The Unforgettable Friend I Met Only Once5 min read

Still, there are some who can keep the child alive in themselves. I met one such person when I first took a Judo contest in Japan. I had trained hard in Britain, but of course we were limited to what we could learn from the old Japanese teachers there and occasional high-grade Japanese players. I was fairly strong at harai-goshi and osoto-gari. On the other hand, I had never met a really fast kouchi-gari. As it happened, this first opponent was skilled in it. I was totally unprepared for his attack and lost the contest in a few seconds. I was knocked out of the tournament at once.

The winners of contests then were given a little medal, a fact which I did not know. As I came out of the changing room into the crowd, someone caught my arm, pressed a little box into my hand and hurried away. Bewildered, I opened the box and found a small medal. I realized later that this must have been from my victorious opponent. He must have realized how depressing it would have been for me, and he gave me his medal.

Such a thing would be inconceivable in Britain. We too would feel sympathetic, but we would probably just say, ‘Well, you had bad luck this time, but… .’ Words are cheap and soon forgotten. But I still remember that gesture of friendship from a Japanese who met me only once and whom I never saw again.

If by any chance he reads this essay, I should like him to accept my ‘Thank you. I could not say it at the time, because I did not realize what had happened until after he had gone.

Another surprise came when I was watching one of the big tournaments. They did not have championships then, but we had the senmon-bu contests which were comparable to championships. In those days there was no waza-ari or yusei-gachi, so a contest was either won by ippon or was a draw. There were many draws, in which the result was decided by chusen or drawing lots.

On one occasion, a man (I will call him A) had got to the quarterfinal by winning three chusen draws in succession. His opponent had got there by winning three contests with ippon. They fought their contest, and the result was a draw. Accordingly, they were called to the side of the tatami to make the draw. But now A refused. A friend of mine who was standing near told me that A said:

‘I give up the contest. He has won. I have been lucky three times, but he has scored ippon three times. Even if I were lucky again, I should be ashamed to beat a better man by luck’. And he withdrew.

‘Is He a True Sportsman’?

I have never heard of such a thing in the West. Sometimes in all sports contests one man wins by amazing luck against a clearly better man. But that is accepted. It is simply part of life. Even a very strict sportsman would accept it and not feel that he must try to change a result. In this Judo tournament, an English sportsman would probably think: ‘After all, I drew with him in our contest. His previous wins may have been against weaker opponents than I met’.

Of course, there may be difficult decisions in sportsmanship. As a student I became fairly strong at chess and in later years I was in the BBC team. Every year the British champion gave a simultaneous exhibition against about 20 BBC players. I had the satisfaction of drawing against him four times. One of our team was a former Hungarian, now a naturalized Briton, whom I will call T. He was very strong at correspondence chess, in which moves were exchanged by letter. The players had one or two days to think between each move, so the games became very complicated. T became a member of the British team at that.

One year a correspondence team match was arranged between the British team and the Soviet team, then the strongest in the world. Every two days, a radio link was set up between Moscow and London, and the moves of the British team, or the Soviet team if it was their turn, were all sent together. T would decide his move and telephone it to the British end of the link. Then two days later, his Soviet opponent’s reply would be read out to him.

One day, T said to me, ‘I want your advice as an English sportsman’. I felt a bit embarrassed, but he went on: ‘I’ve had a cable from my opponent in Moscow saying that his last move was a mistake. He wants to substitute a better one. Should I agree?’

To his evident surprise, I said: ‘No, you and he are members of a team. He should be more careful. Go on, and win’.

‘But is that sportsmanlike?’ he asked. ‘Poor fellow, he made a mistake’.

‘Don’t be sentimental’, I said. ‘He is a tough professional,

probably. And he is not a sportsman. No true sportsman would ask such a thing’.

T looked disappointed in me. Perhaps he was wondering whether I really was an Englishman. He did allow the Moscow man to amend the move, and the game was a draw. From my point of view, T was simply sentimental. True sport means to try very hard and then to accept win or loss without being at all upset. In this way it is a good training for life.

But this is part of a pattern, and it is not spontaneous like the Japanese examples. Some say that such things do not happen today, but they do. I know that many Japanese are hard, scheming, ruthless, backbiting, like the rest of us humans. But occasionally the heart is lightened by seeing one of these independent acts, like a flower on a muckheap. In most countries people do not put flowers on top of a muckheap, but one can see it even today in Japan.

© Trevor Leggett