By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Of course, he’s not talking about this club, the Wonjang-neem says, smiling. He’s just telling me what he did during his years in Brazil. The Wonjang-neem smiles a lot, and when he does, he shows all his teeth and gums. But he’s no Buckwheat — like Jack Nicholson’s, there’s always something behind his grin.
"No, what kind of work did you do in Brazil?" I ask. "Job," I add in English for clarification.
"A good Baduk player doesn’t need to worry about money," he says, holding a smile so wide that his eyes almost disappear. End of story.
Depending on how you keep count, the Wonjang-neem is on his fourth life. There’s his life in Korea, where he graduated from a prestigious university. In 1967 he emigrated to Manhattan, where he got an accounting degree at NYU and worked as a CPA. During his 20-plus years there, he won a national Go championship, raised three kids in Westchester and sent two of them to Ivy League schools. With his kids grown up, he took an early-retirement package and abandoned the straight life to play Go in the clubs of Brazil. Though he’s still married, it’s unclear how much of a role his wife plays in life number four — which is essentially being lived at the club, where you’re bound to find him anytime, day or night.
"Why do you record him?" interrupts Fujino, a Japanese-American man playing in front of us.
"He’s from Osaka," the Wonjang-neem tells me.
"What?" asks Fujino.
"Fujino-san, you are from Osaka, yes?" the Wonjang-neem repeats in English.
Yes, Fujino nods. He’s playing with a Korean man who doesn’t speak any English, and Fujino doesn’t speak Korean. But in Go the language barrier doesn’t keep you from getting to know a person.
"Playing a game is like living one year together," Fujino explains upon losing. "Nineteen by 19 lines is 361 [points]. One year of the lunar calendar is 361 days. And then there are four corners for the four seasons. The center is heaven, or the sky. The edges are the ground. The black stones represent night and white represents day.
"So, like spending one year together, we can understand each other’s character. We can see whether the character is very aggressive, very prudent, or reckless like me. Even when I think it over, I always make a mistake like this —" He points to a group of stones, dead now, that he failed to protect, an error that a player of his experience shouldn’t have made.
Fujino is "about 50" and was an English teacher in Japan, which accounts for his near-perfect command of the language. His dark eyes and mustache give definition to his hollow face, and his standard outfit is a frayed, long-sleeved, sky-blue polo shirt tucked into brand-new blue Levi’s. Fujino worked as a reporter for the Rafu Shimpo, a Japanese-American newspaper in J-town, for five of his eight years in L.A. Now he’s in the process of writing his first novel, but that’s not why he left the paper.
"In this game you always have to reflect on yourself," he says by way of explaining why he lost his taste for journalism. Like a good fiction writer, Fujino’s obsessions — namely, Go — inform the narrative of his life. "In Japan we have a saying: The foot of lightning is always dark. People cannot see the bad things about themselves, even though it’s very obvious to other persons. In this game, if you make a mistake you have to face it. If you have a weakness it comes out here, and you must learn to face it. That’s the weak point of journalism. Journalists report a lot of crime and scandal, but they do it without ever reflecting on themselves."
For the past 30 years, Fujino has played in Go clubs all over L.A., Japan and New York. This has taught him quite a bit about how different cultures approach the game and, by extension, life.
"Japanese are like samurais — they strive for beautiful style. Chinese players go for benefit. Koreans are very good at fighting, like boxers . . . I sometimes feel that if North and South merge, Koreans might start fighting both the East and West," says Fujino.
"And Americans are very orthodox," chimes in Choi, an acquaintance of Fujino who’s taken a seat across from us. Choi is 52 years old and runs a liquor store up the street. He cuts out of work three times a week to play at the club. "They play by the book. There are basic rules of how you place the first stone, then two stones. I didn’t learn those rules. I learned it by direct playing. I fight by my mind and heart, not the rules. Not Americans — so when a battle begins, they are not good fighters."
Fujino and Choi laugh.
"Go is good for your brain, but the bad part is people spend a lot of time here," Choi says. "They sit here all day and night. I used to do that when I first learned. I started at about 10 o’clock in the morning and left at 8 or 9 at night."
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