Fujii Sōta: The Genius Rewriting “Shōgi” HistoryCulture
A Star Among Geniuses
At 20 years old, Fujii Sōta is the young king of the modern shōgi world. This fresh-faced youth is rewriting the 400-plus year history of the game. Just how extraordinary a player is he? Here, we offer an introduction that will hopefully help anyone understand, regardless of their familiarity with the game.
Shōgi is a two-player board game. You win the game when you manage to trap your opponent’s gyoku, a piece akin to the king in chess. The board is divided into 81 squares in a nine-by-nine grid, and there are 40 pieces on the board. Unlike chess or similar games, shōgi is marked by the unusual fact that you can deploy the pieces you take from your opponent on your own side.
Shōgi is a game with many ardent fans who believe it is the most interesting game in the world. Estimates put the number of active players now in the millions. Particularly strong players can earn the title kishi, a certified professional shōgi player, who then become objects of admiration and respect for shōgi fans. It is very difficult to earn that certification, requiring constant victory through fierce competition. As a rule, only four people a year can become kishi, and there are only about 170 professionally active kishi today.
Among this group of kishi, known as a collection of geniuses, the current player standing at the top is Fujii Sōta.
Evolution of a Kishi
Fujii became the youngest-ever kishi two months after his fourteenth birthday, in October 2016. Almost without exception, all the greatest players with names carved in the history of the game showed their talent at a young age. Even so, Fujii began his great success at a stage of unprecedented youth.
At the point Fujii made his debut, he had the strength of a fully-fledged player.
In the past, even the most talented newcomers struggled in the early parts of their career, where experience can make all the difference. However, Fujii made almost no mistakes and was able to take the upper hand in the early to middle stages of the game. He accurately read his opponents and never collapsed in the mid- or endgame. In essentially every match, he made brilliant moves that no one else would have considered. And the endgame, which decides whether the gyoku is trapped or not, is where Fujii shined brightest. On those rare occasions when the game started to go poorly, he did not give up, but maintained his persistence. Invariably, he would turn the tables and grasp his victory.
As Fujii went on without losing a single match after his debut, the public developed a growing bout of Fujii Fever. He eventually hit 29 straight victories, making a new record for unbroken winning streaks. With this new record, he became something of a national hero.
No matter the field, it is not uncommon for a young genius to suffer from hubris and stop growing. However, Fujii has never shown a hint of such. No matter how many matches he wins, his comments are always humble, and he has never neglected his ongoing studies.
The modern shōgi world is becoming increasingly focused on using artificial intelligence software to analyze early and mid-game stages, which has led to a huge change in the path to victory. Fujii has not lagged in that regard, either.
However, his core strengths have been nurtured in ways totally unrelated to AI. Even without computerized assistance, Fujii’s overflowing talents would remain.
The Many Titles of the Champion
The shōgi world has eight title tournaments to win: Ryūō, Meijin, Ōi, Eiō, Ōza, Kiō, Ōshō, and Kisei.
Each title series happens once in each playing season, and for each title match there is one titleholder who is the reigning champion. A challenger must win through a series of games in a tournament or league for a shot at the title, and then face the titleholder in a five- or seven-game tournament.
So far, only a limited number of top-level pros have won these shōgi titles, and it is such a great honor that their names go down in history.
In 2020, the then 17-year-old Fujii won through to challenge Watanabe Akira for the Kisei title, becoming the youngest in history to do so. Then, he won the five-game tournament to become the youngest title holder, as well.
Fujii went on to take the Ōi, Eiō, Ryūō, and Ōshō titles in order. Then, in March 2023, he won the Kiō title as well. And on June 1, 2023, he took the Meijin title to refresh his record as the youngest holder of seven of the eight major championships.
Kishi are awarded dan ranks according to their achievements, which are used as appellations by those who have not yet held a title. When a player is officially qualified as a kishi, they become fourth level, or yodan. They then advance to fifth, sixth, and so on to ninth, or kudan.
In 2021, Fujii became the youngest ever to reach the highest ninth dan at the age of 18. However, there was never a chance to call him Fujii Kudan, because it is more common to use the titles a top-level kishi holds.
Today Fujii holds seven titles concurrently, and it’s simply too long to call him by all of their names. So, mostly he is called Fujii nanakan (seven-crown), while the official title in most instances is Fujii Meijin. Within the eight given titles, Ryūō and Meijin stand at a higher level, and are considered a grade apart, worthy of serving as kishi titles on their own.
In May 2023, Fujii challenged Watanabe Akira in the seven-game Meijin title tournament. Meijin is a title dating back to the Edo period (1603–1868), when it was bestowed on only one person at a time and was considered the pinnacle of the shōgi world. Even since the introduction of the modern champion system in 1935, when players were allowed to compete for the Meijin title, only a few players have ever been able to claim it.
When Fujii succeeded in taking the Meijin title this season, at 20 years old, he once again became the youngest player to ever do so.
A First-Ever Eight Crown Champion?
There has only ever been one other holder of seven titles, Habu Yoshiharu (now age 52). In 1996, at the age of 25, Habu held seven titles—all that existed at the time. It gave rise to an unprecedented fever then, as well.
Fujii has so far never lost a title tournament. If he continues to successfully defend and win titles, he is set to achieve the dream and hold all eight crowns at once.
In shōgi, no matter how strong the kishi, it is almost unheard of to achieve a yearly winning rate over 80%. Habu, who has been called the strongest player in history, only surpassed 80% three times. However, Fujii has stayed in the 80% range every one of the six years since his debut. It is unlikely that there is anyone other than Fujii who could ever succeed so thoroughly in overturning all of Habu’s many records.
The challenger tournament for the eighth remaining title, Ōza, is now underway. Fujii is currently in the top eight. If he makes it to the top of this bracket, he will challenge Nagase Takuya for the title. In most years, the five-game Ōza series starts in September, and that could well be the scene for Fujii’s try at becoming the first-ever eight-crown champion.
Currently, the shōgi world is filled with the conviction that Fujii’s victory is a given. Watching his successes thus far, it is hard not to be so convinced. But of course, life is never so simple. And there are those who do not want to see such a stunning achievement won so easily.
And even as Fujii himself grows, the overall level of the game is being raised by all those players looking to beat him. Whatever happens, we can all hope to see Fujii’s journey to the eight-crown summit filled with games for the history books.
(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Fujii Sōta smiling for the camera after becoming the youngest six-crown champion by winning the forty-eighth annual Kiō tournament on March 20, 2023, in Nikkō, Tochigi Prefecture. All photos © Jiji.)