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Shogi - Japan's most famous Fun-Punk-Pop-Girls SHONEN KNIFE flirt with Japanese Chess

"Pro Shogi players are cool!"

There has been that most interesting picture cruising the web for years: Japan's most famous Girlie-Fun-Punk-Pop-Band SHONEN KNIFE playing Shogi against fans on the occasion of a tour through Canada.

Shogi with Shonen Knife SHOGI the SHONEN KNIFE. On October 30th, 2003, SHONEN KNIFE-sisters Atsuko Yamano (bass; right) and Naoko Yamano (vocals, guitar; 2nd from right) play Shogi against local fan Brian Wald (left) on the occasion of a tour stop at Toronto, Canada. With a little help of their back-then drummer girl Mana Nishiura (3rd from right; two years later Mana Nishiura died in a New Jersey highway accident on November 4th, 2005). Organizer and artist Tomo Lennon (standing up at center) looks on. Photo: authorized by Brian Wald / courtesy by Tomo Lennon ©

That most unlikely encounter over the board of highly challenging Japanese Chess was supposed to have taken place on October 30th, 2003 (see the website: http://www.tomolennon.com/contents_about/shogi%20knife/shogi%20knife). The German chess-writer Dr. René Gralla wanted to find out more about that: Has that event taken place for real? And how come that those icons of girlie fun-punk sat down for a session of that nerd's stuff of Shogi? Those out-going SHONEN KNIFE of whom NIRVANA's legendary Kurt Cobain has once confessed: "When I finally got to see them live, I was transformed into a hysterical nine-year-old girl at a Beatles' concert."

Now Dr. René Gralla has managed to obtain an exclusive interview with SHONEN KNIFE's guitar-girl and singer Naoko Yamano via email. In the following the story behind that snapshot of SHONEN KNIFE's flirt with Japanese Chess.

A condensed version of that interview has been published by the German daily "Neues Deutschland". That is the link: http://www.neues-deutschland.de/artikel/127293.html. (Editors note: this is a newspaper website, that is not free.)

Dr. RENÉ GRALLA: Your current album is called "fun! fun! fun!". Is a lengthy and tiring match of Shogi real fun?!

NAOKO YAMANO: I don't know how to play Shogi. But I think pro Shogi players are cool! I like to watch them on tv.

There is even a Bloopers Show (!) on Shogi in Japanese tv: watch the funny "Shogi Foul Collection" on YouTube. An example can be found on youtube.com: http://nl.youtube.com/watch?v=zaeDJ879uqg.

The rules of Shogi can also be found on chessvariants.com, e.g. here.

DR. R. GRALLA: You have played Shogi - together with your sister and band-member Atsuko - against fans on the occasion of a tour through Canada in 2003. How has that idea occurred to you?

NAOKO: The event was booked by a Japanese artist called "Tomo Lennon" who is living in Toronto. It was enjoyable.

Pop and Shogi and Toronto, Canada. Pop and Shogi and Toronto, Canada. From left to right: Tomo Lennon (artist/ organizer); Toshiki Tsukada (Shogi master); SHONEN KNIFE'S Atsuko and Naoko; Yoshi (Shogi master); Walter Willems (artist/ co-organizer); Camilla Singh (co-organizer/ curator of Mocca; photo: courtesy by tomolennon ©

DR. R. GRALLA: You are the most famous Girlie-Fun-Punk-Pop-Band from Japan. Fun-Punk-Pop and Shogi: How do these most contrary things go together?

NAOKO: Hmmm ... this idea was Tomo's.

DR. R. GRALLA: Before that Shogi-gig with fans in Canada you have had to learn Shogi yourself. Was that tough for you?

NAOKO: Our drummer Mana used to play Shogi often when she was a child and she lead me. I was just looking on.

DR. R. GRALLA: How have been the results of your matches in Shogi against those fans from Canada?

NAOKO: Sorry, but I forgot it.

DR. R. GRALLA: Shogi is a famous part of Japanese culture - on the same level like, say, Ikebana or the tea ceremony. What does Shogi mean to you?

NAOKO: Shogi is a brain game. It's very intelligent.

The joys of summer evening and Shogi: Female Shogi Stars from Japan relax by playing
a friendly match.
The joys of summer evening and Shogi: Female Shogi Stars from Japan relax by playing a friendly match.

DR. R. GRALLA: Shogi - with its kryptic letters on one-coloured plates - is the most challenging chess variant. Many of your countrymen play Shogi though it is that difficult: Are Japanese people smarter than Western people?

Shogi board with pieces

NAOKO: I don't think so. It's depends on the person. Clever persons are always able to become strong Shogi players.

DR. R. GRALLA: Have you been surprised to meet gaijin , that is to say: long-nosed Westerners, who play Shogi?

NAOKO: No, I haven't. There are many Western people who enjoy Japanese culture like Ikebana or Iai-Nuki - that is to say, sword performance. Shogi is for everyone in the world.

The starting-up position in Shogi with westernized pieces in 3D. The starting-up position in Shogi with westernized pieces in 3D. Design of prototype: Dr. R.Gralla; photo: Christoph Harder ©

DR. R. GRALLA: Even manga - such as "Gekka no Kishi" or "Shion no Ou" - deal with Shogi. So Shogi is popular among young people in Japan? How come?

NAOKO: I didn't know these manga before. Shogi is not so popular among young people but I often see old men are playing Shogi everyday in the parks.

DR. R. GRALLA: Therefore Shogi seems to have an image problem now - as being somewhat old fashioned ...

NAOKO: ... but on the other hand there are many children who play Shogi and some want to be professional players. There is big prize money at tournaments.

DR. R. GRALLA: Do you continue to play Shogi?

NAOKO: I've actually never played Shogi. At that very Shogi session back in Canada 2003, just our drummer Mana played Shogi.

DR. R. GRALLA: The famous director and producer Takeshi Kitano is a great fan of Shogi too. He has told me - on the occasion of an interview in Hamburg in 2004 - that he has even played a match of Shogi against all-time champion Yoshiharu Habu in one of his shows. Would you like to play Shogi against Takeshi Kitano? Maybe on tv?

NAOKO: If I knew the rules of Shogi, I'd like to.

DR. R. GRALLA: Even the baseball star from Japan, Kei Igawa - who plays for the "New York Yankees" - , is a fan of Shogi. Would you like to play against Kei Igawa?

NAOKO: I repeat - if I knew the rule of Shogi, I'd like to. Please teach me!!

DR. R. GRALLA: Each year in April there is the famous "Ningen Shogi" at Tendo, Japan. I think that would be a great gig: SHONEN KNIFE - who like Shogi - play on the occasion of "Ningen Shogi". Maybe parallel to the match?!

NAOKO: It must be fun!

DR. R. GRALLA: That leads us to music. SHONEN KNIFE - having been formed in December 1981 - already exist for more than 26 years. That is quite a long time for a Girl-Pop-Fun-Punk band. How long do you plan to go on?

NAOKO: Longer than the Rolling Stones.

DR. R. GRALLA: Girl-Pop-Fun-Punk seems to be quite typic for Japanese music culture and Japanese youth culture. How come?

NAOKO: Many young girl's bands - not only Japanese bands but overseas bands - have said that they were inspired by SHONEN KNIFE. It's a great thing. I think they like to enjoy music.

DR. R. GRALLA: The foregoing fact - that Girl-Pop-Fun-Punk is typic for Japanese music culture and Japanese youth culture - , has that something to do with that stereotype that Japanese girls have to be "sweet", in Japanese language they call it "kawaii". And that stereotype leads to the cult about young girls in school uniforms - with all the consequences ... . How come that cult about young girls having to be "sweet"?

NAOKO: Japanese women usually looks younger then their age. "Kawaii" things are suitable for Japanese women.

DR. R. GRALLA: That seems to serve male fantasies, that cult about young girls having to be "sweet", that is to say: "kawaii"?!

NAOKO: They just like "kawaii" sweet things. Not for males. <
P> DR. R. GRALLA: How come that the cult of "kawaii" seems to be that strong in Japan - that young girls even seem to be responsive to that cult? With the consequence that sometimes even the girls try to profit by that cult - by letting older men buying them clothes and so on ... Or is the foregoing just a myth that Westerners entertain about girls in Japan?!

NAOKO: I think only "Otaku" persons - that is to say: nerds that live in the fantasy world of mangas - , they like "kawaii" kitch girls.

DR. R. GRALLA: With regard to that cult about young girls in Japan having to be "sweet": Doesn't that get on your nerves? How do you deal with that?

NAOKO: I'm not "Otaku" and I can't understand the feeling.

DR. R. GRALLA: Your current album ""fun! fun! fun!" has been released in Japan in 2007. When will it be released in Germany?

NAOKO: There is no plan so far. I'm looking for a good record label in Germany.

DR. R. GRALLA: How long do you want to let your fans in Germany wait for a tour of SHONEN KNIFE? When will you finally tour Germany again?

NAOKO: I'm always ready to go to Germany and play if we will be invited. I have very good memory about Germany. People are kind, there are many interesting towns and beautiful scenery and tasty foods. I should look for a booking agent.

Shonen Knife

DR. R. GRALLA: Will you play Shogi with your German fans too?

NAOKO: Yes, I'd like to.

More information about SHONEN KNIFE: http://www.shonenknife.com.
Webpage made by Hans Bodlaender. Text and images provided by dr. René Gralla.
Webpage made: December 6, 2008.