Erro ergo sum

Japan has long viewed failure in a distinctive way that has invited study in the west. The most famous example is surely the book The Nobility of Failure by Ivan Morris. This is a study of Japan's "tragic heroes" and the main point he makes is that, unlike us, the Japanese do not require their heroes to win or to succeed. It is all part of the topsy-turvy view of Japan, but maybe that is well past its heyday.

At any rate, the Japanese now have a new slant on failure and it's home-grown. A few years back, a Tokyo professor of engineering, Hatamura Yotaro, set up the Association for the Study of Failure (ASF) and brought a new ology to the world, shippaigaku. Admittedly, the precise kind of ology is still in doubt - failure-ology has been tried but does not seem to have caught on - and references to the ASF seem rather too often to trigger associations with Monty Python.

Nevertheless, the Japanese Ministry of Education has given its backing. There are also western business schools, company trainers and others who, as we all know, can spot a good bandwagon with their eyes closed, and there are some who think shippaigaku will be the heir to "just in time". We make no comment on claims that JIT was really a western invention and it would not surprise us if someone claims SoF is ditto.

No, all that interests us here is that Prof. Hatamura was a go player. He reveals he spent a lot of time playing in the lab as a student. He must have learnt about lots of failure early in life. Go is rather a good model for the Study of Failure because each game has a loser.

We have not actually seen the work of the "slip-up guru" but it seems that over the past three or four years he has produced several books, including at least one in English. The methodology seems to focus on eradicating mistakes through a logical approach to backtracking down a failure path, relying heavily on a database of failure knowledge, which in turn appears to rely on the internet as a way of masses of people contributing to this database - a sort of failure wiki.

As with the Japanese right-brain theory of a few years back, the Study of Failure provides an easy title for pot boilers on just about every topic (as in Play Golf with the Right Side of Your Brain - there were go titles too but we'll spare the blushes).

Last year O Meien 9-dan tapped in to the SoF vein with a book called "I err therefore I am". O is too good a writer to be accused of pot-boiling, though he has a sharp eye for topicality. He wrote a book on go using the analogy of zone-marking from soccer around the time of the last but one World Cup.

In this new book, O recalls the notorious game when he (as we thought) misread a ladder. It was one of the few occasions when a two-day game finished on the first day, as this was in Game 1 of the 55th Honinbo Final in 2000 against Cho Sonjin. These were the last few moves:

Having studied his failure, O reveals that it was not really a case of misreading the ladder. It was rather that he was so busy thinking about attack and defence at other points on the board, that the idea of a ladder did not even occur to him.

This opens up huge new vistas for all of us amateurs. Our failures are no longer something to cringe over. We can now ologise them. And if we miss that rather obvious vital point in the middle of our group, well, we can point out we were too engrossed with deep calculations elsewhere, "rather like O y'know."

Let us know if you spot any other SoF books or references to do with go. It would be interesting above all to know whether anyone is trying to study Japan's failure in international go in a logical way.

This is important not just as a matter of national pride, but also for the health of go in Japan. It needs all the help it can get, and a few wins at international level might be a tonic. The Hikaru boom has been followed by the Hikaru slump.

The recent 2005 Japanese "Leisure White Paper" shows a rapid fall to by far the lowest level of go players in Japan since records began. The go playing population is now put at just 3.5 million, or 3.2% of the population. This compares with figures of 4.5 million and 4.1% in 2004 which were seen as the result of the height of the Hikaru no Go boom (HnG ended its TV run in March 2003 and magazine serialisation in May 2003). But it also compares to a peak of 12 million players (around 14%) in 1981, though figures were calculated in a different, and probably highly inflated, way then.

Using the modern poll-based method, it would seem that the go population over the last 20 years has declined from a more realistic 7.9% to 3.2%.

More alarming is the breakdown of the figures by age (males still dominate over females). In 2004 13.7% of people aged 10-20, i.e. the bulk of the Hikaru boomers, claimed to play. In 2005 this was only 4.3% - and no females!. There was also a sharp fall among those in their 20s. But the number of players in their 50s doubled compared with 2004. Go in Japan is now very much a game of men in their 50s and 60s - as it has been for a long time, only more so now.

This seems to suggest that the Japanese go authorities have been unable to sustain the Hikaru boom amongs the young. Just in time to call in the professor!


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