The pencil-and-paper logic puzzle is arguably Japan’s most successful cultural export of recent years. Look inside almost any daily newspaper and you will find at least one number puzzle with a Japanese name; sudoku most commonly, but there are many others, such as kakuro and futoshiki, to mention only the ones that appear regularly in the Guardian. Shelves stuffed full of these exotic-sounding, square-gridded, numerical brain-teasers fill every newsagent and bookstore.
I visited Tokyo to try to understand why Japan dominates the puzzle world and discovered a country with a unique puzzle culture. Japanese inventors have created hundreds of other brilliant types of logic puzzle, mostly unknown in the west, and the country sustains a cottage industry of several hundred “artisans” who design these puzzles by hand rather than by computer, as is usually done elsewhere.
Puzzles pioneered by the Japanese are always based on grids and have very simple rules. The solving process involves filling in the gaps through a process of logical deduction. The stepby-step path to the solution is utterly addictive, since each completed step gives you a buzz and pushes you to the next one. It’s a drip-feed of micro satisfactions. Once you have started one puzzle – and there is usually a simple move to hook you in – you are totally in their grip.
Jimmy Goto, chief director of the Japan Sudoku Association, says that grid logic puzzles are a natural fit for the Japanese. The puzzles remind him of the tradition of hakoniwa, miniature landscape gardens in a small box that many people have in their homes. “The Japanese like to miniaturise,” he says. “Puzzles in small grids have the same feeling as hakoniwa.”
Grid logic puzzles also reflect other qualities valued in Japanese culture, such as minimalism, refinement and craftsmanship, and are in tune with a people comfortable with following clearly defined rules. Yet the real reason Japan has become a puzzle super- power is as much circumstantial as it is about cultural traits, and a result of the intriguing history of sudoku itself.
The boom in interest in Japanese puzzles dates to 2004, when sudoku first arrived in the UK and became an instant international craze. For the previous 20 years, however, it had been a staple of the Japanese puzzle magazine Nikoli, and few people outside Japan had heard of it.
So it is curious to find out that sudoku did not originate in Japan. It first appeared in a US puzzle magazine in the late 1970s, and was called “number place”. Nikoli’s editor spotted the puzzle, gave it a Japanese name and refined it so that the given numbers in the grid appeared in a symmetrical pattern. He did the same with another American puzzle, “cross sums”, which he renamed kakuro.
Sudoku and kakuro were so popular that they inspired Nikoli’s readers to come up with their own grid-based number and logic puzzles. Another Japanese magazine, Puzzler, encouraged its readers to devise similar puzzles and the rivalry between the magazines led their fans to invent hundreds of beautiful and clever puzzle types. Nikoli is now almost entirely written by about 500 of its readers, “puzzle masters” ageing from 10 to more than 80. Puzzles devised by Nikoli and Puzzler include gems such as slitherlink, skyscrapers, nurikabe, hashiwokakero, yajilin and heyawake.
Sudoku gave me my first taste of grid logic puzzles, but I never found it as interesting and pleasurable to solve as I do the puzzle types I discovered when I was in Tokyo. These puzzles are much more aesthetically appealing, and require more creative strategies to solve. What I love about Japanese logic puzzles is not that they are peculiarly Japanese. Rather, it’s the opposite. They are universal: a rare cultural artefact accessible to everyone, irrespective of education, nationality, age or gender.
Here are two examples of Japanese puzzles unknown in the UK. Note, you will need an eraser as you get used to each puzzle!
Once you have started one puzzle you are totally in their grip