Sugoroku, also known as e-sugoroku, is a Japanese board and dice game similar to snakes and ladders, or Chutes and Ladders, that flourished between the 18th and mid-20th centuries. Early versions of the game were intended for religious education. Depending on the whim of the die, one might reach Buddhahood, or alternatively, descend into hell.
Secular versions of sugoroku came to the fore with the rise of Japan’s woodblock printing industry. New game boards were typically released at the end of the year in time to be played during the New Year’s holiday. Made from printed paper, sugoroku were relatively cheap and wore out quickly, thus ensuring a steady demand for new designs. Publishers competed with each other by commissioning popular artists such as Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Kunisada to create attractive designs that aligned with contemporary trends, such as travel and actors of the kabuki theater.
According to a newspaper advertisement, this sugoroku was devised by Admiral Ogasawara Naganari, tutor to the crown prince Yoshihito (the future Taishō emperor) and credited with being the founder of Japan’s secret service. The ad described the game as a beloved educational toy of the prince, and promised it to be a useful tool for instilling correct values in the home.
Beginning in the schoolroom scene at the bottom right, players compete to distinguish themselves in a military career. Curiously, this game has not one, but two winning endpoints (at top center): promotion to the rank of General, or an honorable death followed by enshrinement at Yasukuni Shrine.
Two ways of entering the military are presented: conscription and volunteering. Generally speaking, conscription applied to all men between 18 and 40 years of age, but the more wealthy and educated were eligible to volunteer. In the game, this elite pathway begins with the young boy studying by lamplight in the bottom left, and continues according to the pattern set by Japanese military schools modeled on the Prussian system. Depending on their luck, players may transfer from the conscription pathway to the volunteering route and beginning as a volunteer does not guarantee a smooth rise to the top.
Players can move forward through exemplary deeds, but various barriers complicate their progress. One risks being retired from the game early due to age, or elimination by firing squad for violating military law. Unflinching in both realism and ideology, this sugoroku suggests how notions of nation, modernity, and militarism became fused in Imperial Japan.
Rhiannon Paget is the Andrew W. Mellon for Japanese Art and a collaborator on the curating of Conflicts of Interest: Art and War in Modern Japan.