied by their own disks. If a single disk owned by the other player is in a file that one might land on, however, the file becomes the property of the one putting the new disk down, and the opponent's piece goes on the central “waiting” space, and can only be returned to the board (and the opponent's play resumed) when the opponent rolls the number of an open file in his “home” or starting side (that is, the top left for black and the bottom left for white.

     The first one to clear all of his pieces from the board is the winner.


Late- or post-period version

     Because the game process of sugoroku was moving pieces around a board from one point to a determined exit point, the name “sugoroku” came to be applied to another type of game that should be very familiar to anyone who's ever played Monopoly, Life, or even Chutes and Ladders. These games in particular were popular among the common townsfolk, as the “playing board” was a printed piece of paper which was cheap, and could be folded up and carried about. The playing pieces could be anything from a distinctive pebble to a coin (the Period equivalents to a little tin top hat, if you will).

     One of the most common forms these game boards took was “The Fifty-three Stages of the Tôkaidô,” where each of the possible fifty-one spots between “start” and “finish” depicts a scene of one of the post stations on the great Edo-to-Kyôto trunk road. The start point is at Edo's Nihon-bashi (station one) and the goal is Kyôto (station fifty-three). One such game “board” is depicted here.

     Other game boards include “tours” of famous actors, famous sites and events of the Genpei War, etc. Several post-Period versions are based on events surrounding the tale of the 47 Rônin (Chûshingura), and others feature characters in popular contemporary literary works.

     Play can either be as simple players taking turns rolling a die and moving their pieces the number of spaces indicated, until one person finally reaches the goal first, or it can be more difficult. In a more difficult version of the “Fifty-three Stages” game, for example, there can be pre-arranged consequences for landing on certain stations. For example, at Shinagawa, the player can be “held up by guards at the Shinagawa barrier” and miss a turn, or one can “over-eat the local delicacy at Okazaki and have to go [thus backtracking] to a doctor in Hamamatsu.”

     I'm not exactly clear when this version of the game — or rather, this different game using the same name — came about, but by early Edo game sheets were in mass production. Barring more conclusive evidence, I'd say it's a suitable late Period pastime.


Online resources

An Easy Six Board Chest for the Carpentry Impaired. A how-to for building a chest that doubles as a sugoroku board by the incomparable Saionji no Hana.



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

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