Guest Post Martial Arts Television

‘Cobra Kai’ and Cultural Appropriation

by Steven Barnes | Originally posted on his website

Some time back, I watched a documentary about master Fumio Demura, one of the first to bring authentic Japanese karate (Shito-ryu) to the United States. I thought of him because he was Pat Morita’s stunt double for the Karate Kid movies.

One of the things that struck me about the documentary was his struggles to integrate into our culture, his uncertainty about sharing his cultural treasure with us, the degree to which his masters in Japan didn’t really want him sharing (“cultural appropriation,” anyone?) and his superhuman efforts to create not just a life of meaning but to uplift the children of Japan’s former antagonist.

As he is struggling with health issues now, the story is all the more poignant. One of the most affecting portions was his interactions with Pat Morita. Morita adored him, and the respect was fully returned. The “Mr. Miyagi” character was greatly beloved in Demura’s social and professional circles, and Morita was a superstar, the one who had “made it.” They were so happy that he had made it, and his success was a beacon of hope and pride to the Japanese-American community. The love and admiration at a testimonial dinner when Morita took the podium was unmistakable. The shining faces made me so happy.

The “cultural appropriation” question is difficult. While it is true that all social or technological progress is a matter of exchanges between different people, there is also the very real fact that oppressed, dominated, colonized or marginalized people often feel that they have very little that is “theirs,” and it hurts to see that tiny remaining uniqueness diluted or misinterpreted. The fact that it is generally the larger group, often the dominator group, arrogantly asserting their right to take whatever they want is unfortunate.

Those are the polarities, and I can see both positions: the urge to protect, and the reality that we must share.

There is something missing from the Cobra Kai series, and while it is not unrealistic, and I really enjoyed the series, it didn’t hit me until this morning what it was.

Whereas the original movie was about a boy who wanted to find his way to manhood, and a man who needed an apprentice (there are only two stories, some say: the young man grows up, and the old man faces death. Karate Kid touches both), it is also about the beauty of stepping outside your normal reality to see life from a different position. And… the sharing of not just two lives, Daniel Larusso and Nariyoshi Miyagi, a war hero and karate master. They need each other, and the exchanges between them are precious and beautiful.

Daniel learns an Okinawan art of power and grace, and the external Rocky structure of the film isn’t as important as his internal journey.

If I have a problem with Cobra Kai, it is the reality that as martial arts moved away from the first generation, a matter of Japanese and Okinawan immigrants sharing their cultural treasure of body-mind unity with American students, the next generation was of Americans — some studying in the East, others here in America — opening their own schools. No more direct transmission. And while great respect is shown the memory of Miyagi, I cannot help but wish that some of that dynamic could have been maintained.

Now, it is just about Americans teaching Americans, and while there is a little color in the system (a Latino student, a maybe 1/4 black student), it is basically all white people’s issues and challenges.

Again… this is statistically accurate. It is also legitimate. Artists have not just the right but the responsibility to represent their experience. I just… mourn a bit. When the only Asian in the cast is the villain, I flinch.

And while the Japanese community has aged out, and many of their children, most perhaps, see themselves more as Americans than Japanese… that creates a different set of problems when roles that could go to them are “whitewashed,” which happened egregiously as recently as Ghost in the Shell last year. I know it hurts.

To see their images, and roles, and cultural treasures given only to others who often mock their very sense of exclusion. Damn. I have no easy answers here.

If Larusso’s student had been Japanese, that’s a facile reversal that could have backfired… or it could have been beautiful, if handled well. But that could have been criticized too: “oh, look at the white guy who is more Japanese than the Asians…” Sigh. I understand both sides of that as well, and it is painful to realize that this has happened countless times as different cultures collide.

The only real answer I can see is to tell stories with respect and courtesy, with appreciation and understanding, and with both love and the strength to hold your center.

The answer is not just to beg the makers of excellent shows like Cobra Kai to be more sensitive (IMO), but for those who feel they are not represented to learn to express their essence in their art, to work their way into the business, to understand the marketing and sales techniques that allow you to express value to an audience and show them why it is in their interest to buy your wares.

Don’t expect people to care for the sake of caring. That’s not human nature.

If I try to explain the ways in which Infinity War is problematic, black people tend to agree quickly, white people more likely to argue. Who is right? One could say that whites are oblivious. Or that black people are too sensitive.

How about this? If we assume equality, you split the difference: both are true. If the average response from one group is a 5, and of the other a 7, you average them out and get a 6. You go with the “hmmm, there is a little more than I thought… but maybe the other side is being too picky. Or not picky enough.”

But you listen… while continuing to work to speak your truth and live your life the best you can. I’m not sure anyone can do more.

Meanwhile… Cobra Kai is a fine extension of many of the themes that made Karate Kid wonderful. Family, courage, maturity, awakening sexuality, what it means to find something worth fighting for, the power of both love and strength. Connection between generations and the need of a father to find a son and a son to find a father.

It expands those themes a bit, and promises ways that future seasons could go deeper, explore more. The martial arts, like all profound disciplines, are metaphors for all of life. The west doesn’t have much of this body-mind stuff, arguably because the best of them, those that deal with death itself, have been supplanted as “technologies of defense” by firearms, and possibly the Cartesian body-mind split that has done so much damage to our Self-concept.

We need it. And… we went and got it. Yoga, Karate, Tai Chi, and so forth. Amazing, profound technologies that can take you all the way to genuine knowledge. They are ours now, no doubt about it. We have our own masters. And have not just the right but the responsibility to teach our children to live within our world with integrity and grace and power and love.

And… eventually, if we go deeply enough, we are asking those two questions: “Who am I?” and “What is true?”

The answer to those questions always takes us to the unity of the human experience, and the concept of Num: one soul looking out through many eyes.

The snarky folks complaining about Cultural Appropriation are, IMO, mostly just protecting their right to be what they want to be and do what they want to do, and screw you.

But those who appropriate with respect are being what human beings have always been at their best: respectful but moving forward beyond boundaries and dualities, sharing and listening and learning. Always remembering that there really can be pain on the other side of the issue… but also that, as the Japanese community applauded for Pat Morita, proud that he was bringing their treasure to the American public… there is also joy.

No room for snark here.  But much room to celebrate how many ways there are to be human. It’s what we do.

Do it gently, with love.


Steven Barnes is a New York Times bestselling, award-winning novelist and screenwriter who is the creator of the Lifewriting™ writing course, which he has taught nationwide. He has won an NAACP Image Award as co-author of the Tennyson Hardwick mystery series with actor Blair Underwood and his wife, Tananarive Due. For an overview of his 20-plus novels, visit Amazon.com. Steve’s true love is teaching balance and enhancing human performance in all forms: emotional, professional and physical. In addition to being an author and writing instructor, he is also a life coach, CST coach, and certified hypnotist.

3 comments

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful piece.

    A friend’s father – a white man of Scandinavian origin – was a linguist specializing in certain Native American languages of Northern California. Many of these languages were (and are) on the brink of extinction along with their native cultures. He spent his career learning and preserving these languages. Later, when the elders he had learned from died, he found himself teaching these languages to the young.

    It must have been odd for those young people to have to learn their own tribe’s language from a white man. But he learned and shared from genuine passion. He used his privilege and resources to do what the tribes were denied the ability to do for themselves. Hopefully the next generation will be stronger for it.

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  2. Here’s another thing that is, IMO, lost on the author and many other people. Imitation is the highest form of flattery. With the extremely rare exception, people from different cultures adopt the food/art/forms of expression/etc of other cultures because they like these things. They don’t do it to be disrespectful, they do it because that food/art/whatever is something that they find wonderful and beautiful. To adopt and/or imitate another cultures creations is a show of love for what that culture created. At the same time, human beings are influenced by their own backgrounds and the culture that they grew up with. So when they find something in another culture that they like, they will attempt to recreate/reproduce that item/etc, but most of them, having very little experience with the other culture will do it imperfectly and/or will substitute aspects from their own culture in their attempts at reproduction (or just to put their own ideas into it so that they can identify with it as something unique but influenced by something they really liked/loved from another culture).

    All of this shouting and screaming about “Don’t appropriate my culture!!!!” needs to stop. The main reason people shout and scream that is because they have been taught from a very young age that someone “appropriating” their culture is a horrible thing, when in fact it isn’t. They have their vision of the issue, clouded. They are programmed to look at it as hate, when in reality it is about love.

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  3. The problem with cultural appropriation is the dominant white culture loves the creation, but not the creator. I.E. “Martial arts are cool and intriguing. Let’s tell a story about white martial artists.” This is especially prevalent in movies regarding the Civil Rights Era. There are way too many films talking about African-American issues from a white person’s perspective. I.E. Mississippi Burning, A Time to Kill, The Help. The Blind Side was about the white woman even though it should have been Michael Oher’s story.

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