Puzzle maker lays down the rules

Sudoku originators sees life's pathos in the workings

The Japan Times Monday, July 3,2006

Sudoku, the number puzzle that gripped England from the fall of 2004 has now taken hold over 70 countries. Some 260 newspapers in the U.K. carry the maddeningly habit-forming, logical-testing grids and sudoku is looming large in the U.S., Spain and Israel as well.

Yet, in Japan, where the name and current version of the puzzle originated, sudoku is still relatively unknown. Nikoli, the Tokyo company that originally published sudoku, and Maki Kaji, the man who gave it its name, are far from household words.

Both names are well-known, however, by a devoted legion of fans, not for sudoku alone but for a wide variety of puzzles.

Though Nikoli's puzzle magazine by the same name carried sudoku from shortly after its start in 1980, the British boom only came about after the puzzle caught the eye of New Zealander Wayne Gould in 1997 and The Times in London started printing it.

The name sudoku is copyrighted in Japan, but Nikoli has no dibs on it elsewhere. Only three or four U.K. newspaper publish Nikoli's puzzles and Kaji says his share in the worldwide sudoku frenzy "is not even 10 percent."

In truth, some would argue that, other than the name, sudoku is not really his at all. In 1984, Kaji found the puzzle in a U.S. magazine. It went under the name Number Place, the name by which other Japanese publisher often call sudoku in Japan. Kaji revised the puzzles, reducing the numbers initially prewritten in the grids and arranging them in patterns.

"Our puzzles are hand-made," he explains, "not computer-generated" like most of the sudoku found overseas. There are varying levels of difficulty and the puzzles have, he claims, "individuality," which is a reflection of their creators.

The laid-back, easygoing Kaji is a free sprit with the heart of a craftsman. He considers the worldwide boom his "reward," but more in an aesthetic sense than a monetary one.

He is happy to keep Nikoli comfortably small, its publications of signal puzzle books and quarterly puzzle magazine Nikoli, which contains a wide variety of puzzles and essays, carried by one 1,100 of Japan's 18,000 bookshops.

The company uses no distributor, keeps things simple and, by doing so, has a finger on the pulse of its readers. "We know just what is selling where, or not selling, and we can adjust the number of issues we deliver."

The Hokkaido-born 55-years-old Kaji prides himself on never having advertised or otherwise marketed his magazine in the 26 years since its begin. He prefers, he says, to keep his company like "a quiet little factory that no one knows is there, like working is a submarine, with just the family and no more than 40 workers and 20,000 readers."

He would prefer it to be like "a Japanese 'manju' shop that only makes a limited number of sweets a day, "where people line up from early in the day to assure they get a share of the coveted selection.

"When they're sold out they close, even though it's maybe only three in the afternoon. To me, that's cool," Kaji says, "It's better than saying 'oh, we have lots of customers, so let's have lots of workers.' I think it's cool to say, 'no, that's it for today. We're closed.' "

Also, the absence of marketing and advertising means "freedom." "I'm the rule book. What I say today may change tomorrow. I don't go with the flow. I flow."

From the beginning, Nikoli the magazine strove to be truly for the readers. Today, 90 percent of its 200 or so different kinds of puzzles are created by 300 of its readers and regular contributors around Japan.

Kaji admits that in the beginning he didn't consider himself a puzzle fan. Having worked in printing and publishing, he had long wanted to start his own magazine.

There were no puzzle magazines, and puzzles in Japan before Nikoli were, Kaji says, "meant as a challenge... 'Can you solve this ? '

"A good puzzles was one that only one in a 100 or one in a 1,000 people could solve. Or there were other ones that were so easy you didn't even have to try.

"My idea was to make something that wasn't already being offered and hope it would sell."

Moreover, Kaji wanted puzzles to be "for a change of mood, to kill time, just to make your mind go blank and help you forget everything else."

He is reluctant to be swept up into the current mini-boom in mental-training exercises. His puzzles, he says, are "not for training or to be educational. They're just for fun, for no reason, with no goal in mind.

"You can be sitting in the train working a puzzle but it can take you far away from the every-day.

"Before you know it you're at your stop or about to pass it. It's not like you were even in the train. It's something different, something removed from the ordinary."

Kaji doesn't rely solely on puzzles for his excitement. An avid gambler, he is more likely to be found at the racetrack than the office. The name of the world's big track and small roll of his tongue. He's been to them all. The name Nikoli, in fact, comes from the winner of the Irish 2,000 Guineas in 1980.

That year, with his new magazine ready to go print, Kaji still needed a name. When, in a cafe in Tokyo's Hamamatsucho ( just two stops from Oi racetrack ), he saw the name of Epson Derby favorite splashed across the page, he knew he had found it. "Nikoli ! in big letters. It had a good ring to it and I said, that's it !"

"Being at the racetrack is the same as working puzzles. When you go to the supermarket with two or three thousand yen you can buy this and that, but at the track it'll just get you a piece of paper. That's not your everyday thing. For me that's interesting." he says.

"And, at the track, you have old guys acting like children, screaming 'You friggin' idiot !! ' For that moment they're really into it. It's fun. It's interesting.

"Working a puzzle is like that. Not just the fun of solving it but the excitement before, even if you don't solve it. It's that excitement before finish line when the horses are roaring down the stretch and you're cheering them on."

After years of making puzzles, Kaji now considers himself a fan. "I've recognized what makes them interesting."

His favorites, he says, are "ones you laugh at, ones with humor and pathos, ones you get angry at, ones that make you throw up your hands and cry, 'I can't do this ! ' "

Nikoli got permission to reprint the article from The Japan Times.