What Mr. Miyagi Taught Me About Anti-Asian Racism in America
We Asians were in this thing—racist America—together.
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The Karate Kid
The Karate KidResedaEncinoCobra Kai
The Karate Kid
After watching The Karate Kid, my family went home and had ice cream. In the long hours of sunlight, we helped ourselves from the gallon buckets of bargain butter pecan that my mom sometimes got and brought our bowls out to the front stoop. I remember this because it was a rare moment: the quiet enjoyment of the ice cream, the shared enjoyment of the movie. We had loved it because the hero had triumphed.
We lived in a working-class neighborhood and our house sat at the foot of a hilled street. There wasn’t much traffic but still I had nightmares that a car would barrel down that hill and right into our living room. It wasn’t until years later, long after we moved, that I would wonder who the hero of the movie was: Daniel or Mr. Miyagi? My dad was thirty-eight years old when we first saw that movie. Did he identify with Daniel, or did he identify with Mr. Miyagi?
Thirty-four years after The Karate Kid, Cobra Kai debuted on YouTube Red and then on Netflix; the third season is out now. The show begins with that 1984 karate tournament: young Johnny, defeated on the mat, morphs into today’s haggard, destroyed-by-life Johnny who falls asleep surrounded by beer cans and potato chips. In The Karate Kid, Daniel LaRusso was the poor, dark-haired underdog; Johnny Lawrence was the rich, blond karate champ. Now they’re fifty-two years old and their fortunes have reversed: Daniel owns a chain of car dealerships and gives bonsai trees to every customer. Johnny lives in a trashed apartment, can’t keep a job, and bitterly drives his Pontiac Firebird past a giant billboard advertising LaRusso Auto Group: We Kick the Competition.
Cobra Kai asks us to feel for Johnny, a guy who grew up rich but resents it, a guy who regularly uses the word pussies to describe people. He and Daniel keep circling each other, keep spurring each other on. They go right back to their high school selves. Johnny reboots the Cobra Kai karate dojo where he once trained. Daniel reboots Miyagi-Do karate. Neither can resist the lure of their rivalry. Daniel takes in a wayward teenager named Robby who turns out to be Johnny’s estranged son. Johnny starts teaching karate to a teenager named Miguel who lives in the same apartment complex, almost as if Johnny has become a version of Mr. Miyagi and Miguel a version of young Daniel. Even the romantic rivalry in The Karate Kid—Daniel and Johnny fighting over Ali Mills—is replicated as Daniel’s daughter Samantha ends up torn between Robby and Miguel.
This repurposing is blatant pandering, and it works. It’s deeply satisfying. The actress who played Daniel’s mother in the movie now plays his mother in the show. Johnny’s old karate pals reappear. His former sensei, Kreese, not only appears but ends up dominating the storylines of seasons two and three. And eventually both of Daniel’s love interests return: Ali from The Karate Kid and Kumiko from The Karate Kid Part II.
Cobra Kai was made for people like me, Gen Xers who remember long summers absent of parental supervision or the internet, school pictures with big hair and laser light backdrops, a certain kind of neon green. We have become exactly what we once made fun of: people who listen to oldies music on purpose (because ’80s music is now oldies), who can be manipulated by an ’80s song in a scene or montage, who in fact welcome the manipulation. Maybe it’s all we’re asking for: Take my past and make it feel alive again.
But usually when we identify with characters in our youth they stay there, fixed in a time and place while we go on living and changing. The beauty of rewatching and rereading is that the texts stay the same while we change. To see characters suddenly catch up with us after thirty-five years as if they were there all along, just living their lives off-screen, is part mirror, part thrill, part terror. It is a reminder of how time ruins us all.
The Karate Kid is one of those movies that forever ties me to where I started. That theater, that town, my family sitting on the cement steps of our house, the house that none of my white friends wanted to go into because they were afraid of my grandmother and the Vietnamese food she cooked. I was neither Daniel nor Mr. Miyagi but, like both of them, I stood out for reasons I couldn’t change. Even when I wasn’t the new kid, it always felt like I was. I counted the days and years until I could leave.
Pat Morita died in 2005 but his iconic character, Mr. Miyagi, lives on through flashbacks in Cobra Kai. He is the ghost and ghost-heart of the show, because Daniel LaRusso’s entire life has been shaped by Mr. Miyagi’s teaching. He visits Mr. Miyagi’s grave; he turns Mr. Miyagi’s old house and garden into a new dojo; eventually, he goes to Mr. Miyagi’s hometown in Okinawa. It is clear that Daniel considers himself Mr. Miyagi’s son.
Of course, Daniel is not Japanese. One of the smartest moments in Cobra Kai happens in season two, when Daniel gets called out on social media for appropriation after running ads for Miyagi-Do classes. Daniel LaRacist, someone calls him. He’s outraged, but the moment passes. I kept waiting for it to return; I keep hoping it does. Because it’s a question that looms over the show: What does Daniel have a right to claim?
A scene I remembered so vividly from childhood is Daniel and Mr. Miyagi returning to his truck after a morning of karate practice on a beach and finding two white guys there, drinking. One of them throws racist slurs at Mr. Miyagi, who then slices off the necks of their beer bottles with his bare hand. When Daniel asks how he did that, Mr. Miyagi smiles and says, “Don’t know. First time.”
But like most movies that sanctimoniously point out racism, The Karate Kid shows no awareness of its own. Mr. Miyagi was born in Okinawa and emigrated to the United States when he was around the age Daniel was in that teenage karate tournament against Johnny Lawrence. He worked in Hawaiian cane fields, attended the University of California, Santa Barbara, and was later incarcerated with thousands of other Japanese Americans during World War II. He joined the army, was part of the 442nd Infantry Regiment, and received the Medal of Honor. And yet, decades later, he still spoke in broken English?
The Karate Kid movies and now Cobra Kai continue the expected Asian stereotype: Mr. Miyagi is mystical, shadowy, and strange. He often speaks in fortune-cookie aphorisms. Anyone who has seen The Karate Kid knows that pivotal moment when Mr. Miyagi claps his hands together and heals Daniel enough so he can continue in the tournament.
The scene that upset me the most in 1984 still upsets me today: when Daniel finds Mr. Miyagi at home, drunk, wearing his army uniform. Mr. Miyagi falls asleep sobbing, holding the old telegram that informed him that his wife and son had died in childbirth at Manzanar. We see Daniel realizing that he knows almost nothing about Mr. Miyagi’s life.
Mr. Miyagi is the perpetual foreigner who exists to serve the whiteness that surrounds him. This is still his role even in death, because Mr. Miyagi’s real self doesn’t matter. Asian identity doesn’t, either. It’s karate moves and pan flute music and chaste, austere ideas about inner peace. It’s sushi and bonsai. And it is all for the consumption, profit, triumph, and gain of white people.
As an Asian person, a Vietnamese American woman, I have spent my entire life watching and reading characters who don’t look like me. I am well practiced in identifying with and even loving characters, places, and worlds in which I would not exist or be allowed to enter except as a joke. Not just the obvious ones, like Jane Austen’s England, but almost every TV show I watched, growing up. Every person of color knows how to navigate this. It is an ability to immerse oneself while being shrouded in awareness and deliberate denial. It is a constant moving past, a constant state of forgiveness until you reach a breaking point.
I got to that point in season two of Cobra Kai. While season one allowed me the euphoria of nostalgia, seasons two and three reminded me of why nostalgia is so dangerous. Daniel’s focus on Miyagi-Do karate is self-absorbed and self-righteous. Mr. Miyagi is a constant stereotype and prop. And Johnny is yet another toxic white guy who gets endless second chances. He’s the guy who gets to be sexist and racist because hey that’s just who he is, and who are you to tell him what to do? He doesn’t believe in rules, he hates weakness, and he can teach an injured teenager how to walk again far better and faster than any health care professional. (How? Just dangle an old copy of Playboy in front of the kid!) This characterization of masculinity is all too familiar on a national scale.
Why are we supposed to root for a guy like Johnny, who keeps getting help and squandering it? Why are we supposed to feel bad for this guy who grew up with immense privilege, and who still has so much privilege because he’s still a white guy, even though he believes the world is against him? We’re supposed to think he’s cute and funny, a good guy, just because he listens to ’80s rock bands and doesn’t know how to use Facebook or hashtags?
In real life, we are asked to do this all the time: give these guys another chance. Understand their lives and points of view even though they don’t care about ours. And we do. We court their votes. Help them out. Listen to their sorrows and their histories. Even worse, season three of Cobra Kai asks us to understand Kreese, Johnny’s former sansei who wants to turn students into soulless killers. The show flashes back to Kreese’s time in the Viet Nam War to explain how he became the villain he is today (basically: Blame the Asians). And no matter how much understanding he is given, he is certain that he has suffered more than others; he feels that more is owed to him. He gets more and more space, more and more of the story, but it’s never enough.
The two white guys who beat Vincent Chin to death in Detroit in 1982 were sentenced to probation, no jail time, and a $3,000 fine. One of them, Ronald Ebens, is now eighty-one years old. He has avoided paying Chin’s family the settlement awarded in a civil suit. He is quoted in a 2012 interview saying, “It was ridiculous then, it’s ridiculous now.” In March 2021, six Asian women were murdered in Atlanta by a young white man. A police officer describes the murderer as “having a really bad day.” Is there no extreme that does not make whiteness the sympathetic center?
If you’re an Asian American who came of age or consciousness in the 1980s, you forever feel shame about the depiction of Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles, though of course it’s John Hughes who should feel the shame. You might cringe to remember the magical bodyguard named Punjab in the movie Annie. The racism in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. You might remember seeing Breakfast at Tiffany’s for the first time and feeling stunned, unprepared for the yellowface of Mickey Rooney. And you watched, if you could stand it, the violence against so many Asian bodies in Hollywood movies about the white man’s war in Viet Nam. Why is it that, for most of my life, when Asian people are on a TV or movie screen it’s because they’re being used, tokenized, laughed at, assaulted, or killed?
Is there no extreme that does not make whiteness the sympathetic center?
So you maybe then felt exhilarated seeing Dustin Nguyen play an actually complex and not-secondary character in the original 21 Jump Street series. You maybe looked for more such depictions, but secretly, because you also knew there was no sense in hoping, because Asians were usually on-screen for “exotic” flair or for laughs.
In 1984, Mr. Miyagi on The Karate Kid was as good as we Asians were allowed to have in America. A big mainstream blockbuster movie with an Asian man as one of the stars: Be content with a little progress at a time, is what I’ve been told for so many years.
Gen X is the last generation that remembers life before the internet. At this point, we are at or beyond middle age. We are the lives that we have made. This makes us perfect marks for nostalgia. And Cobra Kai makes the mistake that most white-driven shows make: It ties nostalgia to whiteness. It gives us the token Black student, the token Asian student, that one, stereotypical Latinx family as signs of progress. As if it’s okay that the series is built on erasure, racism, appropriation, and people of color in service roles, because the original storyline was too. In the middle of season three, Daniel says, “I am the same age now that Mr. Miyagi was when he met me.” This realization could have become a moment of interrogation or possibility, but it passes. Because the show, like the movie, was never really about Mr. Miyagi.
I still have dreams about that house my family lived in when I was ten years old. It’s where I learned how to be more than one self. At home, no one talked about racism or about being Asian. We never even used that word, Asian. At school and in the neighborhood, my white friends pretended I was one of them and I did too. But secretly, I was just waiting to grow up and get out of there.
“Where’d all that time go?” one of Johnny’s friends asks in season two of Cobra Kai. He means what happened to the promise of their youth, but, of course, they have no answer. Maybe there was no promise. Maybe they wasted it. Maybe we all do. The show is filled with ludicrous and tedious karate fights, perhaps as a way to acknowledge that the real fight is useless because it’s a fight against time.
The best moment of Cobra Kai, the one that speaks to 1984 me in that movie theater and to every me thereafter watching The Karate Kid on TV and on streaming, watching until it all became too painful to watch again, happens in season one. It’s Johnny test-driving a car from LaRusso Auto, Daniel in the passenger seat. The 1981 hit “Take It on the Run” is on the radio. “You like Speedwagon?” Johnny asks, and Daniel says, “What kind of man doesn’t?” The two start singing along: You take it on the run, baby, if that’s the way you want it, baby, then I don’t want you around. This is nostalgia pandering 101: Bring opposites together with a shared terrible song. I know that song. I hear it a lot more than I ever thought I would, considering I lived through the 1980s. The lyrics are embedded in my consciousness. I, too, sing along.
Daniel and Johnny stop at The South Seas, Daniel’s old apartment building. He remembers moving there, remembers the never-filled swimming pool. Then the guys go to a bar where Johnny drinks Coors Banquets and Daniel drinks martinis. Daniel learns that Johnny’s stepfather was abusive and Johnny learns that Daniel’s father died when he was eight. They talk about Ali, who is now a pediatric surgeon in Denver. They sit in this dim bar and drink the day away and for a few minutes it feels like friendship and forgiveness are possible, like that moment in the movie when a defeated Johnny hands Daniel the winner’s trophy.
Cobra Kai asks us to root for both guys. It asks for both sympathy and outrage, as if it were possible to be an underdog and top dog at the same time. It keeps asking if they can work things out, work together. If I find myself pulled into this, wanting Daniel and Johnny to be friends, it’s because I, too, want the past to be reconcilable.
In dreams, in real life, in street-view maps, I sometimes revisit the place where my family once lived, at the foot of a hilled street in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I don’t know how to make sense of what it was and what it is. I am always relieved that the house still exists, happy to see that the plum tree I used to climb is still there, now enormous. And it all fills me with a deep sadness that I cannot measure.
It’s painful to remember who I was, how little I knew, how far I would have to go in order to return to this. That we can spend decades building an escape, and then turn right back around to see the beginning.
Beth (Bich Minh) Nguyen is the author of the memoir Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, the novel Short Girls, and the novel Pioneer Girl. Her work has received an American Book Award and a PEN/Jerard Award and has been published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The New York Times, Literary Hub, and numerous anthologies.