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12 December 2005updated 24 Sep 2015 11:31am

We’re all orientalists now

Why are we so eager to believe that Sudoku hails from Japan when it doesn't? Patrick West explains

By Patrick West

One of the most surprising successes of 2005 has been a previously obscure puzzle that we all know as Sudoku. First popularised in Britain by the Daily Mail and the Times just over a year ago, it now features in most newspapers. There are magazines and books devoted to it, and numerous derivatives have begun to flourish – Samurai Sudoku, Killer Sudoku, Kakuro and Hitori. Everyone seems to agree that it has been Japan’s most successful export since Mitsubishi motors, Sony televisions or Nintendo Game Boy.

The problem is that Sudoku is not a Japanese game. Invented in Switzerland in the 18th century, it became a minor hobby in western puzzling circles during the 1980s. It was appropriated by the Japanese in the past 20 years, only to be exported back to Europe 12 months ago as a pastime. The promotion and perception of this puzzle as a quintessentially Japanese affair is a symptom of the west’s weakness for what Edward Said dubbed “orientalism”: the European propensity to stereotype Asians as wily, martial, exotic and cunning.

The Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler devised the 81-square pursuit in 1783, and called it “magic squares”. It did not arrive in Japan until 1984, when a Tokyo publisher spotted a version of the game in a US magazine. He renamed it Sudoku, meaning “solitary number”, and it grew in popularity in Japan. By the beginning of 2004, it had become a national sensation; the country possessed five Sudoku magazines, which together commanded a circulation of more than 600,000. Only at this point did we in the west, perceiving the puzzle’s potential mass appeal, take it back.

Admittedly, our belief in the game’s oriental origins may be based on simple naivety, and we must attribute much of its popularity to its sheer addictiveness. Yet the cultural misperception has aided the puzzle’s fortunes.

Westerners are prone to see the Japanese as possessors of superior spiritual insight (from Zen Buddhism and mystical Shintoism to their reputation for insightful aphorisms) and as warriors (from the samurai and the kamikaze pilot to their proficiency in martial arts), and thus endowed with an enhanced yet threatening intellect (they make better cars and computers than ours). We have always “othered” them so as to reinforce our self-perception as benevolent, pragmatic and empirical beings.

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The game’s association with the east through semantic innuendo has been exploited explicitly, as the names “Samurai Sudoku” and “Killer Sudoku” testify. Some games are rated “tricky” or “fiendish”, much like those unscrupulous Japanese emperors or prison guards we had to deal with in the past. Such is the competition to employ more extreme oriental-sounding superlatives that you should not be too surprised if you soon come across “Ninja Sudoku” or even “Rating: suicidal”.

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The London Evening Standard, which publishes a version of the game called Hitori, now offers Sudoku grandmasters free holidays to Japan. In September, the Guardian launched with aplomb its Kakuro variation – what it called “Japan’s best-kept secret”, even though Kakuro originated in the United States.

Kakuro was introduced to the east in 1980 by the Japanese businessman McKee Kaji. Visiting the United States, Kaji was frustrated that his inferior command of English prevented him from completing crosswords. Then he spotted a game called Cross Sums, which had been a minor pursuit in US puzzle magazines since 1966. Within a few years of his discovery, Kaji had made the game a sensation in his home country. He gave it the hybrid name “kasan kurosu” (the Japanese word for “addition” and the Japanese pronunciation of the English word “cross”). For marketing purposes, it was abbreviated to Kakuro. Only under this name is it gaining mainstream appreciation in the west.

Again, this kind of marketing appeals to deep-rooted orientalist perceptions of the Japanese as mystical, militaristic and mischievous. Sudoku would surely have fared less well had it been promoted as hailing from Switzerland. After all, cuckoo clocks, investment banking, wartime neutrality and cheese just aren’t very exciting or exotic.