Japan Today
Image: GaijinPot

On location: ‘The Karate Kid’ and ‘Cobra Kai’ in Okinawa

By Matthew Coslett

Japan’s southern island, Okinawa, almost feels like an extra character in "The Karate Kid" and its spin-off Netflix series, "Cobra Kai." Mr Miyagi’s love of the islands, the lore of its ancient fighting styles and even its dark wartime history are a constant presence influencing his life and the lives of his students.

Like most '80s kids, I grew up watching "The Karate Kid" and its sequels, so naturally, I couldn’t wait to visit Okinawa and recreate the movie. I assumed it would be as simple as watching the movies and visiting the locations by car.

Like learning to crane kick someone to the face, however, I discovered it would not be that simple.

Shou Hashi Castle

Shuri Castle Image: iStock: Jui-Chi-Chan

"The Karate Kid Part II" is almost entirely based in Okinawa. Or so I thought. The Okinawa locations shot for the sequel were a well-disguised Hawaii, mostly Oahu. Unfortunately, the movie director, John G Avildsen, thought the real Okinawa was unattractive due to the island’s stormy weather.

This was a bit of a setback for me. Separating reality from fiction is difficult in a movie that uses real inspirations to create imagined places. A good example is when the character Kumiko points out to Daniel the ruins of the castle of King Shou Hashi. I would have loved to see it in person, but it was a matte painting hung in a studio and wasn’t even a painting of a Japanese castle.

Nevertheless, history buffs know that Shou Hashi was a real ruler of Okinawa. You can actually visit the ruins of two of his castles: Sashiki Castle in the southeast and Shuri Castle in the center of the island. Although neither is as beautifully preserved as the movie would have you believe.

Sashiki Castle is hard to access except by car and is mostly ruins now, whereas Shuri, despite being easy to access, is currently being renovated following a fire that destroyed most of the main building.

Finding Tomi village

Is this the real Tomi Village? Image: iStock: masa99

Mr Miyagi comes from Tomi Village. Although there is a real Tomi in Okayama Prefecture, the Okinawa location is fictional. However, there is a possible connection that the filmmakers could have used for inspiration.

In "The Karate Kid Part II," Mr Miyagi describes finding the Tomi Village: “Find Naha. Head south.” Using this description, you can find Tomigusuku, which was categorized as a village during "The Karate Kid Part II’s" filming and is now a city.

This change matches perfectly with Daniel’s surprise at seeing what has become of Tomi Village in the spin-off series, "Cobra Kai." The area becomes gentrified when he revisits Tomi in season three. Perhaps Mr Miyagi simply abbreviated the name from Tomigusuku to Tomi.

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Cobra Kai. Cringe worthy name.

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I love both the movies and the series

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I love both the movies and the series

Me too! The series is Incredible!

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Okinawa's influence on the series is undeniable, blending real history with cinematic lore. A tip for visitors: immersing yourself in local martial arts schools and cultural sites can deepen your appreciation of Okinawa’s rich martial heritage and its portrayal in the series.

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