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Mr. Miyagi's Entire Backstory Explained

If you want to be a hero, you need an old, wise mentor. Luke Skywalker had Yoda, Harry Potter had Dumbledore, and in 1984, young Daniel LaRusso had Mr. Miyagi. Played by the great Pat Morita, Miyagi introduced Daniel-san to a world of bonsai trees, waxing cars, and oh yeah, karate. In fact, without Mr. Miyagi, Daniel never would've stood a chance against his Cobra Kai bullies. Plus, the Japanese-American maintenance man helped the New Jersey expatriate learn the subtleties of crane kicks and catching flies with chopsticks. 

All these years after The Karate Kid hit theaters and became an immediate classic, actor Pat Morita has passed away, but Miyagi lives on as a treasured '80s pop culture character. Film fans of all ages know his name and his iconic lines, but how much do you know about the man himself? From his fascinating ancestry and harrowing wartime experience to his heartbreaking love life, this is Mr. Miyagi's entire backstory.

Mr. Miyagi was the descendant of a karate pioneer

Miyagi may be one of film's all-time greatest mentors, but the wise old karate master was once an impressionable young student, much like Ralph Macchio's Daniel LaRusso. Miyagi learned karate from his father, a fisherman from the islands of Okinawa. How was a simple fisherman able to teach his son to be so effective in a fight? We learned in The Karate Kid Part II that Pat Morita's character is descended from a legendary figure by the name of Shimpo Miyagi. Like the Miyagis that came after him, he was a fisherman by trade ... he just wasn't a very good one.

Shimpo is said to have let his love of sake get the better of him while out fishing one day in 1625. He got so drunk on the fermented rice beverage that he passed out, and when he came around, his boat had drifted a considerable distance — he was floating off the coast of China. Shimpo ended up spending years in China, learning the secrets of the country's martial arts during his stay. When he returned to Okinawa with a Chinese wife and two kids in tow a decade after he accidentally left, Shimpo used what he had learned to develop a style of karate that would be passed down for generations and ultimately used by LaRusso in his battles against the unscrupulous Cobra Kai dojo.

Miyagi's best friend challenged him to a fight to the death

Miyagi wasn't the only kid that his father entrusted with the secrets of the family's ancient karate. When he was old enough to work, Miyagi got himself a job with the dad of his best friend, Sato Toguchi (Danny Kamekona). In return, Miyagi's father taught Sato karate, and this arrangement worked well — until Yukie (Nobu McCarthy) came along. Arranged marriages were commonplace in Okinawa at the time, and Sato was in luck. His proposed bride was a beautiful young woman, so beautiful that his best friend couldn't take his eyes off her. Despite the fact that she was engaged to marry Sato, Miyagi fell hard for Yukie. He believed he had the right to fight for her hand in marriage, and that's exactly what he did.

The loved-up Miyagi proclaimed that he would abandon local tradition so he could be with Yukie, which didn't go down well with his fellow villagers, Sato in particular. Miyagi was told in no uncertain terms that he'd dishonored his best friend, who wasn't about to let him walk away with Yukie on his arm. Sato challenged Miyagi to a fight to the death, which he promptly refused. Instead of facing his former BFF in what would've surely been a legendary encounter, Miyagi emigrated to the United States and started a new life.

He narrowly dodged the internment camps

Miyagi's life in America got off to a pretty good start. He spent time in Hawaii and then moved to Los Angeles where he secured a spot at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Then, World War II happened. Miyagi immediately joined the United States military to do his part for his new country, and that ultimately saved him from imprisonment. See, in both The Karate Kid and in real life, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. This decreed that all Americans of Japanese descent would be sent to camps. It was a move intended to stop espionage, but it's now seen as "one of the most atrocious violations of American civil rights in the 20th century," according to History.

Sadly, actor Pat Morita didn't have to use much imagination when the subject of the camps came up in The Karate Kid. Speaking to the Television Academy, the actor revealed that he spent time in hospital for spinal tuberculosis as a child. He made a miraculous recovery, but as soon as he was back on his feet, he was sent to join his parents in a so-called relocation center. "Uncle Sam and we Americans like to use euphemistic words or invent words if we think certain other words are too harsh," Morita said. "So they called them 'relocation centers,' but they were America's version of concentration camps."

Mr. Miyagi was a decorated U.S. Army veteran

Japanese-Americans were banned from applying for the military after Pearl Harbor, but the powers that be soon decided that letting them prove their loyalty to the States was a better tactic. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which consisted entirely of Japanese-Americans, was created on February 1, 1943. They were initially sent to Italy and were later redeployed to southern France, where they helped liberate cities under Nazi control. The regiment became one of the most highly decorated in U.S. history, with an incredible 21 Medal of Honor recipients. In the Karate Kid universe, Miyagi was among those recipients.

The Okinawan signed up for the U.S. Army as soon as World War II broke out, and he would rise to the rank of sergeant during a decorated military career. We got a good look at his impressive medal collection as he drunkenly recounted his past during The Karate Kid. It includes the Bronze Star, the Silver Star, the Army Commendation Medal, the Purple Heart, the World War II Victory Medal, and, of course, the Medal of Honor. Years later, Miyagi's most precious medal was stolen by students loyal to Daniel LaRusso's longtime rival, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). In season two of sequel series Cobra Kai, Lawrence's kids trashed LaRusso's Miyagi-Do dojo and swiped the Medal of Honor. A war between the dojos loomed, but the medal was returned before things got violent.

Miyagi's wife and son died in the camps

Miyagi's first stop after leaving Okinawa was Hawaii, where he landed a job in the sugar cane fields. It was during this time that he met and fell in love with his future wife, a co-worker on the plantation and a "damn good cane cutter," according to Miyagi. The happy couple tied the knot, and Mrs. Miyagi fell pregnant, but Mr. Miyagi was sent to the front line in Europe soon after. His wife carried their child to full term while he was away fighting the Nazis, but Miyagi would never meet his son, and he would never see his beloved wife again. Mrs. Miyagi was sent to the notorious Manzanar internment camp while pregnant, and neither she nor her child made it through the birth.

This devastating loss would continue to haunt Miyagi for the rest of his days, though he would rarely show it. The composed karate master let his guard down during one booze-fueled scene in the first Karate Kid movie, recalling the moment he got the heartbreaking news. "Sergeant Miyagi reporting, killed many Jerry Germans, sir," he says when LaRusso asks about his wife. "'Regret to inform ... wife have complications at birth.' Complications. No doctor came. Land of free. Home of brave." Miyagi would later give the karate gi that his late wife made for their unborn son to LaRusso.

He became a classic car collector

When we met Miyagi in the first Karate Kid film, he was working as a maintenance man in Daniel LaRusso's apartment building. His life in the period between World War II and his first meeting with Daniel-san decades later is something of a mystery, but one thing we know for sure is that he started collecting classic cars in that time. The Okinawan was the proud owner of a 1942 Chevrolet pickup truck, a blue and white Nash Metropolitan, a yellow 1947 Ford Super Deluxe convertible, a 1951 Cadillac sedan, and a 1951-53 Pontiac woodie wagon. It's unclear just how he came to have such an impressive collection ("Hey, where did these cars come from?" LaRusso asked his mentor, to which he replied, "Detroit!"), but we know he liked to keep them nice and shiny.

Miyagi decided to show LaRusso how to defend himself after he had to step in and save him from some Cobra Kai thugs, though the American teen was initially wary of the old man's methods. After all, he had Daniel-san tend to his cars (giving birth to one of the most iconic lines in the whole Karate Kid franchise: "Wax on, wax off") and do all manner of chores that appeared to have very little to do with karate. When Miyagi suddenly attacked his student, however, LaRusso discovered that he now had the strength, moves, and reflexes to repel him, all thanks to Miyagi's unique training methods.

His return to Okinawa

With Miyagi's help, LaRusso went on to best the Cobra Kai bullies and win the All Valley Karate Tournament, bringing the first Karate Kid movie to an end. But in The Karate Kid Part II, it was LaRusso that helped Miyagi deal with bullies. When Miyagi received a letter informing him that his father was dying, he decided it was time to return to Okinawa. LaRusso (recently dumped by Elisabeth Shue's Ali Mills, who apparently left him for a UCLA football player) asked if he could tag along, and Miyagi reluctantly agreed.

Upon their arrival, Miyagi and his student were greeted by a young man named Chozen Toguchi (Yuji Okumoto), who turned out to be Sato's nephew ... and he drove them straight to a warehouse where Miyagi's old love rival was waiting. Still sore about the whole Yukie thing, Sato taunted Miyagi in the hope of finally getting his big showdown. He told Miyagi that facing him was the only way to restore his honor, though before any punches could be thrown, there was some sad news. Miyagi's father passed away, and out of respect for his old sensei, Sato agreed to delay the fight.

Meanwhile, Yukie revealed that, out of respect for Miyagi and his gesture, she never married anyone. And luckily for Daniel-san, she had a niece. Dancer Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita) became LaRusso's second girlfriend of the franchise after he rescued her from the violent and cowardly Chozen.

Mr. Miyagi settled an old score

Three days after Miyagi's father passed away, Sato showed up once more, determined to have his long awaited death match. Miyagi would normally refuse to take part in such a barbaric spectacle, but he was left with little choice when Sato threatened to raze the whole of Tomi Village to the ground. He'd become a wealthy industrialist in Miyagi's absence, and many locals had been unable to go into their traditional business of fishing thanks to his huge trawlers. Sato had effectively taken control of the waters in the area, and he owned most of the houses in the village, too — houses that he would happily bulldoze if Miyagi refused to fight him again.

With no other option, Miyagi reluctantly agreed to fight Sato but on the condition that he give the villagers their ancestral land back, no matter the victor. Sato agreed, but the fight never happened. The night before it was due to take place, a violent typhoon struck Okinawa. Numerous buildings were destroyed, and Sato was trapped under a giant wooden beam, left for dead by his no-good nephew. Miyagi came to his rescue, and they hid in a shelter alongside the other villagers. The next morning, the bulldozers returned, this time to help rebuild the devastated village. Sato willingly relinquished the land titles and asked for forgiveness from his old friend. Miyagi, of course, accepted.

Miyagi opened a bonsai tree shop with Daniel-san

When Miyagi and LaRusso returned from Okinawa in The Karate Kid Part III, they discovered that the South Seas apartment complex had been sold. Daniel-san and his mother, Lucille (Randee Heller), were effectively homeless, and handyman Miyagi was suddenly unemployed. Miyagi had always dreamed about opening a bonsai tree shop in California, but the reality was he couldn't afford it. Despite Miyagi's objections, his loyal student cracked open his college fund and paid for rent and renovations on a store, which he christened Mr. Miyagi's Little Trees. LaRusso put up a convincing argument for the move, and Miyagi eventually agreed, though he insisted on making the youngster a partner.

Unfortunately, their business ran into trouble. The shop's stock was stolen by associates of Cobra Kai sensei John Kreese (Martin Kove), who by this point was so desperate to get revenge on Miyagi that he faked his own death so LaRusso could be lured to his failing dojo out of pity. Kreese wanted to drive a wedge between master and student, and he almost succeeded, but when LaRusso came to his senses and tried to leave Cobra Kai, he got ambushed. Luckily, Miyagi was lurking, and he swooped in to save the day, just like he did on their first meeting. They repaired their friendship, replanting an old bonsai tree that had been snapped in two. LaRusso entered the All Valley Karate Tournament with Miyagi's blessing and put Cobra Kai back in its place.

Mr. Miyagi and LaRusso went traveling together

Released on the back of 1989's The Karate Kid Part III, the little-known Karate Kid animated series took Miyagi (voiced by Robert Ito) and his faithful student on numerous globetrotting adventures. The show revolved around a miniature, magical shrine that had been stolen from its resting place on Okinawa. Miyagi made it his mission to locate and return the shrine to its rightful home, and LaRusso came along for the ride. With the help of Okinawan girl Taki Tamurai, Miyagi and Daniel-san embarked on a journey that took them to the four corners of the earth.

The show was originally supposed to have 65 episodes, and it was meant to start airing in daily syndication sometime in the fall of 1988. The release was delayed until after the third Karate Kid movie, and when it did eventually come to NBC Saturday mornings in 1989, it was only a 13-episode run. The creators packed a lot into those 13 episodes, taking Miyagi, LaRusso, and Tamurai to Europe, South America, Australia, and even a remote mountain village in the Himalayas. Miyagi added a few more strings to his bow during his travels, as he worked on a film set when the trio was hunting for the shrine in England, and he later joined the crew of a whaling vessel while investigating a lead in Norway.

He trained the next karate kid

In 1994's The Next Karate Kid, Miyagi traveled to Boston for an event honoring the Japanese-American soldiers of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. It was here that he met Louisa Pierce (Constance Towers), the widow of his commanding officer, Lt. Jack Pierce, and Julie Pierce (Hilary Swank), Jack and Louisa's troubled teenaged granddaughter. Miyagi taught his late commanding officer some karate during their time in the Army, and he would soon discover that Lt. Pierce had passed on what he knew to his granddaughter before his demise. Julie's skills still needed some refining, however, and that's where Miyagi came in.

Seeing that her anger issues were getting the better of her, Miyagi took Julie to a Buddhist monastery and showed her how to take control of her emotions. She became his next karate student, and the pair quickly developed a bond. Miyagi taught her how to dance in time for her high school prom, and he even bought her a new dress for the occasion. It was far from a dream evening, however. Julie's date was attacked by members of the Alpha Elite (the sequel's equivalent to Cobra Kai), forcing her to use Miyagi's karate for real. The man himself then arrived on the scene to challenge Alpha Elite's leader Colonel Dugan (Michael Ironside), and to the surprise of absolutely nobody, he made short work of him.

Mr. Miyagi passed away in 2011

Mr. Miyagi passed away on November 15, 2011, at the age of 86. We learned of his death in sequel series Cobra Kai, where the adult Daniel LaRusso attempts to continue his legacy by keeping the Miyagi-Do dojo alive. He's a regular visitor to Miyagi's gravestone, which lists his military honors and confirms that his first name was actually Nariyoshi (his name was previously listed as Keisuke, and he was also referred to as Yakuga in the Karate Kid animated series). 

Miyagi continues to play a big role in LaRusso's life as the now-grown Karate Kid seeks to regain the balance that his old master gave him. "It was important to me that Pat's legacy was not lost," Ralph Macchio told The Hollywood Reporter, adding that, "We didn't want the human element of the show to get lost, and that human element really stems from Mr. Miyagi. We're not here without Pat Morita's performance in that film. The heart and soul of the Karate Kid universe are the teachings of Mr. Miyagi."