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On the Henka

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In sumo, the goal is simple. Get the other guy to step out of the dohyo or touch the ground with any part of his body than his feet. There are rules about what a rikishi can't do to win, but it's relatively limited. The list of kinjite, or forbidden techniques, is limited to striking the with a closed fist, grabbing hair, jabbing at the eyes, striking both ears, grabbing the groin, grabbing the throat, kicking the chest or waist, and bending back the fingers. "Grabbing" and specific body parts do some heavy lifting in that list. Likely, the only one you will ever see is hair pulling.

The extremely basic rules do not mean that sumo is simple. Actually, the fact a hand to the ground or a misstep off the dohyo means a loss makes everything matter in sumo. A slightly shallower grip can mean less leverage. Being just a little high at the tachiai can mean no forward movement. Simply misreading your opponent usually means a one way trip to the ground. Even more, sumo requires a rematch in case of a draw, so all that matters is winning.

Yet there is one way to win that is not quite as preferable, the henka. In a sumo context, henka is usually translated as "sidestep." Outside of sumo, it is apparently better translated as "change," "variation," or "mutation." This gets to some of the issues around a henka. The henka is a variation from how sumo should be. Ideally, rikishi face each other head on, and engage in a battle of strength. A henka avoids this clash. There's a good reason Sumopedia, NHK's mini-documentary series, describes henka as "dodging." It needs to convey the appropriate level of disgust when a Japanese sumo fan hears "henka."

The Sumopedia video shows two of the more infamous henka, Hakuho against Harumafuji in March 2016 and Terunofuji against Kotoshogiku in March 2017. These are infamous not only because they are henka, but also by who did it. Hakuho was already the most successful rikishi of all time, and on the final day he secured his 36th yusho with a henka against a fellow Yokozuna. His sidestep was wild, letting Harumafuji run past him with a mere glancing shove. Terunofuji, meanwhile, was an Ozeki whose small shift to the side was accompanied by a harsh shove down. That maneuver gave Terunofuji the chance at a playoff, while also guaranteeing that Kotoshogiku would not automatically return to Ozeki. These aren't just henka, but moves that robbed the fans of something potentially special. That's why fans dislike the henka.

Yet the Sumopedia video also has a section Mainoumi. Mainoumi entered professional sumo in 1990 only after convincing a doctor to inject silicone in the top of his head to meet the height requirement then in place. He actually came in as a Makushita Tsukedashi, because he was an amateur champion from Nihon University. In his 9 year career, he used 33 different kimarite and was so successful at different approaches he gained the nickname Waza no Depaato (The Department Store of Technique.) He was an undersized, skilled rikishi who became the 1990s fan favorite because of his blend of spirit and technique.

And he was a common practitioner of the henka. Mainoumi was 171 cm on a technicality, and weighed under 100 kg. This seemed to give him a special dispensation to be indirect in his sumo. When Mainoumi faced, well, anyone else, he was at a serious size disadvantage. Avoiding a head-on tachiai was smart. Also, his henkas were spectacular. He had one maneuver that was an up-and-under, which he notably used to beat the Yokozuna Akebono. He also would jump behind his opponent, upending the basic form of the match.

Perhaps the henka is best understood as equivalent to putting 10 men behind the ball in soccer or the four corners offense in basketball. When an underdog can use the strategy to change the dynamics of the contest, that strategy becomes not just valid but respected. After all, the most frequent users of a henka currently are Chiyoshoma and Ishiura, neither of whom are imposing physical specimens. They also have not been wildly successful. The henka becomes an equalizer.

This is part of why massive, athletic rikishi like Hakuho and Terunofuji pulling one is so galling. Top rikishi should be able to meet any opponent head on at the start. Ask any sumo fan, Japanese or foreign, lifetime watcher or brand new follower, and what's great to watch is two large men going toe to toe. That's what the henka takes away.

Yet sumo is also all about winning. And a win with a henka is still a win. Often, what gets labeled as a henka comes from one rikishi reading his opponent's moves extremely well. Tochinoshin, as his knees have betrayed him, has begun doing a heavy side step and shove maneuver. It is a kind of henka, but also a way to disrupt an opponent when he can no longer grab on and fight on the mawashi. He can get the occasional win by hitting the sumotori opposite him in the side, if a side is presented. That's not as exciting as when he lifts someone out of the ring.

Both are a win, though. Maybe this is influenced by being an American whose primary interaction with sumo is running this fantasy game. A longtime Japanese fan probably finds this thought abhorrent. But the Torikumi records a win as a win, even if the worst henka occurs. And, yes, in Fantasy Basho, it's two points all the same. It's a little difficult to begrudge a wrestler a win.

Significantly, a henka does not always mean a win. If it did, it is the only maneuver anyone would try. Chiyoshoma and Ishiura have been yo-yo rikishi, bouncing back and forth between Makuuchi and Juryo. In their worst basho, both men have become too fond of the henka. At that point, every opponent stood still at the tachiai and allowed the henka attempt to turn its user into a disadvantaged position. Any henka that gets complained about was usually successful.

Next time you see a henka, remember that the wrestler's job is to win. That win benefits the wrestler just the same whether it started with a direct shove, a powerful grip, or a dodge to the side.

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