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He Dropped Out of School, Helped Popularize This Famous Puzzle

Maki Kaji, known as the 'Godfather of Sudoku,' has died at age 69
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Aug 17, 2021 7:11 AM CDT
The 'Godfather of Sudoku' Is Dead
This undated photo shows Maki Kaji, known as the "Godfather of Sudoku," in Tokyo.   (NIKOLI via AP)

(Newser) – Maki Kaji, who helped popularize the numbers puzzle sudoku, and whose life's work was spreading the joy of puzzles, has died, his Japanese company said Tuesday. He was 69 and had bile duct cancer, reports the AP. Known as the "Godfather of Sudoku," Kaji wanted the puzzle to be easy for children and others who didn't want to think too hard. Its name is made up of the Japanese characters for "number" and "single," and players place the numbers 1 through 9 in rows, columns, and blocks without repeating them. Born on the main northern island of Hokkaido, Kaji started Japan's first puzzle magazine after dropping out of Keio University in Tokyo. He founded Nikoli in 1983 and came up with Japan's version of sudoku about the same time. Early incarnations of the puzzle had first appeared in French newspapers in the late 1800s, then were modernized in 1979 by Howard Garns, per Sudoku.com.

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Ironically, it wasn't until 2004 when sudoku became a global hit, after a fan from New Zealand pitched it and got it published in the British newspaper the Times. Two years later, Japan rediscovered its own puzzle as a "gyakuyunyu," or "reimport." Kaji was chief executive at his puzzle company, Nikoli Co., until July and died Aug. 10 at his home in Mitaka, a city in the Tokyo metro area. In recent years, sudoku, believed to be the world's most popular pencil puzzle, has come out in digital versions. Kaji traveled to more than 30 countries spreading his enjoyment of puzzles. Sudoku championships have drawn some 200 million people in 100 countries over the years, according to Nikoli. The Mainichi, a major Japanese newspaper, in its obituary credited Kaji for starting the puzzle sections at bookstores, as well as introducing the word "sudoku" into the Oxford English Dictionary. "Kaji-san ... was loved by puzzle fans from all over the world," Nikoli said in a statement. Kaji is survived by his wife, Naomi, and two daughters.

(Read more sudoku stories.)

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