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72 Years After Japanese Internment Camps, ‘Karate Kid’ Still Teaches The Importance Of Fathers


If you look at the facts about the vast majority of the deeply troubled men who shoot up schools, you will find a pattern: They are generally fatherless. I found part of the antidote to this deep wound in a surprising place, a small film from 1984: “The Karate Kid.”

This is not meant to be satirical or flippant in any way. Nothing about this problem is funny. “The Karate Kid” is a relatively straightforward coming of age and sports film. Boy is a fish out of water. Boy meets girl. Boy meets bullies. Boy finds mentor. Boy gets girl. Boy beats bullies. Pat Morita gets nominated for an Academy Award.

Wait, what? “The Karate Kid” was recognized at the Academy Awards? Morita (1932-2005) was nominated for best supporting actor for his role as Kesuke Miyagi. This was famously highlighted by an episode of “Community,” where Jason Mantzoukas gives this breathtaking monologue: “’The Karate Kid’ is about Kesuke Miyagi, an immigrant who fought against his own people in World War II while his wife lost a child in an internment camp. Noriyuki Morita was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance. Ralph Macchio [who played the boy] SHOWED UP.”

This is played for laughs in the episode, but it made me realize I had lost respect for this wonderful film. It’s easy for film snobs like me to deride it. “The Karate Kid” is riddled with clichés. Its depiction of “karate” makes “Rocky” look like a boxing documentary. And unlike the wonderful score of that film, also directed by John Avildsen, “Karate Kid” is full of corny ‘80s montage music. From start to finish, it’s highly predictable.

But when all is said and done, the heartbeat that drives this film may be stronger now than it was in 1984. For all its superficial flaws, this film overflows with timeless wisdom for how to raise good men.

A Story about Unrequited Fatherhood and Sonship

As Mantzoukas pointed out, the story really is about Mr. Miyagi. The final frame before the credits roll is his gentle, smiling face. If Daniel LaRusso was the hero, then why didn’t it end with him? Because this story is actually about unrequited fatherhood.

The “Community” speech points out that Mrs. Miyagi lost the couple’s baby due to a lack of medical care, but fails to mention that she died as well. This is revealed in the scene that almost certainly earned Morita his nomination. On his wedding anniversary, Miyagi mourns and remembers his wife by putting on his Army uniform and drinking with her portrait. Daniel finds him drunk but still lucid.

Daniel: Sergeant Miyagi!

Miyagi: [as self] Yes, sir! Sergeant Miyagi report to kill many jerry Germans, sir!

[Miyagi laughs, staggers toward the bed, and picks up an old telegram]

Miyagi: Sergeant Miyagi.

Miyagi: Yes, sir.

Miyagi: Regret to inform… wife have…

Miyagi: [starts crying] Complications at birth, sir. Complications. But no doctor come.

Miyagi: [groan of immense sorrow] Land of Free, Home of Brave.

Miyagi: [sobbing] No doctor come. No doctor come.

Miyagi was robbed of his entire world by President Franklin Roosevelt’s racist policies towards Japanese-Americans. When Daniel comes into his life, it’s as significant and important for him as an old man as his mentorship will be for the young man. This is the central theme of “The Karate Kid”: The importance of virtuous fatherhood.

LaRusso does not have a father. His mom is raising him by herself. Miyagi does not have a son. He is an old man who lives alone. Speaking as a man who cannot father children, I can tell you that the desire to be a father to a child, particularly a son, is very strong. It is primordial—or, to use a more Christian and philosophical term, teleological.

It’s not that we don’t want daughters or that we think sons are more valuable. But a son is a continuation of yourself in a different way than anything else a man does. As Jor-El, Superman’s father, said to his son: “You will be different, sometimes you’ll feel like an outcast, but you’ll never be alone. You will make my strength your own. You will see my life through your eyes, as your life will be seen through mine. The son becomes the father and the father becomes the son.”

This theme is brought to the forefront of “Karate Kid” almost every time Mr. Miyagi does anything that seems wonderful to Daniel. He asks, “Where did you learn how to do that?” Mr. Miyagi’s reply is always the same: “My father.” At one point Daniel finally says, “You must have had some father, man.” Miyagi replies “Oh, yes.”

The old man is finally able to pass on to someone what his old man passed on to him. He teaches Daniel karate, but he also teaches him how to fish, to trim banzai trees, the importance of menial labor, and, most importantly, moral wisdom.

Teaching a Child to Tend to His Soul

This film is essentially an argument for the importance of fatherhood. Daniel faces one of the hardest things that any boy will: being physically bullied. But the story doesn’t tell us he has to be tough. It doesn’t say, “Have high self-esteem and stick up for yourself,” or to run to a teacher or a cop. Those are the solutions of men without chests.

The fates bring Daniel a father when he needs one, and his adopted father teaches him that ultimately life is about what you choose to do, not about what others do to you. Externalities are external. Internalities drive our actual choices. Our internal world determines how we relate to the external. Or, as Jesus put it: “So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.”

Mr. Miyagi knows the soul must be tended or it will grow malformed. Like a banzai tree, it requires little cuts, little nudges, tiny boundaries to grow beautiful. Like those beautiful little trees, the soul of a young man is not tended by Hillary Clinton’s village. It is tended by one person: the boy’s father.

Of course a child needs two parents. But the mother cannot tend to a boy’s soul directly. A mother teaches her son how to relate to and treat women, and what to expect from women. In other words, she cultivates his external world. A father teaches his son what his internal world should be like.

This is why the classic model of the serial killer is a fatherless boy with a shrewish mother. He has no model for his internal world and believes deep down that all women hate him. So he murders his mother over and over. He doesn’t know how to feel or think, because he has no father and believes that women are his fundamental problem in life.

How Japanese Internment Camps Affected This Theme

This is why Mr. Miyagi says, “No such thing as bad student, only bad teacher. Teacher say, student do.” Of course there are such things as bad students. But he doesn’t mean academic students. He’s saying that the disciple is the product of his rabbi. The son is the product of the father. And when there is no father, the son is the product of whoever or whatever he can find to father him. In this story, LaRusso found Mr. Miyagi. Who knows what the Parkland shooter, and others like him, found.

When there is no father, the son is the product of whoever or whatever he can find to father him.

That isn’t to say the shooter isn’t responsible for murders like that in Parkland, Florida. A lot of people are to blame for that evil incident. Many factors contributed to its reprehensible finale. But one of those factors was absolutely fatherlessness—that shooter lost his father 14 years ago, in 2004. It looks like nothing filled that void, or whatever was there couldn’t change the internal life that led to those ugly externalities.

If anybody ever had cause to shoot up anything, it was Mr. Miyagi. The character is fictional, but he’s a placeholder for the Japanese Americans FDR decided the Bill of Rights didn’t apply to during WWII. March 20 marks the 72nd anniversary of the closing of the last Japanese internment camp. That is the real reason I wrote this: To commemorate a generation of fathers and sons that too often are forgotten in the annals of this nation’s history.

Morita spent time in those camps as a child. So did George Takei. As a young man, he struggled with the idea that our nation did something so evil as deny due process to its citizens based on their ancestry. So he turned to his father for wisdom. He wanted to understand. His father’s explanation was perfect. In what may be the greatest TED talk of all time, Takei recounts it:

The astounding thing is that thousands of young Japanese American men and women again went from behind those barbed wire fences put on the same uniform as our guards leaving their families in imprisonment to fight for this country they said they were going to fight not only to get their families out from behind those barbed wire fences but because they cherished the very ideal of what our government stands for. Should stand for. And that was being abrogated by what was being done…when the war ended the 442nd returned to the United States as the most decorated unit of the entire Second World War. They were greeted out on the White House lawn by president Truman who said to them you fought not only the enemy but prejudice and you won…They are my heroes and my father is my hero who understood democracy and guided me through it.

Fathers for the Fatherless

The solution to our problems as a nation can almost never be found in our government. The American Left romanticizes FDR to this very day. The government interned those patriots because their bloodline was deemed suspicious. In other words, all the rage against unarguably awful things President Trump has said comes from a group that treats FDR like a saint despite FDR carrying out far worse policies in real life. Thankfully, our nation’s capital has his indictment literally written into stone on the war memorial.

Japanese by Blood
Hearts and Minds American
With Honor Unbowed
Bore the String of Injustice
For Future Generations

They did this because the internal life of those patriots of Japanese ancestry was stronger than their externalities. Every hero of the 442nd carried something far more powerful than a gun into battle. They carried in their souls the spirit of their fathers. The root of the word “patriot” comes from the Greek word patris. Patris means father.

There are fatherless children all across this nation, and they need real Mr. Miyagis. They aren’t all going to grow up to become mass murderers. Many of them will be fine. But some of them could grow up to be so much more.

We men need to find a way to father these fatherless—not through a program, but by faithfulness in our communities. That is only possible if we are first internally faithful to God. The external will follow.