Remixing Miyagi: Apply the Wax, Remove The Wax

Remixing Miyagi: Apply the Wax, Remove The Wax

An Angry Asian Male’s Rant on Mr. Miyagi and “Wax On, Wax Off.”

I’m the only Asian American writer at OTI, and I’m one of those Asian Americans referred to in the previous post Reclaiming Miyagi that has beef with this character. Specifically, mine is with that (in)famous phrase, “Wax On, Wax Off”:

In a fit of Angry Asian Male Rage, I did a little video editing and voice-over to see what would happen if Mr. Miyagi lost the Asian Accent. See the remix, and what inspired it, after the jump.

To see how Mr. Miyagi and Pat Morita’s legacies are holding up, I started with this obituary for Morita, who died in 2005:

In 1984, he appeared in the role that would define his career and spawn countless affectionate imitations. As Kesuke Miyagi, the mentor to Ralph Macchio’s “Daniel-san,” he taught karate while trying to catch flies with chopsticks and offering such advice as “wax on, wax off” to guide Daniel through chores to improve his skills.

“Countless affectionate imitations?” Excuse me? I don’t know what planet the writer of that obituary lives on, but on my planet, imitations of Mr. Miyagi were anything but affectionate. Allow me to explain.

I grew up in a place called Birmingham, AL. Since moving to the Northeast for school and work in 2000, I’ve been forced into the role of the reluctant defender of the South. Yes, I would tell countless Yankees after they recovered from the shock of meeting an Asian person from the South, Birmingham has a sordid history of racism, but things are much different now. And that’s true.

What’s also true, however, is that there was plenty of racism to go around when I grew up there in the 90’s, and I took my fare share of lumps for being one of the only Asian kids in my middle and high schools. Those lumps came in a variety of forms, including squinting eyebrows to make a “Chinese face,” accusations that my ancestors were kamikaze pilots, and, you guessed it:

“Wax on, wax off.”

Said in an exaggerated accent, of course. Perhaps in combination with the squinting eyebrows.

Now, you might be wondering why I have such a problem with “wax on, wax off,” when it seems benign compared to the squinting eyebrows, “kamikaze,” “chink,” etc. True, at face value, it’s more benign, but it’s not so much “wax on, wax off” that I have a problem with. Instead, I take issue with the fact that for countless children growing up in the 1980’s, Mr. Miyagi was their introduction to Asian Americans, Asian American culture, and the “otherness” of Asian Americans.

In the previous, more sympathetic post, Fenzel argues that this portrayal of “otherness” is complimented by the portrayal of Daniel Larusso’s “otherness” and that this pairing up of outsiders is key to the story. I don’t  disagree with that, but I wonder if the filmmakers really needed to go so far out of their way to emphasize Miyagi’s otherness. He makes exotic little bonsai trees. He has an exotic Japanese garden in his back yard. He practices ancestor worship. He possesses mystical healing powers. And of course, he has an outrageous Asian accent.

I can accept that some of the elements described above were necessary to portray Miyagi’s character in a way that makes sense for the story. But were all of those elements necessary? Pat Morita doesn’t even speak like that–he was born in the United States and speaks English perfectly, with little or no Japanese accent. But his character positively butchers the English language and sets the template for all of those people who showed me their “affectionate imitations.” Wax on, wax off, ha ha, ho ho, me no speekee Engreeshee good.

I agree with Fenzel in that Morita doesn’t really deserve any of the blame for this. He did the best he could with the limited opportunities available for Asian American actors at the time. I suppose the blame should be assigned, if anywhere, to the innate fear of “otherness” and outsiders that people of all cultures share.

In fact, in revealing my frustration with the portrayal of Asian Americans in movies like Karate Kid, I’m showing my own fear of Asian American “otherness.” As an awkward eleven year old Asian kid in an Alabama middle school full of white kids, my number one goal was to fit in and not stick out in the crowd. To assimilate, if you will. This unfortunately was difficult to do because I look very, very Asian. And when other kids saw me, they associated me with their only other outside understanding of Asian Americans: Mr. Miyagi in Karate Kid.

“Wax on, wax off!”


Most American-born Asian Americans have at some point cringed at their own parents’ accents, avoided bringing friends over to their homes for fear of the smelly foods their moms were cooking, and longed for the unattainable affection of that dreamy blond Caucasian boy/girl. Everything about them was fully acculturated except for the externalities surrounding them that defined their “otherness.” One of those externalities was Mr. Miyagi. And just like those other externalities like family and looks, you could never fully escape from the shadow of Mr. Miyagi. Just when you think you’ve gotten the mothball smell out of your clothes, the kimchi breath out of your mouth, and can put the moves on Jenny in 3rd period, along comes a stark reminder that you’re not like everyone else:

“Wax on, wax off!”


Many years later, I’ve come to better terms with my Asian heritage and my role in society as an Asian American. Assimilation is no longer the unrealistic and unattainable goal that it once was for me (living in NYC, surrounded by diversity, certainly helps). Still, watching Karate Kid this past week brought back some tough times when the last thing I wanted to be was Asian. I hated it when the other kids said “wax on, wax off” to me.

“Wax on, wax off!”


So that’s why I took this chance to see what Karate Kid might have been like without Miyagi’s bad Engrish. Okay, I admit, “apply the wax, remove the wax” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as “wax on, wax off,” but ask yourself this: is it really OK that so much humor in our pop culture is based on characters with funny accents? Where do we draw the line when it comes to portraying ethnic minorities in pop culture? Do content producers have any responsibility to portray enthnic minorities in non-stereotypical roles?

To answer, allow me to paraphrase Mr. Miyagi:

“Apply the sterotype, remove the stereotype.”

34 Comments on “Remixing Miyagi: Apply the Wax, Remove The Wax”

  1. gene itoh #

    I fully agree with your post here. I am an Asian – American born here in the states during the early 70’s. Where I grew up I was one of only a few Asians, the others were adopted. So, I heard the “Wax on, wax off” my whole entire teenage years. And as you mentioned, I was pretty ashamed of my parents’ super thick Japanese accent and would do almost anything if I could just keep them locked in a box and only let them out on holidays! Now that I have my own children, I am happy that they do live in a time when being Asian will not be tied in with the Karate Kid!


  2. Kenny #

    I can’t prove it, but wasn’t “Wax on, wax off” used in a prominent commercial at the time? I always thought Miyagi was purposely quoting that commercial.

    Or have I just concocted that in my imagination because it sounds so much like something you might hear in an infomercial?


  3. Scraylo187 #

    I’d rather have people quote Pat to me than say, Bobby Lee characters.

    Pat was American born, yes. However, he as an actor found a great acting opportunity in playing an immigrant who was an American soldier in WW2 while his family died in an internment camp find a bit of peace helping this kid become a man.

    Were the mystic healing powers a bit much? Yes. But I can understand the choice a writer would make to go with ‘unexplained healing power’ then 35 minute explanation of chi to an audience that wasn’t quite new agey enough at the time to get it.

    I actually find it a bit more racist and odd that so many Chinese actors starred in Memoirs of a Geisha.

    My heart goes out on your experience growing up. Especially growing up in Bama. Ugh. As a white nerdy guy, the only common ground I can find with you is that people didn’t even quote a character at me. They just called me a fag. I would have rather they called me ‘Ducky.’


  4. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @Scraylo: You’ll have to help me out. You don’t mean Ducky from Land Before Time, do you? ‘Cause that’s the only Ducky I know, yep yep yep.


  5. Bill #

    —“Do content producers have any responsibility to portray enthnic minorities in non-stereotypical roles?”—



  6. lee OTI Staff #

    If Jackie Chan does get cast as Mr. Miyagi. I would hope that he would deliver his lines in his normal English speaking voice; that is, accented, but not crazily so, and with a few grammatical errors here and there:

    In other words, typical speech patterns for foreign born immigrants who have lived for many years in America. I would be OK with that, but definitely not the “me no speakee Engreeshee good” over the top stereotype.


  7. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @Mark: I would that if they cast Jackie Chan or Stephen Chow (the other front runner), they’d make a totally new character with a Chinese name and background. Maybe I’ve played too much “All Look Same” on the website of the same name, but they do not look Japanese.


  8. Gab #

    So will the Smith kid be learning Kung Fu? If it’s set in China, and karate is Japanese… See? I was the first to mention _Memoirs of a Geisha_, thank you very much (in the first Miyagi post), and this is just as bad, if not worse. How can they call it _The KARATE Kid_ if he’s going to be in CHINA?! It sounds more like a bad knockoff, like _Never Back Down_, but they’re trying to play on the popularity and success of the original by calling it a “remake.”


  9. lee OTI Staff #

    So they’ll call it…uh, _Kung Fu Kid_ instead?


  10. Jim #

    I though maybe it was also about stereotyping the Americans. A small representation of how we are viewed around the world. Impatient, demanding instant gratification, no respect for elders and tradition, shallow, etc….maybe it was necessary to make the contrasts heightened.


  11. Gab #

    Nice, Lee. Would the catch-phrase from this one be, “Sma-boosh,” or something?

    Jim: I like the idea, but I don’t think that’s what they were going for. If they wanted to make Americans look bad, they would have emphasized THEIR flaws or stereotypical behavior, making the characters satirical. The movie was in no way meant to be satire. A socio-economic commentary, yes, but not in the form of satire.


  12. fenzel #

    Daniel isn’t just stereotyping Americans, he’s stereotyping people from New Jersey. That much is clear.


  13. Insight #

    Me thinks you are over-thinking this. ‘Still, I cringed at a lot of the acting in this movie, not the least of which was the stereotypical white supremacist bad guy dialog/acting. I thought the voice over worked well in an American accent and didn’t afford me any insights about deeper subtexts. Except that I’d prefer Miyagi to speak in an American accent, and the bad guys to have been a little less ridiculous.


  14. fenzel #

    @ Insight – “Me thinks you are over-thinking this.”

    This is an accurate statement, although somewhat of a tautology.


  15. Hazel #

    As Insight said above, changing the accent for the clip didn’t make the scene any less funny to me – I think the basic idea of waxing cars to gain martial arts prowess is hilarious in and of itself. Changing the voice might even have helped the clip, because now I can clearly understand what Morita is saying.

    I don’t associate “wax on, wax off” with Asian-ness so much as with awesomeness. But then again, I’m not an Asian-American. No one’s ever tried to use that phrase on me like it means they know something about me.

    But there’s probably a deeper reason why I don’t associate the phrase “wax on wax off” with being Asian: the first time I ever heard the phrase on the silver screen was when Alan Rickman used it in _Dogma_ in his role as the Voice of God. I didn’t see any of the _Karate Kid_ films until I was well into my 20s, so every time I heard the phrase it was someone quoting it – and aside from that first British offering, everyone said it in flawless American. I guess I don’t count for the representative sample, though.


  16. Linus #

    I grew up an asian kid in Alabama in the 80’s so Bruce Lee and Long Duk Dong (16 candles) imitations were the bane of my existence.
    I mean..come on.. Long Duk Dong? Only a white guy would comeup with something like that… probably threw a pornstar into metal pot

    I actually met Gedde Watanabe at a yard sale a year ago in LA. What a sweet guy. It got me thinking.. I bet he got a ton of shit from the mainstream and asians alike.. and all that pent up stuff just went away..
    and now, I’m a fan.. why not?

    Ladies and gentlemen..reintroducing Long Duk Dong:


  17. Francis Hwang #

    I don’t know … lots of first-generation immigrants have accents in real life. I’m Korean-American, and have met plenty of first-gen Korean immigrants with thicker accents than what Mr. Miyagi has.

    I think it’s a matter of who’s perceiving it. If you were an open-minded person, you wouldn’t think an accent makes a person stupid or funny, you’d just think it means they’re from another place. If you were, say, a redneck, you’d think it’s another way to make fun of someone who isn’t a redneck, because apparently you’re narrow-minded and scared of the world.

    It’s not absurd to me that Mr. Miyagi has the accent he has. If anything, it seems statistically more likely than the idea that he would speak with no accent at all. Those of us who are Asian immigrants: Why should we be ashamed of our parents’ and grandparents’ accents? Why should we want that hidden in films that depict us? Yeah, so some people will tease us for that. But that’s because they’re fucking morons. And that’s more their problem than ours.


  18. Gab #

    Francis Hwang: I’m not Asian-American, but I’m still going to respond.

    I think the “assimilation” thing has already been brought up. Dominant culture doesn’t want to accept what is in any way different, and it is in the power to articulate the rules of the game when anyone DOES try to get “in.” My mother was raised “white” in CA, even though her father grew up on the reservation in South Dakota. She was told not to talk about but instead hide her Native ancestry and try to come across as “white” as possible while growing up, lest she become an outcast and not gain acceptance from others. Bottom line, it isn’t as though minorities *should* be ashamed, but they are conditioned to *THINK* they should. An accent is a sure-fire way to stand out on top of any physical appearance traits that make a person “other” than the dominant culture. This doesn’t just occur in the U.S. with white v. everybodyelse, either

    Oh, and using “rednecks” as a metaphor wasn’t very nice or effective. Don’t fling name-calling around when trying to defend yourself- it’s just as ignorant and close-minded as what you’re claiming is in the wrong.



  19. Francis Hwang #

    Well, my use of the word “redneck” certainly isn’t a metaphor. It’s a way to describe willfully ignorant white people. It’s definitely not meant kindly. It’s meant to convey disdain and disrespect, and if that’s what comes across, then I think I’m using the word in the proper way. If you’re saying that I should be speaking in a more magnanimous manner about people who mindlessly use their majority position to make other people feel bad about their accents, the color of their skin or the shape of their eyes, this may be an area where we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

    And, yes, minorities are taught that they should be ashamed of their accents, their dialects, their skin color, etc. Of course they are. I’m saying that ought to get past that. I’m saying that there is nothing to be ashamed of in Mr. Miyagi’s accent. Yes, other people will use that accent to make fun of you if you’re a minority. I’m saying those other people are wrong and stupid, and that minorities should learn to have thicker skins about it, instead of letting the actions of stupid people get them down.


  20. Rebecca #

    So, am I a redneck because I’m from West Virginia, because I have an accent, because I’ve been hunting, because I’ve grown my own food…? Francis, are you aware of the historical origins of the word redneck and what it means to those who self-identify as such? Or are you just repeating in short form the old argument my dad heard growing up in Detroit, that there are blacks and then there are n*****s? Are there whites, and then rednecks? If you want to refer to willfully ignorant white people, why didn’t you just say ‘willfully ignorant white people’?

    I don’t identify as a redneck, but being from WV I recognize that large numbers of the rest of the country would certainly consider me such, without ever getting to know me, and so your use of the word really hurt my feelings. Isn’t it interesting how this has happened in a discussion of minority and race issues? This word, which I do not apply to myself, had the power to hurt me based on what others think about it and me and my place of origin.


  21. Francis Hwang #

    Well, I’ve never used “redneck” to simply describe someone from West Virginia or someone who hunts, and I don’t think anyone in my multiethnic circle of friends uses it that way either. I’ll grant that some people use it in a classist or elitist sense, and that using it (especially in a forum of strangers) can be pretty distracting. So, sorry about any misconception, and I’ll try to steer clear of it.

    But I continue to find it strange that people describe words like “chink” or “redneck” or slanty-eyed jokes to be hurtful. Once you’re an adult, and you’re off the playground, mostly people can only hurt your feelings if you let them. The world’s a diverse, complex place, which means people are going to hold a wide variety of opinions, and a lot of those opinions are stupid. I’ve always found it easier to learn to write off those people than to try to make them care about my feelings.

    Walking around the streets of Minneapolis as an adult, I occasionally got “ching chong” comments from either 1) midwestern farm boys who’d come into the city for the night or 2) the occasional black person from the city itself. Was it a hassle? Sure it was. Did it hurt my feelings? No. Those people don’t know me. When they say stupid things like that, it reflects more on their ignorance than on anything about who I am.

    So, again, if ignorant white people are trying to use a Mr. Miyagi accent to make me feel bad about being Asian, why should I let that make me feel bad? I don’t have an accent (I moved here when I was one), but I have many people in my life who have accents, and they’re brave and smart and loving people. Having an accent is nothing to be ashamed of. In “Karate Kid”, Mr. Miyagi is an admirable, heroic character. Real life heroes have accents all the time, so why can’t Mr. Miyagi have one?


  22. Rebecca #

    Thank you for clearing that up, Francis. I appreciate it. I still don’t agree with using a label meaning farmer to talk about some folks who may or may not be farmers, but I have a final tomorrow and would rather distract myself with more discussion of Mr. Miyagi. :-)

    I think that the problem some people are having with Mr. Miyagi’s accent is that it doesn’t come from just some person but from a movie studio, and they’re known for perpetuating racism. The accent isn’t It’s not that accents are bad, it’s that this particular instance of an accent seems to be being used to emphasize the otherness of Miyagi–and I should state that I don’t agree with this ‘reading’. I am utterly biased by a huge childhood crush on Mr. Miyagi, I think his accent makes sense for his story, and I think racists are notorious for taking innocent things like accents and swastikas and making them unusable or objects of ridicule.


  23. Gab #

    So Francis, it’s ok for you to use “redneck” to stereotype “ignorant white people,” but it’s NOT ok for them to say “ching chong” at you? See, that’s the problem I have with it, it’s hypocritical. That’s why I said you shouldn’t fling insults. All you’re doing is mirroring the behavior you are trying to condemn. Even if being jibed at was just an annoyance for you and not necessarily hurtful, isn’t that enough incentive not to do it to others?

    And sure, adults should have the gumption and emotional capacity/development to handle insults, but not everyone does. Since a lot of things in society run on LCD standards (why should killing be officially illegal, after all? it *should* go without saying), no one, minority or not, should walk around, shouting epithets or saying things they know have the potential to hurt people. That’s being a decent, compassionate human being.

    And no, I don’t think anyone on this forum thinks a person *should* hide their accent or aspects of their culture. My generation is being encouraged to embrace its Native heritage out in the open, rather than hide like our parents and grandparents; and I’ve seen lots of encouragement of other minority groups to do the same. I have no problems with accents, and I doubt most people on an individual basis do, either. But again, the rules of those in power reject anything “other,” so accents are made fun of and used as points of ridicule for those with the potential to be “otherized” at all. It IS bullshit, yes.

    But I think I’ll raise a new question: POSITIVE stereotyping. The over-done accent Miyagi has is generally a negative stereotype, yeah? But what about how commercials use people with British accents to try to make them sound “smarter” or something? French accents to sound fancy? Etc.? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?


  24. Gab #

    How’s this?

    “It is not necessary that the eagles should be crows.”- Sitting Bull

    K, done.


  25. Germ #

    I grew up in florida in the 90’s. I was a member of the Tampa Bay chinese youth club, my clique in high school was called the “chinese mafia”, did I mention that I am white? I learned to love “the smelly food” cooking in the kitchen. I loved the chinese (and vietnamese) New Year celebrations. No I did not go to a mostly asian school, they were the people that took me in. I did not see any of these stereo types portrayed to any of my friends (except joking amongst the clique). I learned a lot from those days. How many other white kids do you know that learned enough mandarin or vietnamese to be able to talk to the parents in their own language (even if it was just small amounts)? I guess I just don’t agree with the article.


  26. sj #

    Very thoughtful post.

    Here are some observations for your consideration.

    First, I’m not Asian. I’m a mutt of Scandinavian/Spanish/American Indian descent. I’ve studied various martial arts, Eastern and Western, for 40 years. By coincidence, my first teacher (ju jitsu) was an elderly Japanese gentleman. While he spoke Oxfordian English that would be the envy of any Shakespearean actor, he did, at casual times dress in what I learned was traditional Japanese attire. He also had a hot tub (ofuro, if I recall) in his home that salved many a bump and bruise.

    I also once had a teacher who was French and, for reasons of his own, was determined NOT to speak English any more than absolutely necessary. Mr. Myagi was class valedictorian by comparison.

    Had several teachers who were Korean, and Chinese (and another who was Japanese and spoke NO English at all). While there way have been moments when there was a humorous language crunch, I can tell you that there was nothing “comical” about any of these men.

    I don’t think the wax on wax off scene is humorous. I don’t think it was meant to be. And I think your pot-dubbed version would work (with a little technical tweaking) just a well as the original. Would be interesting to do, as an experiment, perhaps.

    As far as humor goes, what’s REALLY fun is to see Anglo students lead a class and mimic the broken English, accent and tone of the Korean Instructor — and do it with the most hyper-inflated seriousness. A Mr. Myagi Wannbe…

    I’m not a big fan of racial bigoty.
    I don’t think Big Chief Nokahoma is a salute to indigenous peoples. I’m aware we don’t have sport teams like the Boston Micks or the New York Kikes or the Chicago Polacks.

    But sometimes it’s stereo-type, sometimes it’s arch-type and sometimes it’s character.

    Don’t overthink it, too much.

    All the best,



  27. Gab #

    Alright, SJ- As a fellow American Indian (among other things) mutt, I must ask: how do you feel about the Washington Redskins or the Kansas City Chiefs or the Cleveland Indians? Names and/or mascots.


  28. lee OTI Staff #

    “But sometimes it’s stereo-type, sometimes it’s arch-type and sometimes it’s character.”

    On stereotypes: I’m not saying that ethnic stereotypes as characters are always bad. Rather, there’s a spectrum: on one end is the horrific “Mr. Wong” internet cartoon that was briefly popular years ago:

    The other end of the spectrum is more tasteful, less exaggerated, and critical to the storyline in a realistic way, but it’s tougher to define. Perhaps stereotypes of Italian Americans in “The Godfather?” Perhaps Mr. Miyagi?

    My point is that all along the spectrum, you’ll find different levels of offensiveness. Unfortunately, portrayals of Asian Americans on the “Mr. Wong” end of the spectrum are far more common and less outrage-producing that those of other ethnic groups.

    See also the Sales Genie panda bear commercial that aired *during the Super Bowl*

    My Angry Asian Man Rage is far more directed to Mr. Wong and the Sales Genie Pandas than Mr. Miyagi. In the case of what I described above in the post, it’s more directed to a culture that doesn’t know how to process otherness in a constructive way.


  29. Kozz #

    Lee, that’s great stuff. I think I like your version even better — I didn’t realize how distracting the “bad stereotypical accent” could be. Could you finish the voiceover for the remainder of the movie and send it my way?


  30. Miagi Appologist #

    It’s a well thought out article, and your point is certainly well taken–but it’s also an argument for censorship of anyone as being depicted as anything other than mainstream assimilated American.

    I can’t imagine your difficulty assimilating into American culture was somehow made more difficult by Wax on Wax off. Annoying, sure, but huge swaths of the population who before the movie knew nothing about an entire population, now knew something! Granted, it was wrong, but previously there had been no mainstream exposure at all, making the entire group an unknowable Other.

    Besides, promoting the idea that works of art should watch themselves in case they somehow make those who enjoyed and connected with their content into jerks is madness. Certainly, running places has become significantly more annoying since the release of Forest Gump. (It’s dropped off, thank God) But that’s not somehow a flaw of the movie, but just the nature of jerks.


Add a Comment