Learn About The Traditional Japanese Game Shogi with JRPG Persona 5

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Persona 5 is the most recent entry in a line of deep JRPG video games that incorporate a unique mash-up of traditional RPG action, dating sims, urban fantasy, and Jungian psychology.  An important aspect of these games is your main character’s ‘social links’, the bonds that they form with their NPC allies; these bonds are a literal source of power for our heroes, and exploring them is a fun and often fascinating part of the experience. The game introduces a bevy of characters for your masked high school hero to meet and befriend, such as a disgraced doctor, an investigative reporter, and a star boardgame player named Hifumi Togo.

I like Hifumi. She’s shy, but passionate about her game: Shogi. Hifumi is a champion Shogi player, who is seeking to become the first female to reach 3rd Dan (rank) of the professional leagues.  Despite her mother’s insistence that she rely on her looks to gain more fans, Hifumi wants to earn her place through mastery of the game (at least, that’s how things start.  Nothing is ever that simple in the world of Persona).  She channels her passion through the game, demonstrating intense tactical expertise, which she will share with the hero if he agrees to practice with her.

Getting to know Hifumi was interesting, but it left me with one burning question: What the heck is Shogi exactly? Persona 5 gave me some inkling, as I watched my main character play a board game with Hifumi in a Church in the middle of the night (totally typical of this series, by the way), but I wanted to know more.

Image Credit:  Oliver Orschiedt

With a little research, I learned that Shogi (将棋shōgi) is what you might call Japanese chess. Two players will try to trap each other’s king using pieces with a variety of powers, but there are two key differences between this and the classic western strategy game. The first is that captured pieces don’t get kicked off the board. Instead, these pieces join the opposing side (the traitors) and can be played back onto the board by the capturing player. The second big difference is that when a piece reaches the last 3 rows of the opponents side, it can level up. In chess, only the pawns can do this, but Shogi knows no such bounds! Thus a Bishop can become a Horse, a Rook can become a Dragon, and a Knight can become a Gold General (I mean, who wouldn’t want to be one of those?).

While Shogi is known to be Japanese, it’s believed that it evolved from a game called Chaturanga which originated in India and traveled to Japan via China and Korea. It’s estimated that the game may have been around as early as the sixth century! Seeing as it has been around so long, it’s no surprise that Shogi is often represented in Japanese art and film; sometimes you can even spot it popping up in manga and anime, like this  episode of Nartuto Shippuden where Asuma teaches Shikamaru about sacrifice through playing the game.

Image Credit: Persona 5/Atlus

Shogi pieces are all tiles marked with Kanji characters which can be a bit difficult to learn for anyone unfamiliar with the Japanese language, but with practice anyone can learn to play. If you are curious to try learning Shogi, there are plenty of books, videos, and even apps available.

Akira Watanabe’s TsumeShogi is a great app to begin with as it is one of the few in English. The series offers different levels of play so as you advance in skill, you can try out more challenging games. You can check out the beginners course here.

A super simplified and adorable version of Shogi is CatchTheLionWars ( iOS and Android). This one is unfortunately only available in Japanese, but the game highlights how each piece moves and is simple enough to practice with.

One of my favorite things about games like Persona is that, though the magic of excellent localization, they introduce us to cultural touchstones to which we might not otherwise be exposed.  And as a bonus, Hifumi’s lessons even made my main character better at strategic combat!  So while learning Shogi may not make it easier for you to swap out party members in real life, it’s really cool that it features a game that ties Persona not just to its own series, but to a gaming tradition centuries old.

What sort of games do you feel passionate about? Let us know in the comments below!

Featured Image Credit: Persona 5/Atlus

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