Like many kids who grew up in the 1980’s, I learned a lot about life from two wise sages. First, was Yoda, the green, grumpy, 900 year old Jedi master, who trained Luke Skywalker to reach his potential and overcome against all odds to destroy the dark side forever (Well, at least until Episode VII came out in 2015, because the dark side somehow came back again). I often quote Yoda to my wife’s dismay with, “No. Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.”
We’ll tackle Yoda in a future post, but in the interest of staying more grounded in reality, I’d like to focus on my second choice, and that is Mr. Kesuke Miyagi or Mr. Nariyoshi Miyagi, as he went by both names in the movie series. For the purposes of how I knew him, Daniel Laruso, his student in most of the movies, called him Mr. Miyagi, so that is how I knew him as well.
Mr. Miyagi was a fictional character, but the things he did and said in the three Karate Kid movies (I know there was a fourth one much later and then a remake after Pat Morita died featuring Jackie Chan as the Karate mentor) were very much things that shaped who I am and how I live my own life, even today. I constantly find myself quoting Mr. Miyagi as well. “Walk on the road? Walk right side safe. Walk left side safe. Walk middle, sooner or later get squished just like grape.”
Mr. Miyagi seemed to always have a solution, but I think it was just a confidence in his response, even if he didn’t know how the outcome might play out. In the first movie, there was a scene on the beach where some racist drunk guys didn’t want to move from their spot so Mr. Miyagi and Daniel could leave. They had taken up shop on Mr. Miyagi’s truck and had placed several empty beer bottles there. Mr. Miyagi asks them to remove the bottles so they can leave and they refuse. He then proceeds to Karate chop the beer bottles in half, and the guys remove them and scurry off. Daniel asks Mr. Miyagi how he did that, and he simply replies, “I don’t know. First time.” You can watch below, skip ahead to about 2:36 for the scene.
This scene is perfect Mr. Miyagi with a little humor and humility, simplicity and yet in complete control. This is a theme with Mr. Miyagi throughout the entire series. Another scene that demonstrates this is when he takes Daniel to the Cobra Kai dojo to talk to the bully kids and their sensei in hopes that they might leave Daniel alone. When Mr. Miyagi realizes this won’t happen he volunteers Daniel to fight in the All Valley Karate Tournament in return for no more bullying. The sensei agrees. After leaving Daniel is furious that he has to fight, and Mr. Miyagi says something to the effect of, “I just saved you two months beatings!”
Mr. Miyagi taught Daniel lessons using cryptic methods, but it all came back to simplicity. I’m sure nearly everyone knows “Wax on. Wax off.” or “Sand the floor.” or “Paint the fence.” or “Side to side”. These being his way of instructing Daniel in the basics of self defense. He also had him do manual labor to build strength and endurance.
Mr. Miyagi understood how to live a rewarding life, even though you knew throughout the films that he struggled with this himself. He was an immigrant and veteran of World War II. He lost his wife and unborn child during the time he was away at war and never really let go of this, and while they never stated it directly in the movie, they definitely implied he probably battled some sort of alcohol abuse grieving these losses. He at least commemorates the anniversary each year by dressing up in his military uniform and by getting hammered to the point he passes out. Daniel finds him during an anniversary and sees a side of his friend and mentor to show he is just a man with flaws who is doing the best he can.
In the second movie, we discover that Mr. Miyagi also had a relationship before he left Okinawa. He and his best friend were going to fight to the death over a woman, and Mr. Miyagi knew he couldn’t kill his friend, so he gave up his love and left the island. When he returns he finds that he still loves her and she never married and never stopped loving him either. Of course, as these things go, he leaves to go back home at the end, but he and his friend patch up their relationship before he leaves, and all is well (I guess?).
Mr. Miyagi, while a man with flaws, also shows great wisdom in the entirety of the series (even the fourth film I suppose). He says statements of simplicity and devises simple challenges to get his points across and be the best mentor and friend to Daniel he can be. As a leader, there is much to be learned from Mr. Miyagi’s approach to leadership. Keeping things simple is often the best way to empower those you lead to take ownership themselves and become the best they can be while you nudge them in the right direction from time to time.