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Title [Martial Arts Globe] The Trending of Karate
“Days of Karate in Naha, Okinawa 2019: Okinawan Masters after Demonstrating Kata at the Karate Kaikan on Oct 24” (C) 2021 Hermann Bayer. Photo excerpted from Analysis of Genuine Karate: Misconceptions, Origins, Development, and True Purpose by Hermann Bayer Ph.D. Reprinted by permission.
The most powerful way to promote martial arts is to catch the attention of global popular culture. Despite the pandemic, Karate captured the public eye in two astonishing ways in 2021. On January 4-10, 2021, Cobra Kai topped Netflix’s most watched chart following the New Year’s Day premiere of its third season, making it Netflix’s most watched show in the world (Porter, 2021). This groundbreaking series continues the story of the beloved film franchise, The Karate Kid. And from August 4-8, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan, Karate became an Olympic event (Ching, 2021). A short examination of how Cobra Kai and the Olympics represent Karate, as well as all martial arts by association, may provide insight on how the martial arts might continue to progress.
Cobra Kai Never Dies
Cobra Kai depicts the ongoing fictional rivalry between Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) with humor and poignancy. LaRusso and Lawrence represent different schools: Miyagi-Do and Cobra Kai. Miyagi-Do is a nod to the Okinawan roots of Karate; LaRusso’s master is Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), whose name is inspired by Miyagi Chojun (1888-1953), the founder of Goju-ryu Karate (Alexander and Jespersen, 2001, p.245). This connection between Miyagi-Do and Goju-Ryu is most evident in The Karate Kid Part III where Miyagi teaches LaRusso the standard Goju-Ryu kata Seiunchin.
Miyagi-Do’s rival Dojo, Cobra Kai, does not propound Karate despite Lawrence’s claims. In the episode “King Cobra”, Lawrence’s ‘grandmaster’ Captain Turner (Terry Serpico) states “I learned Tang Soo Do during the Korean War under Master Kim Sun-Yung,” distinguishing its roots in Korean martial arts. This was not a revelation for observant martial arts fans. The original movie trilogy was choreographed by Grandmaster Pat E. Johnson, a proponent of Korean Tang Soo Do. Johnson, like his celebrity comrade Chuck Norris, learned Tang Soo Do in Korea. Here, Cobra Kai mirrors history. Many of the first masters that brought martial arts into the United States where veterans like Johnson and Norris propagating Tang Soo Do. Lawrence’s fictional Sensei Kreese (Martin Kove) does the same. They often called it ‘Karate’ because more Americans were familiar with the term at the time. While there are now more Tang Soo Do teachers in the U.S.A. today, it still is not was well known as Karate.
While Cobra Kai is foremost comedy-drama, it propounds many important lessons about bullying, loyalty, and forgiveness. Additionally, it addresses the complications of parent-child relationships as the characters LaRusso and Lawrence grapple with setting a good example for their children and the next generation, while working to resolve perceived inadequacies in their own parents. Cobra Kai has a lot of heart, as well as many life lessons.
Olympic Karate’s Golden Knock Out
Karate, like most any longstanding martial art, has evolved into numerous permutations. “Many other styles of karate exists, and new styles have developed both in Okinawa, and in mainland Japan in the 20th century (Alexander and Jespersen, 2001, p.173). The Olympic Karate event had two modalities: Kumite and Kata (Olympics, 2021). Kumite is a sparring game akin to the other Olympic martial arts of Boxing, Fencing, Judo, Taekwondo, and Wrestling. The inclusion of Kata is unprecedented. It marks the first time that traditional forms competition entered the Olympic games. Olympic Taekwondo only competes in sparring, not Poomsae forms, and forms do not exist within the other Olympic martial sports. While sparring matches are a critical measure of martial skill, traditional practitioners will never forsake forms practice. As Karate author Bruce Costa puts it, “For me, kata most embody the art of our martial art. There have been martial artists, brilliant by any measure, who only practiced kata.” (Costa, 2021, p.86).
While the Kata competition was spectacular, unfortunately the Kumite was marred by ridicule. In the final gold medal bout, Tereg Hamedi of Saudi Arabia knocked out Sajad Ganjzadeh with a beautifully executed kick to the head in the first minute of their bout. However, Hamedi was disqualified for excessive use of force and Ganjzadeh was awarded the gold medal. Few could understand how the fighter who was knocked out could win the gold.
Despite that singular poor showing, Olympic Karate global spotlight encouraged more participation and forwarded Karate’s intrinsic life lessons. As Costa puts it “Karate is good exercise, positive discipline, and productive camaraderie. Most of all, karate is the search for perfection of character.” (Costa, 2021, p.5).
The Future of Karate
The year 2021 gave Karate an unprecedented opportunity to further itself and consequently, all martial arts. Even Tang Soo Do might glean some spotlight if they can parlay their connections to reclaim the title as the true Cobra Kai style. Season 4 of Cobra Kai is scheduled to premiere on December 31, 2021, and it has already been renewed for Season 5 (Cordero, 2021).
Regrettably, Karate only qualified as an Olympic event for 2021 and will not compete officially in the 2024 Paris Games. Participation in future games after that is pending (Ching, 2021). However, the Olympics are not the only global platform. According to Hermann Bayer, Ph.D., “The Okinawa Prefectural Planning and Coordination Division includes initiatives toward the registration of Okinawan karate as an UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in its new promotion plan.” (Bayer, 2021, p.53). While Karate has a long road before it might be accepted as an Intangible Cultural Heritage, it continues to progress globally and raise martial arts awareness worldwide.
Alexander, G. and Jespersen, B. (2001) Encyclopedic Japanese-English Dictionary of the Japanese Martial Arts. 1st edn. Reliance: Yamazato Publications
Bayer, H. (2021) Analysis of Genuine Karate: Misconceptions, Origins, Development, and True Purpose. 1st edn. New Hampshire: YMAA Publication Center
Ching, G. (2021) “Olympic Karate: A New Martial Art Enters the Ring” YMAA, (August) Available at: https://ymaa.com/articles/2021/08/olympic-karate-a-new-martial-art-enters-the-ring (Accessed 7 November 2021)
Cordero, R. (2021) “‘Cobra Kai’ Renewed For Season 5 At Netflix Ahead Of Season 4 Premiere” Deadline, (August) Available at: https://deadline.com/2021/08/cobra-kai-renewed-season-5-netflix-1234823289 (Accessed 7 November 2021)
Costa, B. (2021) Welcome To Karate: Unlocking the Wisdom of the Beginner's Mind. 1st edn.
New Hampshire: YMAA Publication Center
Hill, Glynn. (2021) “Olympic martial artist knocks out opponent with kick, is disqualified from gold medal karate bout” the Washington Post, (August) Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/olympics/2021/08/07/olympic-martial-artist-disqualified-gold-medal-karate (Accessed 7 November 2021)
King Cobra (2021) Cobra Kai, Season 3 episode 6, Netflix, 1 January.
Olympics (2021) “Karate” Available at: https://olympics.com/en/sports/karate (Accessed 7 November 2021)
Porter, Rick. (2021) “‘Cobra Kai’ Overtakes ‘Bridgerton’ in Nielsen Streaming Rankings” The Hollywood Reporter, (February) Available at: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/tv/tv-news/cobra-kai-overtakes-bridgerton-nielsen-streaming-rankings-4129595 (Accessed 7 November 2021)
The Karate Kid Part III (1989) Directed by John G. Avildsen [Film]. United States: Columbia Pictures
※ Views in this writing are the author's own.