We came across this recently while reading about a pro called Matsuda Tamezo. This was just after an announcement that the Nihon Ki-in is considering overhauling its diploma structure.
What our reading revealed was that there are subtleties in the diploma system that were new to us, and there may be others as yet unknown.
The book we were looking at is a treatise on go in Toyama Prefecture by Amitani Taei (Toyama-ken Igo Monogatari). He deals mainly with some local personalities of professional stature from that part of north Japan. Miyasaka Shinji and Ota Kiyoshi are the main luminaries, as they made it to the national stage, but Matsuda Tamezo was not far behind.
He was a landowner. While wealthy enough to indulge himself, he was tied to his land and so had to forsake his dream of becoming a professional in Tokyo.
Nevertheless, he did visit Tokyo many times to take lessons in the Honinbo family. We have a couple of games with Shuei, on four and five stones, that are not in Shuei's Collected Games. Shuei rewarded him with a 1-dan diploma.
But Matsuda persevered and later started visiting Honinbo Shusai. He got to within two stones of Shusai at one stage and, after many visits, he received two diplomas from him. One was for 3-dan and one for 4-dan.
The wording on each was as follows. Even if you can read the Japanese you may not spot the subtle difference between them. You certainly won't from the English translation.
Your devotion to go and your conduct having been satisfactory, your training without remiss, and your technique having gradually matured thereby, henceforth you are authorised to take a handicap of two stones from a jozu [7-dan] as a 3-dan, though it is imperative to be intent on improvement through further diligence. Accordingly this diploma is granted herewith.
This diploma was signed by the 21st Honinbo Shusai and dated May 1910.
Your devotion to go and your conduct having been satisfactory, your training without remiss, and your technique having further matured thereby, henceforth you are authorised to take a handicap of Black and two stones in alternate games from a jozu [7-dan] as a 4-dan, though it is imperative to be intent on improvement through further diligence. Accordingly this diploma is granted herewith.
This diploma was signed by the 21st Honinbo Shusai and dated March 1919.
The subtle point apparently lies in the word "you" - the first two characters in each case. They differ in the Japanese. In the case of the 3-dan diploma, kiden is said to denote an amateur. In the case of the 4-dan diploma, sokomoto denotes a professional.
This is according to Amitani, though he is backed by the pro Fukui Susumu. In the past there was no real distinction between amateurs and professionals when it came to grading. In practice, of course, differences abounded. It was probably the same as the situation today with degrees. Most people would make some form of discrimination between two people with a degree, one from Harvard, one from Huckleberry Falls. In Edo Japan a Honinbo diploma would carry more clout than a Hayashi diploma. It seems, though, that even within the same family a subtle change of wording also changed perceptions.
In Matsuda's case it was rather academic, as he was well off enough not to bother collecting fees for tuition. Probably, in recompense, he expected his pupils to play like him. He kept a common-place book for go, and in one entry he described the attributes expected: "A joseki is equivalent to a sword dance, Go is about power. Being afraid of ko and being afraid of confused fighting but being obsessed with simply taking territory is a weakness in a go player. Unless you aim at the opponent's weaknesses and strive bravely to kill all his stones in the middle game even if you take nine stones, you will have no prospects for the future. Do not be afraid of losing. Nothing ventured, nothing gained!"
Since the topic here is subtlety of words, it is worth considering the nice difference between a joseki being a sword fight and being a sword dance.
Go diplomas are collectibles. GoGoD's T. Mark Hall has a very unusual one, below. He will tell the tale himself:
"I was a (very) broke civil servant working at the British Embassy in Tokyo - in those days it was considered a hardship posting. My work patterns, some Saturdays included, meant that I could not afford the money or the time to play in any of the Nihon Ki-in promotion tournaments. I was about to leave after almost three years and I mentioned this to Stuart Dowsey of Ishi Press, who asked Iwamoto Kaoru to give me a grading game. Iwamoto said yes and we played a handicap game. I can't remember how many stones but I do remember tricking him in a ko fight and feeling very proud - I had ignored his last ko capture because my local threats had saved the group.
"After a startled grunt and a sharp look at my smiling face he then proceeded to rip me apart. He then said that he thought I was around 2-dan.
"A week later he turned up with a black lacquer box with gold lettering on the front, saying Diploma - and a diploma inside! He had personally gone to the Nihon Ki-in Chairman, the Meijin Rin Kaiho, to Murashima Yoshinori and a professional calligrapher and called in favours from them, all for a poor gaijin who, it was likely, he would never see again. I might have stopped playing the day I left Japan! I could only afford to give him a bottle of whiskey from the American commissary before I left. That is why I have the greatest admiration and affection for Iwamoto and why that diploma hangs on my wall as one of my proudest possessions. And fortunately I did get to see him again when he came for the opening of the London Go Centre."
Unfortunately for Mark, the text of the diploma (after his name on the right) begins kiden, so he is only being rated an amateur, but the grade of 2-dan is specified. Interestingly the wording is almost the same as in the Matsuda diplomas. Probably this is because the Nihon Ki-in acquired the rights to the Honinbo "brand" from Shusai.
The biggest and very important differences are in the signatures and the "chops". The issuing authority is specified as the Nihon Ki-in and their chop (red seal) is the one in the middle. The order of the signatures is fixed by protocol. We might want to put Iwamoto first but here it is Arimitsu Jiro, the Ki-in Chairman. Then comes Rin because he was Meijin. Next is Iwamoto as a former Honinbo. Finally Murashima, who was a pupil of Shusai.