Debunking strange myths about Asia, Part I

Some old wive's tales and urban legends refuse to die. And some can be killed off fairly easily


In 1980, I traveled through the United States just after the TV miniseries “Shogun” ended its run. Any time I mentioned to someone that I was living in Japan, he or she would invariably ask me one of two questions related to the program. One was, “Is it true that back then a samurai could chop off somebody’s head just because he felt like it?” To which the answer, amazingly, was “Yes” (The word for this in Japanese is kirisute gomen).

The other question was, “Do men and women really bathe together?” To which my reply was a qualified “yes,” after which a few then asked me if I had ever participated in konyoku (mixed) bathing. (My answer: “Sure, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”)

Impressionable TV audiences aside, I was reminded of another exotic view of Japan while perusing Bernard Trink’s famous “Night Owl” column in the Bangkok Post of July 12.

Trink wrote: “Apparently, there is no clear answer to my question: how much force is legally permissible to resist a perpetrator? In Japan, a second dan and above (higher than a black belt) has to register his hands with the police as lethal weapons.

Well, I happen to have obtained a dan in Uechi ryu karate in Okinawa back in the 1960s, and this was news to me. But who am I to question the wisdom of the law? So I hopped the bus to Sangen Jaya and swaggered into the Setagaya Police Station.

Konnichi wa,” I greet the policewoman at the reception desk. “I’m deeply sorry, but I just discovered that I’ve neglected to register my hands as lethal weapons. Would you please direct me to the karate senshu no toroku-gakari (the department in charge of registering karate practitioners)?”

“Eh? Excuse me, but what are you talking about?”

“My hands. You see, I just read in the Bangkok Post that I am required to register them as lethal weapons.”

I hold up both hands, palms facing outward. The policewoman looks at them for a moment and blinks.

“How do you do this, by the by?” I ask. “Do you photograph them? Or make plaster impressions, like famous actors do in front of that theater in Hollywood? Just let me know; I’m very law abiding and intend to cooperate to the hilt.”

“Er, please wait a moment.”

She nervously walks back to her supervisor’s desk and a long conversation ensues. She gestures toward me. I bow formally and notice an expression of incredulity beginning to spread across his face.

The supervisor slowly stands up, lifts his uniform jacket off the back of the chair, puts it on and walks toward where I am waiting, bearing a resigned look.

“Mister ah…Shoo-rai-baa?” he says, squinting at my name in katakana while reading from my business card.

Okay; this never happened. I lied. The police are busy these days, and I would never stoop to annoying them with such silly behavior. What I really did was call up a contact at the National Police Agency, who very kindly put me in touch with the Office of Public Information. “There is no such law,” an Inspector Ikeda of the NPA told me matter of factly over the telephone.

“May I quote you for the record?” I asked.

“Sure, no problem.”

A few words here. In many Japanese martial arts, a dan ranking (sometimes referred to as black belt) is generally required to become a certified instructor. But rank is conferred at the discretion of the school or association, and brute strength counts for less than does demonstrating the proper techniques and a sincere attitude. For this reason, the ranks of black belt holders probably include a few little old ladies who couldn’t punch their way out of a wet paper bag.

My point, I guess, is that there’s no way to correlate lethality to any particular rank. Likewise, there are plenty of dangerous people who have never set foot in a karate dojo in their lives.

If anything, a person who has learned karate properly is potentially a lot less lethal than a dopehead waving a knife while hopped up on amphetamines.

By the way, I wrote to the Night Owl and he ran a correction in the following week’s column.