Kakuro Success in Japan: Dave Green interviews Maki Kaji

Tuesday, December 6, 2005 Maki Kaji (right) and Dave Green

Evening Izakaya

Above: Maki Kaji (right) and Dave Green enjoying an evening Izakaya, Tokyo, Japan

I stopped by a bookstore in Tokyo station, one of the busiest rail, metro and bullet train stations in Japan. Not knowing which of the 7 floors I should start at, I approached one of the staff and said one word: "Kakuro". The person smiled and waved towards the back wall of the store going out of his way to get his message across.

He was right. Leaning against the wall were racks of Nikoli’s puzzle books, all sorted according to the puzzle types and edition numbers. There, amongst Nikoli’s Sudoku, Slither Link, Hitori and many others, were all the Kakuro books Nikoli published since 1986. I bought a dozen books and rushed back to the train station on my way to meet Maki Kaji (Kaji-san), president of Nikoli Puzzles. Soon enough I knew all there is to know about Kakuro success in Japan and we were laughing our way to the nearest Izakaya, as we usually do when I am visiting the city that never sleeps.

Crazy for Kakuro

The first Kakuro puzzles were brought to Japan by Kaji-san in 1980 after seeing them in an American magazine during a visit to the USA. The puzzles were named Cross Sums, a name which is still popular until today. According to Kaji-san, Nikoli first named these puzzles Kasan Kurosu, which is a combination of the Japanese word for "addition" and the way Japanese pronounce the English word "cross". Six years later, in 1986, the first book was released and the puzzle was re-branded as Kakuro - a common abbreviation method which is used in Japan.

Nikoli’s Kakuro booklet

Nikoli’s Kakuro booklet

"The ability to build one’s skills is what I find most attractive in Kakuro’s puzzle experience" says Kaji-san. "In Kakuro puzzles you really get a feeling of self-progress because the solving time becomes shorter and shorter".

It’s hard to say whether Kaji-san’s observation or other reasons were responsible for Kakuro’s success in Japan. However, regardless of the reason, Japanese seem to be crazy for Kakuro. According to Wikipedia Kakuro’s popularity in Japan is immense, second only to Sudoku among Nikoli's logic-puzzles". "This is true", says Kaji-san, "but it was not always so. Kakuro was actually our number one puzzle from 1986 to 1992, when it was overtaken by Sudoku that still rules the top of the list till today".

The number two puzzle in Japan

A feeling of self-progress

"The ability to build one’s skills is what I find most attractive in Kakuro’s puzzle experience. In Kakuro puzzles you really get a feeling of self-progress because the solving time becomes shorter and shorter".

The Japanese Kakuro business is big and Nikoli is the leader of the pack. Today, says Kaji-san, Kakuro is the number two puzzle in the country, second only to Sudoku, and followed by Slitherlink. Although there are hundreds of Kakuro puzzle creators in Japan, the best selling publication is Nikoli’s own booklet which has been published about once a year since 1986.

By now there are 23 Kakuro booklets from Nikoli, all of which are available in most bookstores in Japan. "They wrote that Nikoli's Kakuro puzzles appear in 70 Japanese magazines and newspapers?" Kaji-san was interested to hear this figure quoted from Wikipedia, and then provided an exclusive update with a great smile: "Well, I think the number now is about 100..."

Other Kakuro publishers following Nikoli are Gakken and Sekai Bunkasha. Nikoli’s Kakuro puzzles are also available for mobile phone playing by G-mode, and for online playing at Nikoli’s own www.puzzle.jp website. But for Kaji-san it is important to bring the message that Nikoli is not only about Kakuro and Sudoku. "Nikoli has over 200 different types of logic puzzles in their books and website" says Kaji-san, proudly. "Please come and enjoy all of them!"

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