Cotsen Children’s Library houses approximately 300 Japanese boards games published from the nineteenth century through the 1950s, a rare collection comparable to the few existing in Japan. The Japanese board game, sugoroku (すごろく or 双六), can be traced back to the twelfth century. E-sugoroku (“e” meaning picture), a variety that features illustrated game boards, became popular among Japanese commoners in the late seventeenth century. Sugoroku did not originate as a children’s game. In fact, adults used to play the game, a simple dice-based contest, for gambling. Child-oriented sugoroku grew as commercial publishing for young people expanded during the twentieth century in Japan. It became a tradition on New Year’s Day for children to play sugoroku, which children’s magazines distributed as supplements to their January issues. Still, sugoroku remained a cross-age entertainment for the first half of the twentieth century. Government agencies and the military, educators, companies, and organizations have all appropriated the format for purposes beyond play, ranging from the dissemination of information and commercial advertising to literacy education, moral and political socialization, and militarist propaganda targeting children and adults alike.
The theme of this game board is children’s play. The twelve picture panels are arranged by month, each showing a leisure activity in which children would commonly be engaged during that time of the year. The panel for January (bottom right) befittingly depicts children sitting around a game board and playing sugoroku, making this piece a self-referential “sugoroku within sugoroku.” Can you spot where the dice is?
At the conference “Putting the Figure on the Map: Imagining Sameness and Difference for Children” hosted by the Cotsen Children’s Library in September 2013, we offered a workshop on sugoroku in collaboration with Setsuko Noguchi, the Japanese Studies Librarian at the East Asian Library, Princeton University. Under Noguchi’s guidance, conference participants gained a close look at a selection of game boards dating from the 1890s to 1950s. The time period saw Japan emerge as a modernized nation towards the end of the Meiji Period (1868-1912), flex her military muscle, escalate imperialistic expansion overseas, and transform politically after World War II. This blog post tries to highlight some of the gems shown in that workshop.
Make your own dice
What is remarkable about this game board is timing. Printed on December 3, 1923 in Tokyo, which was nearly destroyed by the Great Kanto Earthquake on September 1, 1923, the game board testifies to the resilience of its publisher, Hakubunkan. The small print on the lower-left corner indicates that Hakubunkan had relocated to a temporary office. The upper right side of the sheet is a template that can be cut out and glued into a paper dice–a thoughtful offering for those players who had the misfortune of losing this essential device in the disaster.
Literary board games
One type of sugoroku is the adaptation of literary works, like this spinoff of Jonathan Swift’s “A Voyage to Lilliput.” Fantasy stories and works of fiction, with their narrative arc and frequent incorporation of journeys and adventures, render them suitable inspirations for designing the route of a new board game.
Boys’ games, girls’ games
Some games, like the first two shown above, portray both girls and boys in the pictures and clearly welcome players of both genders. Other games were intended for separate gender groups, reinforcing conventional gender roles. Pre-1950 games that are about voyagers and adventures typically feature male characters. Games designed for girls can be identified by their titles, issuing bodies (girls’ magazines), and the way female figures are portrayed as being engaged in domestic and indoor activities.
In this game, boy adventurers leave Yokohama by ship, see wonders and curiosities from around the world, and return to Hibiya Park in Tokyo for a warm homecoming celebration.
This game follows the life of a girl from birth to adulthood, starting from when she is a newborn being breastfed to when she becomes a shy bride at around age 20. The player who first reaches the final panel, that is, who first gets married, wins the game. The modifier “modern” in the title is perhaps based on the fact that, in some of the panels, the girl toddler has not exactly behaved like a Goody Two-shoes.
While you are here playing
…we can use your attention. Government agencies, commercial companies, and nonprofit organizations all joined in the making of sugoroku. Some of the creators of the sugoroku held at Cotsen include the post office, a life insurance company, and a fire prevention society, each translating their advertisement and publicity messages into an illustrated game board.
Distributed by the Society for the Promotion of Home Electrical Appliances, the panels in A Game of Home Electricity Education are a series of contrasting images, comparing life scenarios in a home with and without electrical appliances. The central figure is a young woman, newly married when the game begins. One panel shows a housewife sweeping the floor the old-fashioned way–with a broom–inviting her man’s scowl at the dust that flies into his meal. In the background, a woman gracefully operates a vacuum cleaner, free from worry of the dust. In another set of disturbing contrasts subtitled “A Dark House” and “A Bright House,” a woman who lives in a house poorly lit by a naked bulb receives her husband’s beating after she accidentally breaks a utensil; in another house a family is enjoying a happy time, their cheerful mood attributable to the bright and soft light emanating from a fancy desk lamp. By the end of the game, players will have learned that electrical appliances are good for personal health and wellbeing, family relations, and neighborhood safety. Indeed, as the image in the final panel suggests, owning electrical appliances is the key to the happiness of a woman and her family.
Around the world in one game
A popular theme found in the game boards is voyages around the world. Much like ukiyo-e art, sugoroku from the Meiji Period feature domestic travel scenes and landscapes of Japan as a common subject. The addition of international travel games was both a continuation of that tradition and a new fascination engendered by the success of the Meiji Restoration and technological advancement. These games reflect people’s interest in new transportation tools, Japan’s admiration of Western civilization, the nation’s aspiration to expand its colony and territory, and a growing awareness and (mis)understandings of a culturally and racially diverse global world.
Players need to rotate the game board 90 degrees clockwise to better discern a pictorial world map, which highlights animals, people, and famous scenery. The Rising Sun flags mark the Japanese explorations and marine/naval activities in many parts of the world.
Dark-skinned aboriginals were a frequent subject of sugoroku, ranging from a curious presence to be approached to a weak population to be conquered by the Japanese to cannibals to be feared and disparaged (as in this game).
Game of wars
Every major war in which Japan was involved since the late Meiji Period has been reenacted in sugoroku: the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), World War I, Japan’s invasion of Manchuria (1931), the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), and the Pacific War (1941-1945). Often published with impressive promptness following the onset of the actual wars, these war games celebrate national pride in Japanese military power, glorify the valor of Japanese soldiers, tout the friendship between the Japanese military and foreign civilians under occupation, and mobilize the Japanese for wars with tailored messages for young boys, girls, and women. Various boys’ and girls’ magazines, women’s magazines, and the Patriotic Women’s Association of Japan were all distributors of sugoroku on war. Even the Japanese Army Armored Division published its own game titled Sensha Sugoroku (A game on tanks) in the 1940s, using black-and-white photos of tanks in operation to teach about military technology.
Its title echoing the official war propaganda term “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” this is a wartime variation of the travel game. Players leave Japan and visit the vast land and sea of the Asia Pacific now under varying degrees of control by Imperial Japan. Four panels of pictures contain photo portraits of Subhas Chandra Bose (India), Ba Maw (Burma), Wang Jingwei (China), and José P. Laurel (the Philippines), who were the presidents and political leaders of Imperial Japan’s puppet states in East Asia when the game board was published.
The publishing of sugoroku dwindled after the end of World War II. The small number of post-1945 Japanese game boards held at Cotsen shows an ideological departure from older works. The games were de-militarized, and girls and boys could be seen taking a round-the-world trip together.
Sugoroku has been a versatile medium appreciated by many agencies for centuries, and, as a result, it has become a depository of popular culture, political agendas, and messages about social values, gender roles, race, and national identity. In-depth analysis of the themes, game rules, visual art, and authors of this collection of ephemeral prints would yield a rich understanding of the cultural history of Japan.
This post was made possible by Ms. Setsuko Noguchi’s generous sharing of her expert knowledge. Thank you!