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He is more lenient here. There is a racial thing. The Japanese, basically, don't expect Americans to be able to do karate. He's the embodiment of a samurai, really. There is something different about him from any other Japanese instructor. Something colder, almost ghostly. In Japan they have a phrase for him: a snowcapped volcano. A lot of coldness, a lot of fire.
Clearly, you don't make a dash to Tijuana with the man, but this talk of ghostliness and coldness contradicts a hint of effervescence behind that wonderful language barrier of 14 years' standing. And Nishiyama must have as much hustle and bustle in his way as Mr. Honda, if there is anyone by that name. Nishiyama is chairman of the AAKF, which is a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee. He is executive director of the International Amateur Karate Federation, executive director of the Pan-American Karate Union, representative of the Japan Karate Association International of America and a director of the JKA itself. There are those who think he is trying to control karate in the U.S., if not in the world. There are those of whom he thinks the same. But even when talking of AAU officials in the U.S., Jacques Delcourt of France or Ryoichi Sasakawa of Japan—none of them true karate men, he says, just power-seeking impresarios—Nishiyama cannot keep from erupting with laughter. You'd have to be a sweat-drenched worshiper in a gi not to see the joie de vivre.
As soon as he can safely let go of all these fancy handles, he says, he will do so. But at this historic moment it is necessary to establish controlling bodies to define and protect karate. It is being abused, especially in the U.S. It has become a code word for ferocity, for sensational, near-miraculous stomping; and the do aspect—the polite, truthful, gentle, fearless way of life karate teaches—is hardly guessed by most of us. Unqualified and unscrupulous phonies pretend to teach it rapidly, for plenty of dollars.
In a lot of commercial dojos the traditional routines or forms called kata are not even taught. Students just learn a few techniques and start fighting. If you don't know enough to choose the right school, or if you fall for the twirling jumps and spinning heel kicks, you get robbed. You learn some fatuous dance, not karate. And maybe you never know any better.
Nishiyama's students get much more heated and righteous about those things than he does. It insults them that in many of these ersatz schools someone can get a black belt in nine months or a year. "If there are 50 dojos in the L.A. area, 45 are total phonies," says one of Nishiyama's students. "Not mentioning any names, there are certain people right around here selling franchises who will take just $1,500, and in two weeks give you a black belt and show you how to teach. There are a lot of people who have gotten rich that way."
Actually, there can't be too many karate fortunes around. According to manufacturers' reports based on the total number of gis sold, about 200,000 people are practicing karate in the U.S.A majority are training with instructors who are serious, even if they are commercial. The AAKF itself is nonprofit. You pay $25 a month and work out as much as you want. You might achieve a practical familiarity with the basic techniques (which is all that the term black belt means) in three or four years. You will probably be serene in threatening situations thereafter, but the bully who kicks sand in your face will never know what you could do to him. The big change will be inside and always ongoing. You run the risk of karate supplanting your main interests and goals, including the girls (or boys) on the beach.
Tonight in the dojo the first class is for beginners of all ages. There are blacks and Chicanos and Japanese and whites, and there is one woman. It does not look so easy now. Compared to Nishiyama, the black belt instructor babbles, waves his hands, struts. Compared to the afternoon class, these students wobble, fan, peck. When the woman is supposed to knee her sparring partner in the chest, she mimes it with an indulgent smile, then laughs and pats him on the shoulder.
Then Nishiyama appears to teach a group of brown belts and black belts. Right off he conducts a very hard kicking workout that takes the whole class beyond pain. It can be seen: a period, occurring at different times for different individuals, when each student is so tired that the legs will not perform the kicks, all done with one leg while standing on the other. They skip a count or two in the faster and faster groups of kicks.
Next he teaches a way of catching a punch on the wrist, whipping it away and using the reaction force to stage a counterpunch to the face. He is so polite, so perfect in gesture. He is talking about character development and self-perfection and good manners, while the medium is an art that involves hitting people in the throat or temple with an impact that the bones and joints of the human body cannot withstand. It is a breathtaking paradox, kept totally implicit. "Now very easy punch face. Unnastan? Very easy kick estomach. Unnastan?"
"Osu!" they all shout. Because it's neat. So beautiful.