In TV land sweet old ladies with tough hands are chopping up gangs of muggers. In England unwanted buildings are being dispatched the same way, and all over the Western World defenseless bricks and boards haven't stood a chance in years. Soon, at this rate, they'll be making bumper stickers that read: REGISTER HANDS AND FEET, NOT FIREARMS, and every crook and nanny will want to learn karate, or what will be left of it after the flacks get through transforming it into show biz.
The gentlest of the violent arts has received a very good press in recent years, which is to say a very bad one. But the more that was told about karate the less anybody really knew about it. The sport was fragmented into schools—Japanese, Okinawan, Korean—fought by different rules, but a fortnight ago in Philadelphia came the All America Karate Championship Tournament, the first truly national one, run by the All America Karate Federation. In April the AAKF was named by the AAU the official voice of U.S. karate and now, it was said, the sport had a leg in the Olympics. In Philadelphia there was one set of rules, sanctioned by the AAU, and no disputes once competition began. Nothing was broken, not a brick or a board or even a bone. As one karate man said, "All these guys are on the fringe of spirituality." The losers were as serenely calm as the winners. No athlete is capable of more human destruction than the karateka, and many times each of the 150 contestants came within half an inch or closer of death or maiming, but no hand or foot was lifted in anger. Only a few accidental cuts and bruises were recorded.
Still, a whole afternoon of karate turned out to be an overdose for those who had nothing to relate the pastime to but boxing or Lee Marvin movies. A certain little rule made it a frustrating experience. That is the one that says no punches or kicks will come in full contact with an opponent. While it was a national karate tournament all right, and exciting at times, more often it was about as much of a spectacle as Joe Frazier taking on Muhammad Ali in the World Heavyweight Sparring Championship.
In All America karate, kicks and punches are judged by appearance, so they must be delivered at maximum velocity, yet stopped when foot or fist grazes the opponent's face or throat or other vital point. Considering the fate of innumerable boards and bricks, one begins to understand something about a karate man's self-control and his faith, which knows bounds. One entrant said, "I've never gone in there unafraid of being hit." Others nodded.
In competitive karate a full point, which wins a match, is awarded for kicks or punches that would have maimed or killed, half a point for less lethal ones; judging karate obviously requires a colorful imagination. Another quality that would have been appreciated at Philadelphia is a fluency in English. There are dozens of different kicks and punches, each with its own name, and the judges, nearly all Oriental, made their calls aloud, but only one was consistently decipherable: "rrroundhouse," for the kick of that name and with the accent on the rrround.
"How long has he been in this country?" a judge was asked.
"And that's how he speaks English?"
"Well, he belongs to a cousin's club."
All the judges, it appeared, belonged to a cousin's club.