I left home just after eight on the morning of the final rounds of the tournament and headed over to Nihon Ki-in (Japan Go Association) in Ichigaya with my sons. It was a pleasantly cool day for the middle of summer. We went up the hill through the park, turned left along a road lined with apartment buildings and arrived at Nihon Ki-in, the venue for the final rounds. I had walked the same route to every other go tournament in the past, but it felt somehow special this time. Not only had I worked hard with my three sons for a whole year leading up to this tournament, but it would also be my eldest son’s last go tournament as an elementary school student.

Today would be the culmination of everything we had worked towards. The day before the tournament, I had been given a Japanese fan signed by honorary Kisei champion Shuko Fujisawa, the late father of professional go player Kazunari Fujisawa, the teacher at my sons’ go school in Shinjuku. There was an inscription written on the fan in bold characters. It simply said the last words that Shuko Fujisawa wrote in the hospital before he passed away. Inside the box with the fan was a small piece of paper on which the following was written.

Go that extra mile

I have just one thing to tell you.
You need to go that extra mile.
Merely trying is not enough.
You must push as hard as you possibly can.
(Shuko Fujisawa)

These words are undoubtedly true. Going that extra mile enables you to better yourself as a person and achieve your goals.

The first round of the day, effectively the quarter final of the tournament, was against the team from Ishikawa prefecture. All three members of the team practiced daily at a local go club and had received tuition from a dedicated teacher. Information obtained from previous opponents suggested that they were a well balanced team, with the captain at sixth grade level and the vice captain and third player both at fifth grade.

During the first game, something quite unexpected happened. My third eldest son, who usually wraps up his games fairly quickly, showed no signs of finishing. Whilst the games involving other teams were coming to an end one after another, the Team Hori was the only one that still seemed to be a long way off bringing their games to a close. Having already finished their own games, players from other schools came over to look at the team’s boards and started to whisper to one another; “I can’t believe it, the Hori brothers are really in trouble,” My wife took our two youngest sons to the day care center and hurried down to the venue to lend her support. She had been so worried waiting for a phone call at home that she couldn’t take it anymore.

After a while, my eldest son concluded his game. I tried to read his expression from far away. Stones on the board were rearranged for counting and the players’ positions declared. They bowed to one another and put their stones away. I could see their expressions from where I was sitting, but I couldn’t quite tell who had won. My son then glanced in my direction and shook his head. He had lost by a narrow margin of just three and a half points.

I tried to get as close as possible to the vice captain and third player boards to see how the other games were going. Both were extremely close contents. The board in the third player game was littered with dead stones. A hard-fought battle unlike anything I had seen before was unfolding. A large number of stones had been killed in the vice captain game as well. I fought back the resigned feeling that this might be the end of the road and tried to focus my encouragement and send positive vibes to my sons. It really felt like I was there fighting it out by their side.

Having finished first, my eldest son looked worried too as he watched over the remaining games. The third player game came to an end. Stones on the board were rearranged and the stones counted. Fortunately, it turned out to be a ten-odd point victory. My third oldest son had persevered right to the end and opened up a lead in the dying stages of the game, leaving the score at one apiece.

It was all down to the game between the vice captains. Before long, that came to an end as well, bringing with it the moment of truth. The stones were counted and the players’ positions declared. When the difference had been calculated and a six and a half point handicap subtracted, the winning margin was a mere one and a half points. The team had managed to scrape through to victory. I made an OK sign to my wife, who had stayed back in her seat. She was so relieved and overcome with emotion that she started to cry. It was a tense, nerve-wracking experience all round. After realizing that his older brother had lost, my second eldest son knew that he had to knuckle down and turn the game around.

As all three games had gone right down to the wire, my sons had little time to relax and compose themselves before the semifinal. My second and third eldest sons went outside to get some fresh air. It had clouded over outside and the air felt warm. The change from the cooled air inside the venue no doubt helped them to refocus. With their brains working on overdrive, they were both feeling pretty exhausted.

The team’s opponent in the semifinal was the team from Niigata prefecture. Every player in the final rounds is graded at an advanced level, right down to the third players (obviously, the captains and vice captains are the highest graded players representing each prefecture). The players on each team are dressed in their own unique way as well. The Niigata players were all competing in blue t-shirts. The team awaiting the winners in the final, from an elementary school in Tokyo’s Minato ward, was kitted out in red. The Osaka team wore black and the players from Nagano prefecture were wearing pale blue polo shirts. Every single team portrayed a united front as they vied for victory. In some teams, even the players’ parents were wearing matching t-shirts. Everyone had a lot riding on this tournament.

Looking at all the players, there were lots of teams in which brothers were competing alongside one another. Of the eight teams in the final rounds, seven had at least two brothers amongst their players. There was even one other team consisting of three brothers. Perhaps it makes sense to have three brothers if you’re trying to put together a strong three-man team. Come to think of it though, neither the winning team nor the runners-up in last year’s tournament had any brothers on the team. Maybe family ties don’t enter into it after all, as long as there’s a go school somewhere near the elementary school.

In fact, if you ask any of the best teams at the local level, the majority have received tuition from a passionate teacher based in the local area. Both the Ishikawa team in the quarter final and the Osaka Suita team were led by dedicated coaches. The Osaka coach brought his team together for a meeting during the break and gave them a very serious-looking pep talk. Everyone involved is extremely passionate. The Niigata team we were up against in the semifinal also played go every day under the tuition of a teacher at a local go club.

Geographically speaking however, the best teams all tend to be from the Greater Tokyo area, from Tokyo itself or from the neighboring prefectures of Saitama, Kanagawa or Chiba. This is no doubt due to the fact that lots of professional players live in the Tokyo area, so there are lots of schools where students can learn from passionate teachers. Indeed, our own sons have go lessons at two separate schools. It’s definitely a beneficial environment to be in, but it makes for intense competition if you want to represent Tokyo as a player.

It goes without saying that passionate teachers and instructors such as these have helped improve the standard of go in Japan. Repeat showings of the series “Hikaru no Go” on TV have undoubtedly had an impact too.

After a while, the captains of each team drew colors at the judge’s signal and the semifinals got quietly underway. The clock was checked and the players made their first moves.

Team Hori was back to its usual winning ways in the semifinal. My third eldest son wrapped up his game and claimed victory in roughly 15 minutes. My second eldest followed suit at around the 25 minute mark, quickly securing the team’s place in the final. The only concern was my eldest son. After losing two games in a row, I hoped that he could put an end to his losing streak and go into the final with a win under his belt. Fortunately, he managed to win, taking the team into the final with a score of 3-0. It was great to see him smile for what seemed like the first time in ages.

For lunch, my three sons, my wife and I ate the packed lunches provided by the tournament. Unsurprisingly, my sons didn’t have much of an appetite. After a string of tough contests, next up was the decisive final game. They also had to spend much of the lunch break answering a barrage of questions from the media. In addition to the tournament sponsor Sankei Shimbun, they were also interviewed by the likes of NHK’s Go and Shogi Channel and Shukan Go magazine.

The final was against an elementary school from Minato Ward, just like at the Tokyo heat. Their captain and vice captain were brothers from the same go school in Shinjuku and were used to fierce competition on an almost daily basis. Against such formidable opposition, it could go either way for my three sons. The scene was set for a close contest, with equally matched opponents locked in battle to determine the crucial difference between the champions and runners-up. It would all come down to which team could use its abilities to best effect when it really mattered.

The final game between the two captains was broadcast online via the website “Yugen no Ma.” The level of media attention also reached new heights. In addition to TV cameras, there were also computers set up next to the captains to relay gameplay online. The clocks were also replaced with digital clocks. In the final, players are allowed up to 30 seconds for each move, even if the game overruns its allotted 40 minute duration as a result.

The opening moves were made, as calmly as usual, and the games got underway. 15 minutes later, my third eldest son had brought his game to a close and was putting his stones away. I had asked him to come and tell me the result as soon as his game had finished. Sure enough, he came over as asked and told me how he had done. Upon hearing the words “I won,” I congratulated him and gave him a hug. Telling him to go and lend his support to his brothers, he then headed back to where the games were being played. With one win in the bag, the team now had victory in its sights. We just needed one of my two elder sons to win their games.

I got running reports on my second eldest son’s game from my third eldest son as he watched. “He’s winning”came the first report, followed by “he’s trying to kill a large group” and then finally “he definitely won,” Not long after that last report, my second eldest son’s opponent resigned from the game. In that moment, victory for Team Hori was assured. I couldn’t help but quietly punch the air, off to one side when no one was looking. In the world of go, it is considered bad manners to shout or show any obvious expression of joy at winning out of consideration for your opponent’s feelings. Also, the opponents were students from the same go class. We even know the players’ parents too. I felt genuine sympathy when I thought about how the parents of the other team must be feeling.

Clinching victory seemed to have helped my eldest son to relax too as he edged ever closer to gaining a decisive advantage. After 30 minutes of play, he managed to win his game as well, securing the crowning glory of victory with a score of 3-0. In that moment, I felt nothing but the greatest pride in my sons. After questions from the media, there was an award ceremony and finally commemorative photos.

Once all of the official proceedings were over, we arranged for the various additional prizes, including a year’s supply of Aquarius and a large championship trophy, to be delivered to our home. Amidst talk of “the beginnings of a new battle,” my second eldest son started a new game against a player from Kyoto that he had befriended. Even after such an intense contest, there he was playing again. He really is a go fanatic!

I suggested that we go and get something nice to eat in an effort to tear my sons away of the venue. “Sounds good” replied my eldest son, so that was that. My sons’ expressions had already switched back from go players to regular elementary school kids.

We stopped off at a cafe on the way home with my son’s new friend from Kyoto and his father. Urged on by my hungry sons, I ordered juice, cakes, pasta, pizza and a haphazard selection of other items from the menu. I was in such a good mood that I got through a couple of glasses of beer and two more of red wine. I was definitely in a cheerful mood by the time we made our way home.

Back from the day care center, my two youngest sons joined in the celebrations as well. After ringing my sons’ teachers and grandparents to tell the result and thank them for their support, I finally had chance to catch my breath. I ended up nodding off whilst half watching a video with my sons.

I was woken up again at dinner time. As well as celebrating the day’s victory, conversation over dinner drifted in the following direction. My eldest son said that he would now knuckle down to some serious studying for the junior high school entrance exams. My second eldest meanwhile was focused on the individual championships, which were due to start the following day. He and my third eldest son then set themselves the target of making it two victories in a row at next year’s team championship and making an impact at the national individual championship. If my second youngest son, who starts elementary school next year, is to make it into the school team, he will need to really focus on improving his playing skills. No doubt my youngest son, who is nearly four, will also start playing go before too long.

We will really need to work hard, to “go that extra mile.” Spurred on by the bitter taste of defeat at the semifinal stage last year, it was going that extra mile that enabled my sons to achieve victory this year.

I believe that, if children get into the habit of going that extra mile and persevering in everything they do from an early age, they are sure to grow in stature. I hope that my children will grow up to make a major impact on a worldwide scale in the future when they reach adulthood. I am sure that they will, as long as they keep on going that extra mile.

Even just looking back over the last year, my sons have grown tremendously. Despite starting to study for the junior high school entrance exams after last year’s tournament and struggling to play go to his full potential, my eldest son still went into this year’s tournament as captain. With all of them having worked so hard, it was a real challenge. He must have felt incredibly anxious, sitting there knowing that he hadn’t been able to prepare for the tournament as he would have liked. Given the circumstances, he did remarkably well to fight it out to the end. He gets my award for fighting spirit.

At last year’s tournament, my second eldest son won two games and lost four, with four defeats in a row from the end of the preliminary league stage onwards. This time round, he won every single game. He has clearly become much stronger mentally. He was asked in an interview “what was the difference from last year?” My son replied “last year was a bit negative, but this year I played positively,” He gets my award for outstanding performance, as the driving force behind this year’s victory.

Then there’s my third eldest son. He was only in the first grade at elementary school when he competed in last year’s tournament and tasted bitter defeat in the semifinals. As a result, I think that he was probably more determined to win the national championships than anyone. This time round he didn’t lose a single game, not even in the Tokyo preliminary heats. He managed to pull off a perfect clean sweep. As my eldest son said when interviewed, his younger brother is undoubtedly a dependable presence within the team. For an elementary school second grader, he is an astonishingly good go player, especially from the point of view of his opponents. My third eldest son gets my award for technique.

It was a pretty late night for all of them. Tonight though, I just want them to rest and take it easy. Starting tomorrow however, it will be time to start working towards the next challenge.

In the words written by Shuko Fujisawa, “Merely trying is not enough. You must push as hard as you possibly can.

Go seems to enabled my sons to appreciate the importance of hard work on a day to day basis. For tonight though, I just want them to sleep soundly.

Congratulations and sleep well, for tomorrow we start working towards the next big challenge.