Shogi Arrives in America

The first known game of shogi in America took place in June of 1860 at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia. Japan had recently ended its 250 years of isolation, and sent a mission to the USA to ratify the Treaty of Friendship.

Japanese Embassy 1860
The attire worn to the Athenaeum by the Japanese delegation likely looked similar to what is worn by these 1860 delegates. It is not known if any of these delegates where among those visiting the Athenaeum.

As part of the diplomatic mission’s visit to Philadelphia, members of the delegation visited the Athenaeum. The Athenaeum (located at 219 South 6th Street between St. James Place and Locust Street) was a 15-year-old library that housed the largest chess club in Philadelphia. The delegation explained the rules of shogi to the chess club members and held an exhibition match during the same visit.

The Athenaeum of Philadelphia was the site of the first American shogi game in June of 1860.

The event was reported by the New York Times as follows.

This morning, I strolled up Chestnut Street to the rooms of the Philadelphia Chess Club. Announcing myself as a stranger from New York, I was courteously received, and proposed to spend a leisure hour among the devotees of Caissa. But, even here the Japanese furore had extended, for I found that a delegation was momentarily expected to afford the Club an opportunity to view the Japanese chess, or sho-ho-ye. The members of the Club dropped in one by one. They were not kept long waiting, for the distinguished visitors soon arrived, accompanied by those well-known chess-players, Messrs. Montgomery, Wells and Miles, who after sundry failures had prevailed upon four or five of the under officials to accompany them. After a general handshaking the Japanese were shown the sho-ho-ye men which had been kindly furnished for the occasion from the Athenaeum Japanese collection. The board, which has eighty-one squares instead of sixty-four like our own, was improvised from a sheet of white paper divided into the requisite number of squares By the aid of a list of the men, and a description of their powers furnished from the Athenaeum, and by an extensive use of all the English the visitors could command, the proper position, and power of each piece was determined, and two of the Japanese were prevailed upon to play. The game, as most of our chess readers will have learned from the recent description in the New York Times, is much more intricate than our chess. There are seventeen more squares, and eight more pieces. The powers of certain pieces may be increased or diminished during the game; an opponent’s pieces which have been removed may be replaced on the board, and there are other peculiarities which make the game one of great intricacy, and much more difficult than our game of chess.

Despite the intricacy, the Japanese played with considerable rapidity, and astonished our natives with the celerity of their moves. They also evinced much interest and great intelligence in learning our game of chess. … During the visit, the Japanese were understood to intimate that in Japan the Government employs teachers to impart the knowledge of sho-ho-ye to the people, who are extensively familiar with it.
(New York Times, June 16, 1860.)

On June 5th 2010, 150 years after the initial introduction of America to the game of shogi, Alan Baker organized an anniversary event to commemorate the original visit of the Japanese delegation. Local chess experts and the local shogi club were in attendance. The event included an exhibition match between two Japanese players in traditional dress, followed by local shogi club members pairing up with chess experts to play shogi.

The commemorative event held to the spirit of the original as reported by the Philadelphia Daily Bulletin.

The delegation that visited the Philadelphia Chess Club consisted of eight of the soldiers, each carrying his long, heavy sword in one hand, and some of them a light fan in the other. After a few minutes spent in salutations, two of them took their seats at the table which had been prepared for them, and the first game of Japanese Chess ever played in a Christian land was begun.
(Philadelphia Daily Bulletin, June 1860.)

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