Losing to Oneself from the English Heart of Tradition

Do you hate to lose in a game? Most Japanese seem to. There is a passage in Kawabata’s novel Meijin, where the great master of igo gives a few lessons in shogi to an American tourist when they are on a train journey. The American is a beginner, and has no chance of winning at all. But he is keen to learn, and they play a number of games. The Japanese meijin is astonished how after each defeat the American just smiles and sets up the pieces for another game. The Japanese master cannot under- stand why the American feels no mortification at continually losing.

Well, that American had a good idea of sport, in which one has to try very hard, but then be perfectly calm in victory or defeat. This sporting spirit, as it is called, is a good training for life, but it must be admitted that it is rather difficult to achieve. The fundamental human feeling is, that someone who has defeated me even in a game has done me some sort of injury. I therefore want to play a second game so that I can defeat him, and injure him in the same way. This is not good sportsmanship, but it is very human.  As a matter of fact, when two people have played one match, the second match is sometimes called a ‘revenge.’ After losing a game of golf, the defeated player may say, “And when do I get my revenge? Next week?” In England this word is used as a sort of joke, with a smile, but in some countries it is meant rather seriously. The loser feels that his prestige and personal pride have really been wounded, and he does want to wound the prestige and personal pride of the opponent.

Chess champions are sometimes asked is what satisfaction they get from winning a game. Some past champions have said that a real masterpiece of chess is beautiful; a deep strategy is conceived, which is then precisely worked out in a sequence of logical moves, against skilful opposition.  To take part in creating such beautiful games is the satisfaction of chess. But when Bobby Fischer, the American who was world champion in 1972, was asked the same question, he made quite a different reply. “Chess”, he said, “is a fight between two egos. 

When I finally get the advantage, and press my attack more and more strongly, there comes a moment when my opponent realizes that he is going to lose. His ego cracks. And that is the real satisfaction of chess: to see the other man’s ego crack”. Fischer was certainly a wonderful chess genius, but on the basis of this remark, one can say that he was no sportsman. But his remark has a basis of truth in many games. Some of us can recognize the bitterness when one’s ego cracks, as Fischer put it.

It is natural enough to feel annoyed when one loses to an adversary. How about a case when one loses to oneself? When they are asked this question, many people wonder how it is possible to lose to oneself. Here is first an example from British literary history; then I will give an example from Japan.

Dr. Johnson, who compiled the first really important English dictionary in 1755, was one of the greatest figures in eighteenth century literature. He was very strong both physically and in debate, and he hated to lose an argument. In fact, he was only rarely defeated, for he was an extremely skilled debater.

However, one night he dreamt that he was having a public debate with the equally famous orator and politician Edmund Burke. In the dream, Burke produced such skilful arguments that Dr. Johnson was reduced to silence. He was so excited and frustrated that he woke up. He was still trembling with fury at having been defeated in argument by Burke. But then he reflected: ‘No. I did not lose to Burke. All the arguments which he produced so cleverly were in fact put into his mouth by me. So I did not lose to Burke. I lost to myself.’ He felt relieved, and calmly went back to sleep.

This is an interesting story, with a profound meaning. I have always remembered it since I first heard it when I was young. I have looked for other cases where one could ‘lose to oneself.

I saw something in Japan which reminded me of Dr. Johnson’s experience. In the years 1938-1941, I used to practise judo very hard at the Kodokan and at some university dojo. I was a fairly strong Fourth dan, and knew all the strongest judo men of the time. Some twenty-five years afterwards, when I was making one of my three-yearly trips to Japan as BBC representative, I visited the Kodokan to practise there. Naturally, as I was now so many years older, my speed was beginning to go down, but I could still manage fairly well against opponents up to Third dan.

I saw at the Kodokan one of my contemporaries, just a few years older than I. I will call him Shimizu. He had kept very fit, and was now Sixth dan; I was Fifth. I watched him practising with a young fellow of about twenty-two; my friend was still marvellously skilful, and relatively fast for his age. His young opponent was good, very good; but he had not yet got the same level of skill as Shimizu. The latter was really attacking hard, not defending as some of the older judoka do when faced with an energetic younger man. Shimizu seemed to forget his age, and he was moving wonderfully well.

Again and again, however, though almost scoring a throw, he could not quite bring it off; there was just that slight degeneration in speed and balance and co-ordination which age must bring. As I watched, I thought to myself that it was like autumn, when the once so splendid flowers begin to fade. In a way, it was tragic. That wonderful skill was slowly leaking away. At the end, when Shimizu was tired, the young man threw him twice with a tremendous tai-otoshi. Tai-otoshi had been Shimizu’s own speciality, and this young fellow was doing it in just the expert way that Shimizu had done it when young. I felt how sad it was that he was now being beaten by his own special throw.

They finished the practice, and as Shimizu came off the mats, he saw me and we exchanged greetings. “Glad to see you so energetic,” I said, “in such a hard practice”. I half expected him to say something about feeling his age, but he just nodded, and asked, “What did you think of that young chap?”

“He’s certainly very strong,” I replied, and then added to console him, “But twenty years ago you would have been throwing him with that tai-otoshi, and not him you”.

 Again I expected him to agree sadly. But he looked very cheerful as he told me, “Well, I was trying very hard just now, and when I do try very hard, I can throw most of them even today. But I can’t throw him. He’s coming along very well. He’s my best pupil, and I’m training him up for the championships. If I can’t throw him, they won’t be able to throw him”.

Then I realized why he was smiling. He did not feel that he had lost to someone else, because all that  judo in his young opponent had been put there by himself. It was his own teaching, his own training, in the pupil, including the special way of doing tai-otoshi.

I thought of Dr. Johnson. Once he came to realize that he had been arguing with himself in the dream, Dr. Johnson did not feel he had lost to Burke. Burke’s skill in the dream had in fact been Dr. Johnson’s skill. In the same way Shimizu did not feel himself beaten by someone else, because he was seeing himself in the skill of his pupil.

I play golf every week with John Newman, a former Judo pupil of mine and my successor at the BBC. He is much younger than I. But at golf, one can keep some skill even when one is well on in years. So sometimes I win, and sometimes I lose. When I lose, I try to tell myself that I taught him golf, so in a way, I am losing to myself.

But I wonder: does he feel the same?

© Trevor Leggett 1987

Index for this series of articles
1 Foreword
2 Consideration for Strangers
3 Social Conventions and Surprises
4 Cruel to be Kind
5 Losing to Oneself
6 North-South-East-West
7 It Likes That
8 Warukuchi
9 Japanese Logic


Similar Posts