Reclaiming Miyagi: The most unjustly hated man in movies

Reclaiming Miyagi: The most unjustly hated man in movies

Mr. Miyagi, considered solely as he appears in The Karate Kid, is not nearly so offensive as you imagine.

This land was made for you and me“Hey, wax on, wax off! Hey buddy, wax on, wax off!”

If I’d heard that all the time as a kid, I’d probably get pretty damned tired of it, too. Especially if I were hyper-aware that I was hearing it because I was an Asian kid. And not Japanese either, Goddammit! I’m not, but I sympathize.

There’s no question that Kensuke Miyagi occupies a special place in the pantheon of Asian-American stereotypes, and that he’s a locus of cultural antipathy, especially among Asian-Americans.

But that antipathy is unfortunate. Not just because it is born of pain, but also because Mr. Miyagi as he appears in The Karate Kid (and not as he appears in the larger cultural phantasmagoria, or for that matter, the latter Karate Kid sequels), is not nearly so narrow or offensive a caricature.

A defense of Miyagi, and more on why that defense is important, follows…

Proud to be an American

Mr. Miyagi is a guarded man, so most of what we know about his personal life comes from one stirring scene. Drunk on sake in remembrance of the anniversary of his wife’s death, Miyagi recalls his days as a soldier in WWII.

He fought for the American army, an Okinawan against Japan. He shows his pride at his service without hesitation — when he urges Daniel to say “Banzai” correctly and with passion as he drinks, it reflects how seriously he takes these memories.

We learn the saddest truth of Miyagi’s past — that, while serving overseas, his pregnant wife was shipped to an Japanese internment camp run by the U.S. government, and while there, presumably due to poor medical care, she and her son died in childbirth, leaving Miyagi a widower. He never remarries.

Cultures frequently lionize symbols of their oppression, persecution or suffering, but despite being the most famous (and perhaps only) American major motion picture character prior to 1990 to have suffered from anti-Japanese policies in the United States, Mr. Miyagi is scorned and rejected by the bulk of Asian Americans. A big part of this is — of course — that Asians are all not the same. Many East Asians of a variety of ethnicities don’t have a ton of sympathy for the Japanese between, say 1933 and 1945. But I don’t think that’s all of it — Miyagi is rarely criticized for being Japanese; he’s instead criticized for perpetuating a variety of stereotypes about Asians.

For the record, white people didn’t care that The Karate Kid was startlingly progressive to tackle this issue. But the mid-80s were marked by paranoia over an encroaching economic and financial Japanese menace, and nobody noticed the injustices in Miyagi’s backstory; they just noticed he was cool. These days, that fear wears a different foreign face, but still endures — I don’t detect a lot of popular support for ideas of race in Don’t Mess With the Zohan — but that’s another story for another time. Like when I can watch it for free on late-night television and don’t have to spend money to rent it.

The Other, from Another Mother

Mr. Miyagi’s biggest cultural fault is that he strengthens the sense of Asian Americans as “the other” — they have a genetic inability to use articles in their sentence, they live on the fringe of society as lower class oddities, and they have magical karate powers. All these things are, of course, not true, but they resonate in our culture. And in our culture, collectively, they are a Bad Thing. They keep people from getting jobs they’re qualified for, they keep new generations of Americans from integrating with society, they lead to frustration, disengagement, and a variety of other social failures.

But I don’t think they’re bad in The Karate Kid.

The Karate Kid is about being “the other.” It’s easy to forget just how old-fashioned (though not, I think, inaccurate) The Karate Kid is at treating this subject. As a >gasp< Italian from Jersey in Pasadena, Daniel Larusso is as much a victim of stereotyping and exclusion as Mr. Miyagi. There’s some question that Ralph Maccio and Elizabeth Shue won’t be able to date because of his race.

The point of the movie is that first, Daniel sees Miyagi as “the other” — the strange Chinese guy or what have you — but when he faces the problem of being “the other” himself, he recognizes Miyagi’s strength and wisdom, accepts him as a mentor and surrogate father figure, and proceeds to kick the crap out of the Cobra Kai (spoiler alert!).

The Karate Kid is about getting past stereotypes and finding the strength to stand up against the maddening crowd. If Mr. Miyagi didn’t exemplify these stereotypes, the movie wouldn’t make any goddamned sense.

Furthermore,The Karate Kid touts a worthy value that contemporary culture finds far too underappreciated — that the opinions of the maddening crowd don’t really matter. In our focus to fight for social inclusion, which is just and well-advised, we too often legitimize the complaints of people whose opinions should not trouble us.

Here’s an example from my admittedly fairly lucky and free of prejudice life. I’ll make it silly so as not to pretend to be a real victim of these things.

Contemporary solution:

Douchebag: Hey Fenzel, all you German bastards are Nazis! Why don’t you go invade Poland?

Fenzel: Actually, a lot of people like me have German-American ancestors who fought for the Allies in WWII, and even if they don’t, a lot of the people alive today are trying their best to create a new legacy of generosity and compassion to hopefully start again after such a cruel and gruesome past.

Karate Kid solution:

Douchebag: Hey Fenzel, all you German bastards are Nazis! Why don’t you go invade Poland?

Fenzel: Stay out of my business, douchebag! (CRANE KICK TO THE FACE!!!)

The point of this borderline-offensive and Godwinning example? Why does Mr. Miyagi have to go to any sort of lengths to ingratiate people who have proven to him that they don’t care if he or his family lives or dies? Why does Mr. Miyagi have to apologize for his penchant for gardening or for the way he talks? If people aren’t willing to wait long enough to find out that Miyagi served in the U.S. Army and has a big collection of classic cars before decrying him as unamerican, why should he care what they say?

Why do we legitimize Miyagi’s critics by insisting that he’s wrong, when the people who look and act like that in real life bear no shred of common guilt for the prejudices held by a broad array of turdwads?

Admittedly, there’s more than a slight resemblance between The Karate Kid and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but there are important differences. The white guy in The Karate Kid is also a victim of prejudice. Uncle Tom isn’t exactly known for jump-kicking the establishment. Mr. Miyagi has a much nicer house. The montages are far superior.

No Menu at this Restaurant

In the quest to defend Miyagi from his assailants, like he so bravely defended Daniel in that random parking lot brawl, let’s not illegitimize the problem. There is indeed a big problem with Hollywood.

Miyagi is pretty much the best Hollywood did in terms of Asian characters for a really long time — pretty much until Harold reached the White Castle and shattered the bamboo ceiling. In the 80s, it was pretty much Miyagi, “Data the Younger and Non-Robot,” Short Round, and Long Duk Dong.

In failing to produce anything better (or, Hell, anything else), Hollywood in the 80s created and perpetuated Asian stereotypes that have a tight hold on the American psyche to this day (the ones from earlier on were much different — American WWII propagandists certainly didn’t portray the Japanese as bookish or unable to hold their liquor).

But I think it’s important to note that, internally, The Karate Kid isn’t to blame, nor is Pat Morita. The Karate Kid was an attempt at pushing this issue forward, of inviting Asian Americans into mainstream American culture. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a local high-water mark (although Gung Ho! Probably pushed slightly higher), and I’d imagine that Asian people must have been hoping for more at the time.

And unlike so many sequels, Karate Kid: Part II actually does a better job of tackling social issues than the original. It doesn’t pander, and it probably did more for any positive perception of East Asia Americans held between 198? and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon than any other movie.

Sign On, Sign Off

So, I say to people who’ve been on the wrong side of a “Wax on wax off” in their day, sure, recognize and impugn the larger problem with Hollywood, but please give Miyagi a pass. He’s on your side — struggling with the same struggle you are, and he has a variety of cool personal qualities if you get to know him as a character. The way that random jerks chose to interpret the movie isn’t the only way the movie can be interpreted.

If you want to go down that road, there’s one thing you can do that will help more than anything else. Like so many times when big blockbuster characters are blamed for social ills, the best way to see if the charges have credence is to actually watch the movie.

On a final, lighter note, here’s my favorite Karate Kid-inspired YouTube video of all time (which I think I’ve already posted a bunch of times, but here it is again):

Let us not become the very Cobra Kai that we seek to jump-kick, for then we would only jump-kick ourselves.

25 Comments on “Reclaiming Miyagi: The most unjustly hated man in movies”

  1. Gab #

    Pat’s role in _The Karate Kid_ franchise aside, he himself was often victim of societal stereotyping in how he was cast. He played how many different Asians in the _M*A*S*H_ series, after all? That happens all the time in Hollywood: you’re Asian-American, so you can play ANY Asian-American, no matter what specific background you have (cough, _Memoirs of a Geisha_ cough). As long as you look “Asian,” you can just as easily play a Korean as you can a Chinese or Japanese person. This happens with Middle-Eastern-American actors (like Neveen Andrews), Native American actors (i.e. Graham Greene), Hispanic-American actors (John Leguizamo)… you name it, if its a minority, it happens.

    BUT, I also think there is an even broader form of stereotyping in the U.S. with regards to foreign countries in general. An American film set in any European country will usually have a cast chock-full of British accents (even if they’re being faked, too). As great as the script for the HBO movie _Conspiracy_ was, I found the highly emphasized British accents coming from the mouths of Hitler’s top guys a little distracting- more so than I would have if they had been using German accents. Why? Is it something about British accents? Not that I promote blanket “European” accents, but seriously, is it just because we speak the same language, or is there something more to it?

    Even though it’s not related to this post, I must ask, since we’re talking about martial arts movies from (g)olden days. _3 Ninjas_. Eh? (The grandpa in that series is another example of the “YOU’RE ASIAN” thing, btw)


  2. lee OTI Staff #

    Uh oh…I feel an Angry Asian Male Rant coming on. Remixing Miyagi, coming later in Karate Kid Week!

    Not quite ready to give Miyagi/Morita a pass. He’s one of several reasons why I never got any girls in high school. The upcoming article will explain why.


  3. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    Okay, I haven’t seen Karate Kid II in a while, but I don’t remember it as being a particularly progressive portrayal of Japanese society. Doesn’t it end with a karate fight to the death? And every single person in Okinawa just sits there watching it, as if that’s the way things are done in 1986 Japan? And they all carry around their secret drums at all times. Seems to me like the movie is saying “every single person in Japan has top secret karate knowledge.”


  4. fenzel #

    Yes, it is definitely saying that. Although I’d replace “top secret karate knowledge” with “magical karate powers,” as I did in my article.

    It’s not progressive as we would like, certainly, but we forget that 1986 was a really long time ago, and that Japanese people were being beat up on the streets of Detroit for their country making auto workers lose their jobs (as opposed to everyone else, who was being beat up on the streets of Detroit for no reason).

    The Karate Kid, Part II doesn’t do what it does by being progressive. It does what it does by being positive and by being beautiful. It shows Asians as strong, passionate and brave. It shows how startlingly huge the cultural gap can be for immigrants who try to move from one culture to another. The movie is about people of very different ways of thinking connecting with one another, even if the people’s lifestyles are pretty heavily fictionalized.

    It also has one of the only scenes in mainstream American movies that depicts the Japanese tea ceremony with appropriate grace and reverence.

    And performed by an actual Japanese person, which is more than what _Memoirs of a Geisha_ did.


  5. fenzel #

    Also, Mark, if you’re blaming Mr. Miyagi for not getting any girls in high school, you might be ignoring the fact that you were in marching band ;-)

    And besides, you did fine in college and after!


  6. J #

    Mr Miyagi didn’t fight the Japanese, he was part of the 442nd Regimental combat team, and fought the Italians and Germans in Italy.


  7. lee OTI Staff #

    @fenzel: I actually wasn’t in marching band in high school! I was doing all of the things cool guys that got the girls were supposed to be doing. You know, quiz bowl, math team, AP Physics, orchestra. I stand by my original point. I blame Mr. Miyagi.


  8. Gab #

    Yay orchestra and nerdy extracurriculars!


  9. fenzel #

    @J – Point taken. Well overthought.

    @Lee – Oh, that’s right. You weren’t a big hit with the ladies until you _joined_ marching band. That is how it always works :-)


  10. sean #

    Great article, thought-provoking and analyzed within the spirit of its time.

    And then there was the three minutes of my life lost to a cat on a treadmill, waiting for it to do something vaguely KK-like.


  11. Amanda Harker #

    You’ve forgotten perhaps the most important reason for why Mr. Miyagi is such a sterotype. Through Mr. Miyagi we’re told to ALWAYS question our perceptions, never take a sterotype at face value. Mr Miyagi points out to Daniel that he never asked if he knew karte and he also points out that things are not as they seem.
    Traditionally and historically comedy and theater have been used as “safe” mediums to get controveral and new ideas across to a wide varity of people. I admit that I’m a white Australian, but honestly it’s ignorent and short sighted to hate a charactor simply because you see the 2D not the 3D.


  12. Ryan Campbell #

    I think that we definitely have to keep the trends of movies in mind when judging the degrees of stereotypes, ie could you do coming to America or Blazing Saddles today? What about that Westley Snipes and Sean Connery vs Japanese corporate culture movie?

    Maybe I’m just speaking from small minded experience as a white guy from the suburbs, but watching the movie as a child, Miyagi was like Japanese culture with training wheels and some of the exposure did translate when I spent time in Japan.

    Considering how we have a brief amount of time to display the differences in cultures in any movie I feel that it can easily comenough off as cartoonish, but Mr Miyagi, while constrained by the media form and prevalent attitudes of the day, I don’t feel was a particularly offensive symbol (albeit, again, a bit of a cartoon), especially when Mackey Rourke was doing his impression of Asians at around the same time.


  13. Jeff #

    I’m an Asian male and I actually don’t give a sh**. I thought Mr. Miyagi was awesome and always loved him in the Karate Kid.

    Btw, he fought with the 442nd, that’s against Germans not Japan.


    • Jeff #

      P.S. – I’m getting sick and tired of white liberals telling us Asians what we should find offensive or not.


      • Blahbidiblah #

        Damn right.


  14. D #

    Half-Japanese and born in ’89 (5 years after the movie was made) and grew up in the same city as the Golf n Stuff!
    Also grew up with kids calling my brother pizza face and “chinking” their eyes at me. Karate Kid was the first thing that ever made me feel like my culture was cool (times have changed, but there was a time when anime was for nerds and weirdos only).

    Miyagi was about the same age as me ojii-chan, he made chopstick skills cool, and yeah, some Japanese people have a hard time with English grammar. But that was ok because you don’t need proper grammar to be a good person and an iconic character.


  15. The bee #

    Nesuke pat Morita was likely alright though, mister myagi within the karate kid movies deserves any bad light aimed towards him so many ways.
    1) he deceives daniel so many times with his ridiculously stupid antics and lies
    2) he talks to himself – he’s mad – crazy as heck and the viewers can spot this on so many levels
    3) he drugs Julie and the monks on the next karate kid film so it’s fair to claim it’s likely , myagi ( or whatever his real name was supposed to be ) drugged danny boy as well
    4) he was an illegal drugs baron and head of a illegal prostitution rings
    5) he kept changing his story
    And the list goes on


  16. The bee #

    Well – mister myagi can’t evenbe even described as being anywhere next to being alright .
    There’s also likely parts I missed of myagi the war criminal thug and stalker being the scummy slumming character that I personally perceived him to be.
    know it’s all only fictional scenerios but, was is sad it’s placed on television on prime time slots .


  17. The bee #

    I could be wrong as he could have been suffering from post traumatic stress disorder so most things can be explained nevertheless, mister myagi was still a criminal


  18. AceHall #

    I realize that this post is VERY old, but what kind of a language curmudgeon would I be if I did not point out that the poem from the Statue of Liberty mentions “…the MADDING crowd…”, and not “…the maddening crowd…”, as referenced twice in this post.


    • AceHall #

      MEA CULPA! *bow, scrape* I mentioned the Statue of Liberty in my first post, but I was thinking of “…huddled masses…”, not “…the madding crowd…” What I should have said was that the phrase comes from: “Far From the Madding Crowd” by Thomas Gray, in a famous 18th-century poem “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” which goes like this:

      “Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
      Their sober wishes never learned to stray;
      Along the cool sequestered vale of life
      They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.”

      Beautiful, yes?


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