Cho Chikun arrives in Japan

The fortune tellers

He was born into an upper-class and wealthy family in Seoul (his paternal grandfather was a bank director and it was he who taught go to Chikun's father and Cho Nam-ch'eol, and his mother also came from a family of investors), but the family was impoverished by the Korean War when his father, Nam-seok, was obliged, a pistol at his head, to burn all his cash to avoid death, and was also unable to find work after the war.

Chikun, the second the youngest of seven children (two elder brothers, one younger who died in infancy, and three girls), moved to Japan in 1962 at the initiative of his elder brother Cho Shoen who later effectively became his manager. The brothers all had the character yeon in their names and Chikun was originally called Pung-yeon. But an amateur fortune-teller told the family that if Pung-yeon did not change his name his mother would die, whereas if he did his baby brother would die but then Pung-yeon would become famous. So his father renamed him Chikun. The baby did die, despite constant attention. A professional fortune-teller later predicted that he would become a famous person known to all in Korea. He has no recollection himself but it is said he learnt go from his grandfather - his father was too weak, never getting beyond 5-6 kyu. But when he showed aptitude for the game it was his father who decided he should go to Japan.

A bit of a devil

arrival in japan 1962

Arrival in Japan in 1962

He arrived in Japan on the first of August 1962 at Haneda airport with his uncle Cho Nam-ch'eol and Cho Shoen, where he was met by Mr and Mrs Kitani, Kobayashi Chizu and Kitani Reiko. The very next day he was pitted in a five stone handicap game against Rin Kaiho, then 6-dan, at the Sankei Hall in front of a vast public. He took the game very seriously, folding his arms as he sank into thought, and had to be nudged to play faster for the audience, although he had actually been told to by his uncle and brother to fold his arms before every move to avoid the possibility of making errors through playing too fast. He won the game (1962-08-02).

In those early days he was different from other students at the Kitani school because he had to go, at his parents' wishes, to the Korean School in Tokyo and for a time he lived not with Kitani but with his brother. His elder brother spoiled him rotten, giving him a piggy back to lessons, etc. As the youngest and smallest at the Kitani school he was also rather spoilt by Mrs Kitani, despite her efforts to treat all children equally. Inevitably Cho became a bit of a devil. On one early occasion, during a holiday visit to the Meiji Jingu shrine, he lost himself in the crowds. As he knew no Japanese he could not be called on the PA system. Fortunately his brother had the wit to climb a tree and was luckily able to spot him.

Clever, but neglecting his studies

Cho Chikun was Kitani pupil No. 36. About a year after joining Kitani, he also enrolled as a 10-kyu insei at the Nihon Ki-in. He found it hard, being beaten down from 5 stones handicap to 9 stones in straight games (the handicap was adjusted after every game) against fellow Kitani disciple Kato Masao, for example, and on two occasions he even had to take ten stones. He was often reduced to tears but he made an impression by doggedly playing on with eyes streaming. Other children were apt to bully him - he was after all not Japanese. But as the baby of the Kitani family he was also rather indulged, and took advantage by being, by his own admission, a naughty child and he told fibs. His go studies suffered because he was cheeky to his fellow pupils and so they would not play teaching games, though they also recognised he was clever.

His neglect of study was made more noticeable by the arrival of his future rival Kobayashi Koichi in the school. Kobayashi was three years older and weaker, but he studied very hard (1966-05-15). Cho settled down somewhat at the age of seven when his mother, Ok-sun, came to Japan and comforted him by allowing him to suckle again. A crisis arose when his mother decided it was time to go home, but one famous incident that made Cho himself stick it out in Japan was when he was taken to the house of a wealthy patron of Kitani in Kobe, Takeoka Shiro (executive director of the Obayashi-gumi). Cho stared in wonderment at a huge picture of a tiger. Takeoka asked if he liked it, the boy said yes, and the patron said he could have it. Kitani intervened and said he could have it only if he reached 1-dan by age 10. In fact he made 1-dan at 11, but as soon as he did, Mrs Kitani phoned the patron and he said: I know what you're phoning for, it's on its way. Apparently that picture still graces Cho's home.

A major change

It was probably Mrs Kitani who was most influential in keeping Cho in Japan - she adored him and spoilt him when he was very young - but the topic of a return to Korea was always in everyone's thoughts, including hers. He wore her out, he engaged in battles of will with her, and she more than once expressed misgivings to her husband about being able to give him a suitable upbringing. But one little incident that helped change the mood was taking him to Mitsukoshi to buy his first suit - he was wreathed in smiles for a change. Mr Kitani volunteered to talk to Cho Nam-ch'eol about sending Chikun home, but he had another Korean pupil, Ha Ch'an-seok, who become a good friend of Chikun and the tribulations were tided over.

It was Chikun himself who made the major change necessary when he did not make 1-dan at the age of 10, for it was his failure to do that that suddenly spurred him on to become a ferocious student. The tag of being a "difficult" child began to fade. He remains, however, a person of great passion. He claims he thinks of death whenever he loses, and he cannot stand being second. But in his career since then he has not often had to accept second best.

Based on John Fairbairn's writing and used with permission

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