Sugoroku ("double sixes" or "pair of sixes": 双六 also 雙六) is a game played with a single die and counters, somewhat like backgammon (in Chinese, t'shu-p'u), in which the winner is the first player to reach the goal (agari) from the starting point (furidashi). Woodblock-printed sugoroku were a type of omocha-e (toy pictures: 玩具絵). Players would start at the lower right as they moved their pieces toward the center.
For more on this topic, see Peter Ujlaki's article Sugoroku: Ribald Fun on a Gameboard.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉 1537-98), born of an undistinguished lineage as the son of a peasant foot sholdier named Yaemon, became a renowned warrior-general and politician. Hideyoshi is considered Japan's second great unifier in a series of three warlords — Oda Nobunaga (織田信長 1534-82), Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu (the first shogun, 徳川家康 1543-1616) — who gradually unified Japan after nearly 140 years of civil war (c. 1467 – c. 1603; called the "Age of civil war," Sengoku jidai: 戦国時代).
Note: Kunikazu (國計), the artist who designed this sugoroku hexaptych, is different from the more familiar Isshusai Kunikazu (一珠齋國員) — also see available Kunikazu 國員 prints. Nothing is known about his biography, except to say that his active period was circa 1856-58.
The title of this game board is Hiyoshimaru shusse no kagami (A mirror of Hiyoshimaru's lifetime triumphs: 日吉丸出世の鑑), using Hideyoshi's childhood name, Hiyoshimaru (日吉丸), meaning "Bounty of the Sun." The game follows a "rags to riches" success story wherein a boy from humble beginnings reaches the pinnacle of military power.
Kunikazu's design provides a rare instance in which the sponsor of the print is identified — the armorer (gusoku-shi: 具促進) Gusokaya Jûbei (具促屋重兵衛) from Sakai city (indicated with variant kanji). In effect, this design illuminates one avenue by which prints got produced, at least in Kansai. What seems to have happened in this case is that Jûbei, a maker of armor, felt it would be good for business, and perhaps a sure-fire investment, to underwrite an "educational" game board covering the heroic moments in the life of the historical warlord Hideyoshi, the great unifier of Japan who is particularly revered in the Osaka area. Sakai, just south of Osaka, was a wealthy port town famously producing early tea-ceremony greats like Sen no Rikyû (千利休 1522–1591), the most profound influence on chanoyu (The way of tea: 茶の湯) and particularly wabi-suki (侘数寄), called since the Edo period wabi-cha (わび茶; 侘茶; 侘び茶). Hideyoshi was a hugely important patron of Sen no Rikyû and tea.
Surviving sugoroku kamigata-e are rare, especially when in good condition and with excellent color, as in our example. Moreover, given the additional information regarding the circumstances of production, this sugoroku hexaptych is a truly noteworthy treasure.