Ja­panese puz­zles

The Guardian - G2 - - Front page -

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

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