The ‘Godfather of Sudoku’ gave the numbers game its eternal name in 1984.

Maki Kaji, whose legacy lies not only on the creation of the logic-based grid game Sudoku but also on spreading joy through puzzles, has passed on Tuesday, August 10, at the age of 69 due to bile duct cancer. Kaji’s death was first announced on Tuesday by Nikoli, the Japanese puzzle company he helped found. 

Known as the “Godfather of Sudoku,” Kaji claimed he created the name of the game back in 1984 “in about 25 seconds” after “falling in love” with a US-based game called Number Place and did not expect the name to stick. The given name roughly translates to “single numbers,” which perfectly fits the puzzle’s premise: in a grid of nine squares further divided into nine smaller squares, players must place the numbers 1 to 9 in a way that they appear only once in each square, horizontal, and vertical lines.

Although the game’s true history remains a topic of debate, what has remained unchallenged is Kaji’s contribution in popularizing the puzzle. In 1983, after giving the puzzle a Japanese name and dropping out of Keio University, Kaji, together with two of his childhood friends, started Nikoli, the puzzle company which launched Japan’s first puzzle magazine and catapulted Sudoku into a worldwide success. 

Sudoku creator Maki Saji dies at 69
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

In 2004, a New Zealand puzzle fan pitched the renewed Japanese puzzle and convinced editors of the British newspaper The Times to print it. Today, Nikoli states that an estimated 200 million people across 100 countries have solved a Sudoku puzzle of their creation. A World Sudoku Championship has also been held annually since 2006. 

In a story posted by Nikoli, an elderly man from Otsuchi, a town in northern Japan, who had turned to Sudoku as a form of respite, once wrote to Kaji in 2017 that his puzzles were too hard to solve. This inspired Kaji to devise easier puzzles for the enjoyment of children and elderly people. 

yasuyoshi chiba
(Image: Yasuyoshi Chiba)

Born on October 1951 on the island of Sapporo in Hokkaido, Japan, Kaji served as the president of Nikoli until he stepped down in July of this year due to his ailing health.

Talking to BBC in 2007, Kaji shared that the secret to creating a good puzzle was to make the rules “simple and easy for everyone, including beginners.” When he served as chief executive last month, he told The New York Times that he had only taken a small portion of Nikoli’s earnings. Though this is due in part to the company’s tardy effort to trademark the puzzle, Kaji claims that he does not regret it.

“We’re prolific because we do it for the love of games, not for the money,” Kaji said.

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