The Spirit of the Law is Not the Rule

All the talk of deflated balls and questionable tactics by the New England Patriots has me thinking about Japan and its attitude about rules in games and sports. Those attitudes can be very solid and yet kind of flexible.

In 1951, for example, Nobel Prize in Literature winner Yasunari Kawabata published The Master of Go which is a docu-drama about a famous match between a young Go player and a fading master. The match turns on a move that, while fully legal, is still kind of dirty.

This idea of fully legal yet kind of dirty also effects the sport of Sumo. In Sumo there’s a move called a henka. Basically what happens is at the initial charge, one of the wrestler’s jumps to the side and uses his opponent’s momentum against him. It is considered a desperation move and is very much bad form. Wrestlers are supposed to meet each other, in this case literally, head on. Wrestlers who do a henka are supposedly reprimanded and get a black mark in their permanent records. On the other hand, a win is a win and if it takes a henka to get a winning record then that’s a small black mark compared to being demoted because of a losing record.

Smaller wrestlers use the move a lot and it’s been argued that a henka only works if your opponent is charging out of control. In fact, I once saw a large sumo wrestler catch a smaller wrestler in mid-henka and slap him down with one arm. The smaller guy was notorious for doing the move which meant it had lost its element of surprise. I’ve also heard that on at least one occasion two wrestlers did a henka at the same time and end up facing each other from a different direction.

Perhaps the most notorious case of legal but kind of dirty involves Japanese baseball. In 1964 Sadaharu Oh set the Japan home run record of 55 home runs in a single season. After that, on three different occasions foreigners tied the record with enough games left to break the record. In each case they came up against teams coached by Sadaharu Oh himself and were intentionally walked from their first at bats. Randy Bass was so frustrated he started holding his bat backward. In 2001 I remember “Tuffy” Rhodes swinging at pitches a full meter outside the strike zone while the catcher grinned at it all. The next year Alex Cabrarera tied the record and although Oh claims he told his pitchers to throw strikes, not a single strike was thrown.

There was a some controversy about these but those of us who’ve been here too long knew that the record would never be broken as long as Oh was still managing. The record was finally broken in 2013, five years after Oh retired, by CuraƧaon Wladimir Balentien who would end up with 60 home runs.

All this tends to sour people on sports. Like the master of Go, we are so disheartened by legal but dirty moves, it hurts our enjoyment of the game. At least if it’s our team that loses to them.

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