SI Vault
Richard W. Johnston
October 18, 1976
True exponents of karate and the other martial arts fear that students of quickie courses are fantasizing invincibility—but are headed for bruising nightmares
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 18, 1976

Dangerous Delusion

True exponents of karate and the other martial arts fear that students of quickie courses are fantasizing invincibility—but are headed for bruising nightmares

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6

In 1964 he enrolled in Carlton Shimomi's dojo and for two years spent four hours a week in classes and another hour every day in practice, punching the straw-covered makiwara (fencepost) or the heavy bag to strengthen his hands. "When I had a rating exam coming up," he recalls, "I'd practice three or four hours every day, in addition to the dojo classes." He moved up through the ranks—white belt to green to purple, through four brown-belt stages and finally first-Dan black, which is the lowest rung on a 10-step ladder. Although he was interested in the self-defense aspects of karate, McAndrews had an almost religious feeling about the art.

"I think I began to get a little disillusioned when my first sensei [teacher, mentor, maestro—the word cannot be translated literally] phased out his dojo to go into another business," he recalls. "I hadn't realized then that even a karate sensei had to make a living. To me it was simply high art that enabled one to transcend mediocrity." At Shimomi's, McAndrews had polished both his kata, the formalized routines that correspond roughly to a boxer's training in blocking, punching, feinting and footwork (about as roughly as long division corresponds to calculus), and his kumite, the free sparring that puts the kata to work. At his new dojo, Chuzo Kotaka's, the kumite became considerably more violent. "Kotaka was one rough character when he came here from Japan," McAndrews says. "He didn't believe in sparring in which the punches and kicks stopped short of actually striking an opponent—he thought contact was necessary to sharpen the focus you would need in actual self-defense."

Like Shimomi's, some very reputable dojos train their students to stop all blows an inch from the opponent's body—an esthetic practice that has led critics to claim karatekas can't fight because they're conditioned to pull their punches. McAndrews did not experience this problem during either of the two street situations that followed his training. In one he was attacked by a hulking drunk while attempting to play good Samaritan to victims of an automobile accident. McAndrews used a straight shot to the throat, a karate maneuver called "tiger's mouth" in which the hand is not retracted but grips the Adam's apple (and could extract it). In the other, he was cornered by five young thugs at Makapuu beach. A front kick to the groin and a knuckle punch to the face had enough focus to disable one of them and put three to flight, but the fifth pulled a gun. "I was 10 feet away," McAndrews recalls, "and a small, short pistol isn't very accurate at that distance. So I followed another sound principle—I ran, and his pistol misfired three times."

McAndrews came to Kotaka at about the time legitimate instructors, alarmed by karate's continuing popular image as a killer system with no redeeming social value, began sponsoring inter-dojo and open tournaments. Their purpose was to establish that karate was at least as much of a sport as boxing, and in many ways superior to it as a conditioner and, yes, for self-defense. "When we started in sports tournaments," McAndrews says, "we competed with people we could respect—for their technique, for their spirit, for their high standard of excellence. But then sponsors began inviting less proficient schools and we got terrible mismatches. In Japan, tournaments are all right, because the general level of instruction is high, but not in Hawaii or on the Mainland. One contestant may not make contact at all, and another may half kill you because he hasn't learned to focus his blows." (In sport karate, blows are supposed to hit but not wound).

McAndrews kept up his interest, nonetheless, through graduation from the University of Hawaii (in political science) and his entry into business, but the "full-contact to knockout" exhibitions he has seen have transformed what had once been mere disillusionment into disgust.

Sport karate contests are still held, but McAndrews sees the sensationalized full-contact to kayo bouts as a regression to "the gladiator syndrome." He says, "The promoters are promising circuses, not sport or art."

The man who claimed to have devised the full-contact format, the late John Keehan, who called himself "Count Dante," sneered at the concept of "ki." He was one of several latecomers who proclaimed the "Americanization" of the martial arts. "I'd say Count Dante did for karate about what the Boston Strangler did for door-to-door salesmanship," McAndrews says. "This 'Americanization' of karate is wrecking it. Learning the katas bores people, so they're skipping it. But you need some ki and you need the ability to focus, and without either, it not only isn't karate, it's as much of a danger to you as to others."

Whether the combination of full-contact exhibitions and fly-by-night martial-arts schools will drive legitimate teachers out of business remains to be seen, but they are making the distinction of the real from the counterfeit all the more difficult. While a random sampling of about 100 dojos in 14 major American cities by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED correspondents produced only one that actually would guarantee a "black belt," some 25 promised self-defense capability in four to six months. (McAndrews says, "After one year of instruction in karate, you might be less able to defend yourself than before. At that point, because of the tournament orientation, many students haven't even learned to guard the face.") The prices for the courses ranged from $20 to a shocking $100 a month (Kotaka, McAndrews' sensei, charges $15), and a majority implied that a woman who attained first-Dan black belt would be the equal of a man of the same rank.

"Maybe I'm a chauvinist," McAndrews says, "but there's no way a 110-pound woman can disable a strong, 200-pound man, with karate or anything else, except by total surprise—or years and years of training." He recalls working out with a 95-pound woman who was an instructor for the Japan Karate Association and was "double tough," but McAndrews rates her as exceptional. "For a while there was another woman karateka from Japan at Chuzo's," he recalls, "and I could have kicked her into the 21st Century if I'd gone all out." He feels that senior citizens, the handicapped and that durable advertising clich�, the 97-pound weakling, suffer the same limitations.

A New York writer, Carola Dibbell, who investigated karate after she was mugged, shares some, but not all, of McAndrews' misgivings. Writing in The Village Voice , she cited the added confidence martial skills may give a woman, but noted "the fear of hurting someone else may be more inhibiting than the fear of getting hurt." McAndrews believes that many male karate students share the same fear. He says, "Most of us aren't conditioned to kill, and several karate tactics—unless controlled by focus—will accomplish just that." Of course, some people are conditioned to kill, or want to be, and may turn to the "hand arts" to further that purpose.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6
Related Topics
Mike McAndrews 1 0 0
Honolulu 157 0 0
Charles Nelson 1 0 0
United States 8021 0 232
Japan 507 0 3