This month sees the release of More Than Miyagi: The Pat Morita Story, an intimate portrait of Japanese-American comedian-turned-actor Pat Morita, who had an interesting life beyond playing Mr. Miyagi in all those The Karate Kid movies. In 2015, there was the lesser known The Real Miyagi, about a similarly interesting Yokohoman karate master namd Fumio Demura, who did Morita’s stunt work in the same films. What both of those films fail to mention is that there was a real person who, like the fictional character of Mr. Miyagi, was named Miyagi, a karate master, an Okinawan, and a World War II hero.
Whereas Mr. Miyagi in Karate Kid was an Okinawan karate master whose pregnant wife died in an internment camp (she had previously emigrated to Hawaii to work in the sugar cane fields), Shikichi Miyagi was a Japanese Petty Office who helped first drag his unconscious Hawaiian wife out of the Todoroki Trench complex in Okinawa and then helped save the lives of 800 Japanese soldiers and Okinawan civilians who were holed up in the cave system. He negotiated their surrender and convinced the American soldiers above not to try to clear the caves with fire like they’d been planning while the gasoline was already in the water.
Author John Toland recounts the entire story in his 1970 book, The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936–1945, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. Incredibly, Shikichi Miyagi doesn’t seem to have been written about much since, but here’s the passage in question (emphasis mine):
A mile to the northwest the Americans had been trying to clear a multilevel labyrinthian cave with smoke bombs for more than a week. At least three hundred soldiers and eight hundred civilians were bottled inside. Petty Officer Shikichi Miyagi had escaped from Oroku Peninsula after Admiral Ota’s death to find his wife Betty, a Hawaiian, and had succeeded. Now the smoke became so suffocating that Miyagi — one of the most celebrated karate experts in Okinawa, the home of karate — toted his unconscious wife piggyback deep into the cave through hip-high mud.
The mud became a stream and soon water was up to Miyagi’s shoulders. The water revived Betty, and when Miyagi could no longer touch bottom he gave her the glowing candle that was guiding them and swam through the water with the collar of her dress in his teeth. Every few yards he lowered his feet to rest but they sank into gummy mud and he flailed frantically to keep head above water. The nightmare seemed endless — he had no idea how long — until his feet touched solid ground and he could relieve his tortured muscles. Together the Miyagis pulled themselves onto a bank. Then they noticed a cold breeze — there had to be an entrance nearby — and saw a light ahead. It was the candle in the center of half a dozen civilians. The ordeal left them with one conviction: they would rather die on the surface in the sunlight than smother in the dark. At the entrance they heard American voices. Betty shouted “Hello!” and said that she was from Hawaii and that her older brother was with her.
“We’ve come to save you,” someone shouted back. “Come out!”
They emerged from the cave and found themselves in a cul-de-sac, twenty feet deep. Above them a circle of rifles rimmed its lips. Ropes tumbled down, followed by a dozen Marines hand over hand. Instead of being killed the Miyagis were hauled swiftly to the top. They could scarcely believe what was happening. Americans, smiling broadly, pressed K rations, water and cigarettes on them. A lieutenant pumped Miyagi’s hand. Marines embraced them, rubbed cheeks with them, and then began bringing cans of gasoline to the cave mouth. Miyagi tried to stop them. Gesturing excitedly, he explained that the burning gasoline would kill not only the Japanese soldiers in the higher lateral but the civilians in the lower level as well. He volunteered to go back into the cave and bring out the civilians. Clad in brand-new Marine fatigues, he fought his way into the cave past armed Japanese guards, and persuaded all eight hundred civilians to surrender.
Could this be the “original” basis for Mr. Miyagi? Who, again, in the movies was a war hero (at one point Daniel puts his Medal of Honor in a picture frame), a karate expert from Okinawa (obvi), and met his wife in Hawaii (“First time I saw her… was cane field, Hawaii. Beautiful. Damn good cane cutter, too.”).
I put the question to Robert Mark Kamen, the writer of Karate Kid who created the character. And he told me… “I named him after the man who founded my karate system, Chojun Miyagi.”
Chojun Miyagi, as it turns out, was the founder of the Goju-ryu school of karate, who was born in Okinawa in 1888 and traveled to China some time in the teens and returned to Okinawa to open his own dojo, where he developed his own methods and taught other Okinawans.
Even acknowledging that Miyagi is a common name in Okinawa, and karate a widespread practice there, it still seems pretty wild that Kamen accidentally invented a character with the same name, karate ability, Hawaiian wife, and heroic activities during World War II that he didn’t know even existed, doesn’t it?
“I have no idea what that’s all about,” Kamen says. “You have no idea how many people claimed that they were the Karate Kid, or they had something to do with The Karate Kid. Mr. Miyagi’s first name has been changed four different times by people who don’t bother to pay attention to the script– you know, it’s all that stuff.”
“Chojun Miyagi, he was the guy. But he wasn’t kind and gentle, as my teacher was not kind and gentle. He was kind, but not gentle. Karate in Okinawa takes on a different significance than it does in say Japan, or Korea, or someplace else. Karate is part of their culture.”
Short of positing conspiracies, I’m left to concede that, fine, my theory was incorrect. I leave you with Shikichi Miyagi’s story nonetheless, because, though he might not be the inspiration for Pat Morita or an entire karate style, he does seem like a pretty badass guy. Shikichi Miyagi feels like the real Mr. Miyagi even if the creator of Mr. Miyagi had never heard of him.
As for Kamen, he went onto write the script for The Fifth Element, became a prolific script doctor, and co-created the Taken and Transporter franchises with Luc Besson, along with many other movies. He still writes, even though he now has a second job running his own vineyard in Sonoma. Nice life, if you can get it. And unlike either Miyagi, Kamen is alive to tell about it. You can read more about his eventful life in the longer version of our interview later this week.