Leonhard Euler, 1707-1783

In a recent commentary for the New Statesman (December, 12, 2005) on the explosive popularity of the puzzle game Sudoku (Japanese for “solitary number”), there is a bit of irony that a writer with the last name of “West” insists that “We’re all orientalists now.” This craze in Britain began with popularization of the puzzle in both the Times and Daily Mail. “Everyone seeems to agree that it has been Japan’s most successful export since Mitsubishi motors, Sony televisions or Ninetendo Game Boy,” notes Patrick West, who then insists, “The problem is that Sudoku is not a Japanese game.”

The origins of Sudoku are said to derive from a Swiss mathematician named Leonhard Euler, who came up with his 81-space square in 1783. According to West, in 1984 a Tokyo publisher saw a version of the game in a U.S. magazine, adapted it to Japan and called it Sudoku. Only after it became a fad in Japan did the “west, perceiving the puzzle’s potential mass appeal, take it back.”

So how is this craze to be explained? According to West, “The promotion and perception of this puzzle as a quintessentially Japanese affair is a symptom of the west’s weakness for what Edward Said dubbed ‘orientalism’: the European propensity to stereotype Asians as wily, martial, exotic and cunning.” Beyond this, “We have always ‘othered’ them so as to reinforce our self-perception as benevolent, pragmatic and empirical beings.” All this to account for attraction to a number game?

The problem with West’s analysis, apart from a fetish for not capitalizing “west” in the sense of Europe and America, is reducing the media-driven addictiveness of a challenging puzzle to the vindictiveness of an abstract European imaginary. The reason that most people assume Sudoku comes from Japan is that in fact it has come directly from Japan, not Switzerland, and it has a Japanese name. Such magic squares were around for a very long time in the Middle East and Asia before the Swiss gentleman mathematician came up with his variant, so it is hard to argue that one culture owns a patent on such creative math-making. If West uses Orientalist in the old dictionary sense of a scholar who actually knows something about an Oriental language and culture, then it would be the Orientalist who is most likely to know that it is not an indigenous Japanese game. A generally uninformed possessor of sterotypes is hardly an Orientalist, except in the contorted Saidian sense. The specific stereotype of Asians, especially Japanese, as “wily, martial, exotic and cunning” reflects recent 20th century political history. European imperial powers looked at all their colonized peoples, including the Irish , as exotic.

Invoking Said’s rendering of Orientalism as a pervasive will to dominate is post-colonially chic these days. It serves the same function in some circles as the theological doctrine of original sin in Evangelical Christianity. Any item that crosses borders of a supposedly fixated “Orient” is assumed to be automatically misread by Western stereotyping. Indeed there are still plenty of cultural stereotypes, which are as apt to travel East to West as West to East, but the marketing of Sudoku in Britain can more pragmatically be explained by universally relevant commercial interests than a latent desire of this former world empire to “other” a country over which it never ruled. Were English pubowners to deny that curry came from India, then I think West might have a case? But Sudoku makes a poor specimen for imperial gamesmanship.

Daniel Martin Varisco