The first of the four houses was the house Honinbo, founded by Honinbo Sansa. Honinbo Sansa was a buddhist monk, and had been appointed Godokoro (minister of go) by Tokugawa Ieyasu after the unification of Japan in 1603.
The official posts of Meijin and godokoro were awarded, somewhat sporadically, and brought great prestige to the house. In practice backstairs intrigue was often brought to bear on the appointments. More creditably, since the Meijin title could only be awarded to the undisputed master player of the time, there were occasions when it was withheld from two candidates whose merit was very close (an example was Genjo and Chitoku, around 1810-1820).
The mode of teaching, by apprenticeship, brought a consistent and high level of play (though some say the standard sagged in the eighteenth century). Esoteric teaching was normal, with collections of very difficult tsumego being compiled, one of which, the Igo Hatsuryon, is still used for professional training. Prepared variations were used in top games (notably in the blood-vomiting game of Jowa and Akaboshi). Go secrets were state secrets, in effect; since the country was closed to foreigners, in the main, the only international competition was against players from the Ryukyu Islands, but those games are still cited as examples of the difference between strong amateurs and really strong players.
After a while the Honinbo house (of Dosaku) emerged as most prestigious, and the Hayashi house ran into difficulties, eventually being taken over by the Honinbo. The Meiji Restoration threw the system into disarray, but three houses survived some hard times to 1900. Honinbo Shusai arranged that the Honinbo title should become a tournament of the Nihon Kiin after his death (1939). The Yasui house died out; it is not certain as of 2004 whether the Inoue house theoretically continues or not, though it dropped out of the mainstream from the 1920s.