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Japanese shōgi set

The game of shōgi developed in Japan around the 10th or 11th century, and in its present form dates back to the 16th century.

It is similar to chess, in that it is played on a board by two players with pieces representing kings, generals and footsoldiers. Some of the pieces are different from chess pieces, though. What in the English version of chess is known as a ‘rook’ is in shōgi a ‘flying chariot’, for example. There is no queen.

One feature of shōgi which is different from chess is that a player may use pieces captured from the other player. It has been suggested that this reflects the practice of soldiers switching sides, which mercenaries in 16th century Japan sometimes did.

Another feature of shōgi which differs from chess is that pieces can be ‘promoted’: if a piece reaches the far side of the board, the player may promote it by turning it over. This means it can move in a different way. Not all pieces can be promoted in this way.

This shōgi set was purchased by the Museum in 1951. It was believed at the time to have been made by the Japanese porcelain factory Kutani, the pieces dating from 1720, and the board from 1780. If so, it would be extremely rare. It is more likely that it was made in the early 19th century, but even so it is a very unusual item. Most shogi sets were made of wood, with luxury sets being made of lacquered wood decorated with gold.

Shogi can be played online - we've listed some websites to the right.