Games of Conquest: Sugoroku of Imperial and Wartime Japan

Fig. 1. Watanabe Nobukazu, Fukushima chōsa ensei sugoroku (Pictorial Board and Dice Game: Lieutenant Colonel Fukushima’s Expedition, 1893), set of joined color woodblock prints, 80.8 × 50.2 cm overall. Published by Yokoyama Enshō. Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles A. Lowenhaupt 839:2010a-f.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mass-produced printed board games celebrated Japan’s astonishing rise as a military and imperial power. Called sugoroku, these objects have not received a great deal of scholarly attention, and because they were meant to be played with, examples in good condition are rare. The Saint Louis Art Museum is fortunate to have received a recent gift from Charles and Rosalyn Lowenhaupt of almost 1,400 objects—prints, paintings, books, textiles, postcards and toys—related to Japan’s modern wars, including a number of remarkable sugoroku prints.

Each of the five games discussed in this article relates to a different aspect of this transition—Japan’s early empire-building and the professionalization of the military between the 1870s and 1890s, the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), and the Second Sino-Japanese War (1931–1945). And each represents a meeting of popular culture and national policy, art and propaganda. They are fascinating for their aesthetic qualities, for what they reveal about the culture that produced them, and for what they can teach us about the persuasive power of images.

Sugoroku is a “race game” similar to Snakes and Ladders that flourished from the late 17th century.1 The board was typically made of standard-sized sheets of woodblock-printed paper pasted together, and players compete to navigate their game pieces from the start toward a winning final space by rolling a die.2 Early sugoroku were apparently intended for spiritual edification: in Pure Land sugoroku, played since at least the 15th century, players progressed from the earthly sphere through the ten realms of the Buddhist cosmos.3 Depending on the whim of the die, one might reach the Pure Land (Buddhahood) or descend into hell.

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  1. Sugoroku can refer to two different kinds of games: ban-sugoroku, which is similar to backgammon, and e-sugoroku, meaning “pictorial sugoroku.” []
  2. Analogous versions exist in other parts of Asia, including the Indian Moksha Patam, which served as the model for Western iterations. []
  3. A courtier’s diary from 1474 mentions playing the game. Matsukawa Koichi, “Scenic Views: E-Sugoroku,” in Irving L. Finkel and Colin Mackenzie, eds., Asian Games: The Art of Contest (New York: Asia Society, 2004), 77. []