Ninja agent in full regalia
Our visit to a not very authentic Japanese ninja movie studio park magically whisked me back over 25 years to perhaps my biggest battle of all, fought not in a karate ring but on the pages of martial arts magazines, local TV news and BIG city daily newspapers from coast to coast, back when print was in its prime.
After promoting an anonymous customer satisfaction survey asking what else our little karate school could offer in services, I noticed a good number of written requests for "weapons" training. And the handwriting was decidedly childlike.
I started asking kids where they had even heard about throwing stars, double edged daggers, blow guns and the like. "In school," came the response "Lots of kids are talking about it, and some are even bringing them to class".
Yes, we're taking white bread, peace loving, affluent Amherst.
At the time the martial arts industry was in a full scale "Ninjamania" meltdown. Fueled by Hollywood movies and amplified further by California based martial arts magazines promoting ninjas on their covers --usually in violent poses, with flashy weapons about to skewer or decapitate an opponent -- and page after page of ads for mail-order martial weapons of every kind.
Publishers were getting rich off the ads, weapons dealers were selling a boatload of products, and unfortunately, kids nationwide were getting their naive little hands on dangerous weapons, because the postman does not check IDs.
In Massachusetts many of the weapons -- nunchakus, doubled-edged knives, and throwing stars -- had been banned by emergency legislation signed by Governor Michael Dukakis in 1972. Police officers were coming under attack with a variety of these weapons by street gangs and angry mobs during the racially charged Boston school busing crises.
So how, I wondered, are kids in Amherst getting their hands on these particular dangerous weapons that were clearly outlawed? A classic Catch 22: although made illegal by state law it was not illegal to use the federal post office to circumvent our state law by ordering from weapons dealers located in states that had no restrictions on the pernicious products.
It took an entire day but I managed to talk my way past a secretary or two and get the Postmaster General in Washington, DC on the phone. When I asked him if he knew his organization was trampling on our state law by delivering illegal weapons he said, matter-of-factly, "I'm not surprised". He then pointed out in California tear gas pens were illegal by state law but he knew they were routinely being delivered.
"There's nothing I can do about it now" he said. "You would need to get a federal law passed … "
Thus began a two-front war: Getting the politicians to close a loophole allowing the mailorder of dangerous martial arts weapons, and informing parents nationwide that their children could be playing with these dangerous devices.
I kicked off my crusade by mailing every US senator in Washington, DC a multi-pointed throwing star (which were illegal in the city) with the tag line typed on the outside of the envelope: "Illegal weapon, legally enclosed." The Associated Press covered my press conference as did all the local and regional media in Massachusetts and the king of TV national news shows, ABC's 20/20.
Senator Kennedy, who knew all too well the danger of mail-order availability of weapons (like the Italian-made 6.5 Mannlicher-Carcano rifle obtained by Lee Harvey Oswald for instance) was quick to respond to my letter of concern, although rookie Senator John Kerry never did.
But the big break came when Kennedy's legislation picked up an unlikely co-sponsor: Ultra conservative long-time Sentor Strom Thurmond. Now the bill, S-1363, was called the "Kennedy/Thurmond Bill".
What caught the southern Senator's attention was my secondary concern over "states rights". What caught the media's attention was the unlikely pairing of two polar opposite but highly respected legislators.
In the winter of 1985 I testified as an expert witness before the Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by Senator Kennedy. Black Belt Magazine publisher Michael James, worried about advertising revenues, testified against the bill as did martial arts icon and Washington, DC based Tae Kwon Do instructor Jhoon Rhee who was worried it could become a slippery slope leading to legislative control over martial arts instruction schools.
At one point in his testimony Senator Kennedy respectfully interrupted Mr. Rhee to ask, "Do you use these weapons in your schools here in DC?" "No," he quickly replied, "they are too dangerous". Reporters in the packed hearing room almost fell out of their chairs.
The bill came out of the Judiciary Committee with a 11-1 favorable vote, only Arlen Specter voted against it citing concerns from the NRA. I sent a weapons package to Spector's wife Joan who was then Philadelphia City Council Chair and soon thereafter a local ordinance passed essentially banning the more dangerous of the weapons in Philadelphia, thus shutting down the supply sent out nationwide by the largest mail order dealer of the time, Asian World of Martial Arts.
The bill never made it to the floor of the 99th Congress for a full vote and therefore died of neglect. Senator Kennedy never refiled it when the 100th Congress convened. But by then the industry had taken strong measures of self regulation. Weapons ads now carried the disclaimer, "will not ship to where prohibited by law."
And perhaps most important of all, the "Ninjamania" fad died. Another of my secondary concerns was that ninjas were, essentially, hired assassins. My TV sound bite at the time was "they would kill their own grandmother, in her sleep, for a price."
Hardly something American children should be holding up as heroes to emulate.
As we left the Toei Kyoto Studio Park my daughters could talk about nothing other than "ninjas". And yes, we did make a souvenir purchase -- but not any of the plastic toy weapons.
A pair of black ninja tabi boots, which allows one to walk softly ...
Top row: Nunchaku, brass knuckle knife, push dagger. Middle row: Ninja claw, throwing starsBottom row: Balisong Philippine knife, and my favorite: a razor sharp double-edged dagger made from high impact plastic rather than metal, so you could easily sneak it aboard commercial airplanes.