The Godfather of Sudoku

Maki Kaji. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

Some fault him for the end of human productivity, others herald him as a master and brilliant architect of puzzle games, but to Maki Kaji himself, he is “The Godfather of Sudoku.”

Recently, Kaji traveled from Japan to the United States to visit school children in San Francisco and New York. While in San Francisco, he gave a presentation to students at the Clarendon Alternative Elementary School and Herbert Hoover Middle School as part of the “Japan in the Schools” initiative program coordinated by the Japan Society of Northern California. The pilot program allocates funds and resources to public schools to help maintain their Japanese language programs, said Dana Lewis, the organization’s president.

Lewis felt Kaji would bring a more modern aspect of Japanese culture — beyond traditional presentations of ikenobo, origami and odori — into the classrooms. “It just turned out he was this charming and eccentric Japanese gentleman,” she added.

“Many students already knew about Sudoku before they began taking Japanese, so it was a thrilling event for them,” said Rie Tanaka, a Japanese teacher at Herbert Hoover. “They enthusiastically … learned about games and puzzles, and enjoyed the activities with stars in their eyes. Some students kept asking questions to Mr. Kaji even after the class. I bet they will never forget about this day.”

Kaji dazzled the children at Herbert Hoover with brainteasers, asking them to figure out how an arrow got lodged within a Coca-Cola bottle without damaging it. He also walked them through several Sudoku puzzles.


An International Hit

“Every year, I do an ‘Around the World in 40 Days’ tour,” Kaji said.

For the past four years, he has visited 30 different countries to present his puzzles to students in elementary school up to college. His most surprising stop thus far has been Myanmar, which he said defied his expectations and was a memorable experience.

Most of the countries he has visited, however, have become somewhat of a blur to him.

“When I was traveling for leisure, I would see more, but these days, all the places kinda look the same,” he said.

The international popularity of Sudoku exploded in the United Kingdom in 2004, according to an article by Kyodo News, and later swept through the United States to become a household name in puzzles, as much as the perennial crossword puzzle.

“Back in 2007, maybe 20 percent of people knew about Sudoku,” he said. “Now it’s probably closer to 80 percent, and probably 100 percent of people have at least heard of it before.”

Kaji said his puzzles promote mental activity in the guise of entertainment.

“These puzzles aren’t [framed to be] educational, they’re puzzles as entertainment,” he said with a wry smile. “Kids react fast to stuff. If they don’t like it, they’ll throw it out without giving it a chance. I enter a classroom, and the kids want to listen to me, their teachers are shocked to see them so interested.”

Kaji is 50 years old; he has a sparse gray beard and his shoulders are slacked by his side. The easygoing founder and publisher of Puzzle Communication Nikoli, a Japanese puzzle magazine that initially published the Sudoku puzzle, lives by a few simple rules: “take it easy” and “don’t set out to make money, do what you love and the money will follow.”

Despite that, his magazine reaches 40,000 readers a month, and he said that three million more people buy the puzzle books he releases each year.

Kaji’s life is full of happenstance. After a colorful early life, he eventually achieved modest success from his own creation.

Born in Sapporo, Japan, Kaji spent all of 100 days in the northernmost prefecture of the country before moving south to Tokyo.

“My mother only headed back to her hometown to have me before moving back down to Tokyo,” he said. Kaji grew up in and around the island nation’s capitol.

His father taught engineering and mathematics at a college. Kaji, however, professes that math is not among his strengths.


From Dropout to Entrepreneur

“No, I was no good at math,” he said with a slightly embarrassed smile. “I majored in the literary arts at Keio University before dropping out when I was 20.”

He lived a whirlwind life after his college days. Throughout the early 1970s, he worked a number of odd jobs for three years. He did road construction, welding, ran errands for musicians, and even worked as an aid to German to Japanese patent document translations for pharmaceutical companies, despite having no formal knowledge of the German language.

“Not one good thing came of it,” he said.

Kaji himself can’t remember exactly when, but his freelancing life came to an abrupt end while he was working as a waiter. He was simultaneously trying to learn Greek and start a record company with his friends. His hectic lifestyle “tore a hole” in his stomach and he one day came to in a hospital bed.

“I woke up and saw my girlfriend, her parents and my parents,” he said. “‘This is no good,’ they told me. I was on the verge of death with my lifestyle. They got me a desk job at a publishing house and I married my girlfriend. I became a normal salaryman.”

While he had settled down at the publishing company for the better half of the decade, Kaji had long harbored a dream to start his own magazine. He worked in accounting, gained decent background knowledge on the cost of printing, and was mulling over what sort of magazine he wanted to publish.

In 1979, a friend of his returned from a vacation in the United States. His friend brought a copy of Dell Puzzle Magazine, a popular puzzle magazine that started in the U.S. Kaji saw that a whole publication could be devoted to puzzles, and that Japan had yet to tap that market.

Kaji is a gambler at heart. He particularly enjoys betting on horse races and decided to place his bet on his magazine Nikoli, named after the race horse that won the 1980 Irish 2,000 Guinea.

“I thought, ‘wouldn’t this sell?’ Though, I wasn’t too interested (in puzzles),” he said. “But when I went with it, it happened to work out.”

His magazine achieved modest success during its first few years. While it initially published its own puzzles, he started to dedicate more space to puzzles submitted by readers. His business model, which continues to this day, allowed the magazine to continue publishing more complicated and better puzzles and created a forum for both readers and puzzle creators. His popularity allowed him to formally establish the Nikoli Co., Ltd. in 1983.

As Kaji looked to expand his magazine to include a new puzzle never before published in Japan, he stumbled upon Number Place.

“I got another copy of Dell and found Number Place. I don’t know English, but I started filling in the blanks and managed to finish it,” he said. “I thought, ‘oh, so this is how it works,’ and edited the base puzzle into what we now know as Sudoku.”

According to Abby Taylor, editor-in-chief of Dell Puzzle Magazines, Number Place was first published in Dell Pencil Puzzles in 1979. “The only difference between Number Place and Sudoku is that the numbers already entered into a Sudoku grid appear in a symmetrical pattern,” said Taylor.

The puzzle was a hit among his readers, soliciting more fan mail and newer reader-generated puzzles.

Today, Kaji said he receives 1,000 Japanese postcards a month, with submissions for his magazine. The fan mail he receives sometimes comes in a large sack the postman delivers to their office in Tokyo, àla Santa Claus with his bag of gifts. He recalls his puzzle has touched many people, including one 40-something woman who cares for her sick mother.


One Puzzle a Day

“She wrote to me saying, ‘I solved a whole book of Sudoku. I did one Sudoku a day while caring for my sick mother,’” he said. The woman had no time to herself as she was caring for her mother every day, from morning until night. She said in her letter that the one puzzle she did each night was something that she looked forward to each day. “That was about 10 years ago; that letter really left an impact on me. People aren’t doing these puzzles for education or mental activity, it is, but this is all done [for leisure or escape].”

Kaji credits his international success to not being overly protective of intellectual rights for the game outside of Japan. He allows people to create and publish Sudoku outside of Japan under his brand name. His growth in popularity, however, was shocking.

“At first, I was completely surprised,” he said. “With Sudoku continuing to be a popular puzzle, I’m now more grateful that so many people want to solve our puzzles.”

Despite being the “Godfather of Sudoku,” however, Kaji’s not the most avid puzzle solver. He said his biggest hobbies include golfing and his college pastime — betting on horse races. Recently, though, he has picked his pen back up to try to solve his own magazines’ puzzles in light of all the positive energy he receives from his fans.

“I can’t really solve the hardest puzzles,” he said. “But I’ve been getting back into them these past few years since everyone else around me is so supportive.”


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