As It Happens·Q&A

Maki Kaji, the godfather of sudoku, remembered for his sharp mind and 'warm smile'

Maki Kaji was considered the godfather of sudoku. The Japanese man popularized puzzle after discovering it in 1984 and seeing its potential, printed it in his puzzle magazine Nikoli.  

The Japanese puzzle enthusiast turned an American number puzzle into a worldwide sensation

Maki Kaji was known as the godfather of sudoku. (NIKOLI via The Associated Press)

Story Transcript

Maki Kaji was considered the godfather of sudoku. The Japanese man popularized the puzzle after discovering it in 1984, and seeing its potential, printed it in his puzzle magazine. 

Kaji went on to publish thousands more through his company, Nikoli Co. Ltd, and introduce sudoku to people around the world.

Kaji died this on Aug. 10, at home in Mitaka, Tokyo, from bile duct cancer, according to Nikoli. He was 69.

Will Shortz met Kaji at a sudoku championship in 2007 and the two became friends. Shortz was a fellow puzzle enthusiast, and is now the crossword puzzle editor for the New York Times.

He spoke with As it Happens guest host Helen Mann about Kaji's impact on the puzzling world. Here is part of their conversation. 

How big a figure was Maki in the world of puzzles?

I'd say Maki was a beloved figure because, I think more than anyone else, he was the person who popularized sudoku.

Sudoku was actually invented in the United States in 1979, but in the 1980s there was a Japanese puzzle magazine editor, an editor for Nikoli magazine who was in the United States, found this puzzle, took it to Japan, and Maki introduced it in his Nikoli magazines, and it was a huge success.

Maki was also the person who named the puzzle. Originally, it was called "number place" in the English language. He made the name sudoku, which means something like single numbers. And it became a hit in Japan first, and then it started spreading around the world in 2004 and 2005.

An official observes a sudoku tournament in Philadelphia in 2007. ( Joseph Kaczmarek/The Associated Press)

I gather that the name sudoku was maybe just a placeholder for a while, and it ended up sticking?

The story is that when the puzzle was introduced in the Nikoli magazines, Maki was asked for a title for it. He was about to go to the racetrack because he loved to gamble, and in less than a minute he came up with this long title, which was eventually abbreviated to sudoku.

That was a perfect name. When the name came back to the United States and other countries, it had an exotic feel to it, which was kind of cool. It was different from anything else.

So publishing it, Nikoli kind of gave it, obviously, a place to grow in popularity. But what else did he do to promote the game?

Maki has magazines in Japan called the Nikoli magazines. Nikoli magazines are famous worldwide for quality puzzles that are made by hand. 

Most grid logic puzzles like this are generated by computer. I'd say every one that you would find in a newspaper or a regular book is computer generated.

In Maki's magazines, all the puzzles are made by hand, and when you saw one of his puzzles, you feel that you are matching your mind against another human rather than just something that's created by a computer.

A headshot of a man in a light gray button up shirt. In the background is a blank crossword puzzle.
Will Shortz is the crossword puzzle editor for the New York Times. He met Kaji in 2007. (Submitted by Will Shortz)

You met Mr. Kaji a number of times. What was he like?

He was a friendly person. He didn't speak English, but he always came with an interpreter. You know, he was smart, obviously loved puzzles, loved the racetrack. Those were his two big passions in life.

He came to the U.S. Sudoku Championship, which I directed for the Philadelphia Inquirer ... and he also whenever he was in New York, he visited me at my home.

Was his celebrity in sudoku a big deal to fans?

I think most people know the game and probably don't know Maki, probably don't know what an important figure he was. Of course, people in the World Sudoku Championship know about Maki because of his role in popularizing the puzzle.

Do you know if he played the game himself?

Oh yeah, Maki was a puzzle enthusiast himself. He wouldn't have started the magazines without that.

I think early on when we became friends, I gave him a rare American puzzle book. It was Sam Loyd's Cyclopedia of 5000 Puzzles. It was published in 1913. It is the classic work of puzzles in the United States.

When I next visited him in Tokyo, he showed me the book. He had it in a special bound case to protect it. It was very nice. It was something he treasured.

In Oct. 20, 2007, Ronald Osher, of Stamford Conn., works on his puzzle in the final round during the Philadelphia Inquirer Sudoku National Championship in Philadelphia. (Joseph Kaczmarek/The Associated Press)

That's lovely. What do you think it is about sudoku that has proved so addictive and now enduring?

Part of the appeal of sudoku is that anybody can do it. You know, you can be good at sudoku when you were seven or eight, and as old as people get.

The instructions are simple. You don't repeat a digit in any row, column, or three-by-three box. Boom. I've just explained the rules of sudoku in a single sentence. Anyone can grasp it quickly.

And there's something else great about sudoku. A good sudoku will challenge you in the middle. It's like getting over hurdles. And when you get close to the end, you rush to fill in the last boxes. It gives you an adrenaline rush and you want to do another sudoku immediately. So there is something addictive about the puzzle.

I'll tell you one other thing. I think we as human beings like to fill empty spaces. And if you have the puzzle sort of mind and you see an empty sudoku grid, it's difficult to turn the page without filling it in.

And when you fill in the last digit in a sudoku puzzle, it gives you a sense of accomplishment, fulfilment. It's a great feeling that we don't get every day in life, and you just want to do more sudoku.

When you think of Mr. Kaiji in the future, what will you remember most?

Wow, I guess I remember his warm smile and I just saw his intelligence. I'll miss him.

Written by Philip Drost. Interview produced by Mehek Mazhar. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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