There was a time, say 30 years ago, when karate was cool. If you told someone you held a black belt in karate, they would step back, marvel at you, and ask—nay, beg—for a little demonstration of your fighting skills. Karate was the main vehicle for dozens of action movies in the ’60s, ’70s, and early ’80s. Every kid wanted to learn it, and it became the term to describe just about every fighting art outside of boxing. It even supplanted boxing as the most visualized fighting art in its heyday. Freakin’ Chuck Norris did karate.
Today, though, karate, at least as it’s understood by most, is a joke. It’s a punchline. It’s a “Hey, I know karate!” line that usually draws laughs. We mock Daniel Larusso’s crane stance from The Karate Kid when fake fighting. We impugn a weak threat with, “Oh, what, you know karate?”
Tell someone you do karate now, and they’ll step back and marvel, alright, but they won’t ask for a demonstration. They’ll tell you karate is for kids—and they’d be right. Look at any modern karate school and it’s a strip-mall, moneymaking affair that looks more like daycare than dojo.
“Elvis made karate cool. Ralph Macchio made it gospel. And gospel begs to be debunked.”
Full disclosure: I’ve been studying karate for 15 years. I do a style called Shorei-Kan Goju Ryu in New York City. It’s a slowly learned, traditional form that traces it roots back to Seikichi Toguchi, Chojun Miyagi, and Kanryo Higashionna in Okinawa. It took me eight years to earn a black belt, and I’ve been studying the same 1st-degree black belt subjects for the remaining seven. In short, it’s a long haul, but I love it. My sensei is an 89-year-old World War II fighter pilot who also paints, sings jazz standards in Manhattan, and had a successful career on Madison Avenue. But he’s a story for another time.
Karate itself, meanwhile, has literally become a comedic device. Nearly every hit sitcom of the past two decades has used karate as a joke. Witness these examples:
On Friends, all Ross had to do was pronounce “ka-ra-te” to get laughs. Entire episodes were designed around undermining his karate-born inner peace and destroying his love of the martial art.
Kramer took karate lessons. You’re already giggling over that, aren’t you? The well-loved (and admittedly hilarious) episode features Kramer dominating a karate dojo as if to say the dojo was the only place he was a man. It also reaffirmed that karate is for kids.
On In Living Color, a young Jim Carrey virtually forced us all to laugh as Bob Jackson, a black belt in “kurroty” who attempted to teach women’s self defense. The skit ends with Carrey bleeding out as we revel in karate’s uselessness.
Mr. Bean gets a piece of the action when he attempts to take a martial arts course. Sure, the joke is on him, but ultimately the discipline becomes the joke as he turns the tables on an unwitting sensei.
Martin Lawrence portrayed Dragon Fly Jones on his own show, Martin. This borderline mentally challenged karateka is arguably hilarious, but at the end of the day, it’s people laughing at a guy doing terrible karate.
A Season 1 episode of 30 Rock featured Devon Banks (played by Will Arnett) simply saying “Karate!” as he punches the air in a white bathrobe. That’s all they had to do to crack a joke.
In The Office, Dwight (of course) does karate, he’s mocked for doing so, and he’s taken down in a Season 2 episode where all he has to do is a simple fake kata in the office.
In Parks and Recreation, Chris Pratt’s alter ego, “Johnny Karate,” is a bumbling clown played for laughs. Karate, at this point, is the court jester.
Enter The Dojo, a hugely popular comedy series on YouTube, relies on just one joke: Karate is silly. It’s slapstick fun, for sure, and I’ve giggled once or twice while watching, but the joke remains the same.
Of course, it wasn’t always like this.
So, what happened to karate?
First, let’s define “karate.” Karate, by origin, is an Okinawan martial art born in the early 20th century. Fighters who spent time in China training in temple boxing and Fujian white crane Shaolin temple boxing brought the martial art to Okinawa and adapted it for their own self-defense and exercise needs. Karate means “empty hand” due to its focus on blocks and strikes (as opposed to weapons and kicks). There are many forms of karate: Goju Ryu with its soft blocks and traditional Okinawan roots, Shotokan with its harder blocks and mainland Japan origins, to name a couple.
Karate grew in popularity after World War II. Americans stationed in Okinawa learned the martial art from locals, then brought it back to Hawaii and the mainland. As its popularity spread, Americans turned it into a massive franchised industry, as we are known to do.
Ed Parker, who learned Kenpo Karate in Hawaii, opened a karate school in Provo, Utah in 1954. He opened another one in Hollywood-adjacent Pasadena, California in 1956. It was there that he picked up students like Elvis Presley (to whom he gave a 9th-degree black belt). At his International Karate Championships, he introduced a young upstart named Bruce Lee. By then, it was a movement: Karate was on fire in America, and no one was going to stop this phoenix until the ’80s.
Karate, strictly speaking, is not kung fu. That’s a Chinese martial art and, as lovely as it is, it’s not the subject here. When you think of kung fu, think of Jackie Chan. Karate is also not Tae Kwon Do. Tae Kwon Do is a flashy Korean martial art designed for point-sparring competitions. TKD features those spinning roundhouse kicks so often confused with karate. They’re all traditional Asian martial arts, but we’re talking about Karate here. Real karate. Most people call all of them “karate”, and while that might work in general, it’s also part of the problem. Stay with me here.
One only need look at the popularity of martial arts movies over time to see that karate has lost its demand for respect. The 1970s were chock-full of serious karate movies. Karate’s apex, at least in Hollywood, was arguably 1984’s The Karate Kid. It was also the beginning of the end of karate’s coolness.
After that movie, karate was unbearably cool. It was the martial art for the underdog, for the bullied kid who wanted to finally get back at his assailants. It was the thing that every little kid wanted to do. We all wanted to be Daniel-san.
And that was exactly what killed karate. Elvis made karate cool. Ralph Macchio made it gospel. And gospel begs to be debunked.
Comparing the dark horse, vigilante image of karate in the 1970s to the nerdy, useless joke it became in the ’90s makes the martial art’s public opinion nosedive all the more striking.
But it’s clear now what happened: All those kids who got into karate in the ’70s and ’80s were not actually learning karate. Because of karate’s jump in popularity, it became good business, better than even Ed Parker could have imagined. The formula was simple: Rent space in a strip mall, tack up a “Karate” banner, grab someone who’s earned a black belt from any dojo, call him Sensei, and pay some bills. Karate schools became day care. Parents (and kids) didn’t care if they were being taught a real martial art as long as it kept kids occupied and gave them a confidence boost.
“It’ll teach you some discipline,” parents told their kids.
“We’ll get little Tommy into shape,” senseis told parents.
And so we ended up with a bunch of Ross’s and Dwights: awkward dweebs who thought they knew a thing or two about fighting. They showed up at school after shelling out for a black belt, boasted, nosed up to their bullies, and were quickly shown that there’s little you can do about a sucker punch. At those moments—thousands of them in schoolyards throughout the ’80s and ’90s—karate became the number-one punch line in a bloated business of martial arts that needed some fat trimming.
Because of the McDojo proliferation, “karate” became the term for all Asian martial arts. As its stature declined, we lumped all all uniform-wearing Asian martial arts together as sad shadows of their intended forms. We simply didn’t care any more.
Why is this a problem? Well, it allowed more questionable martial arts to become known as karate. Is what Ross was doing on Friends actually karate? No. But they called it karate because they knew it would draw laughs.
In the Seinfeld episode, Kramer’s dojo was a bizarre hodgepodge of Asian martial arts: A sensei wearing a Korean Tae Kwon Do uniform, shouting Japanese terms while Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan (both kung fu masters) oversaw the proceedings via giant framed posters on the walls. I mean, it’s all the same, no? Sushi is lo mein is kimchi, amirite?
So here’s the truth: Karate is a serious martial art. When taken to its Okinawan roots, it’s one rich in tradition and history. It’s a tough strength and endurance program that easily rivals any other. It includes yoga-like meditation and bodyweight exercises called Daruhma Taiso. It teaches inner peace and creates confidence. It takes years to become a black belt, at which point the real traning begins. When done right, it’s beautiful.
Now, will it ever emerge from the embers of American comedy? Will people once again marvel at the kata? It’s possible, but not likely. Martial arts, like any other participant sport or form of exercise, is trendy and cyclical. We’re already seeing people make fun of yoga. Perhaps in a few years we’ll all joke about how cool MMA used to be. We’re already seeing those strip-mall karate schools converting into UFC centers, after all.
One day in the future, we might just utter the following words:
“Remember how we took Brazilian jiu-jitsu and turned it into pro wrestling? Remember how fighters would square up at weigh-ins with all sorts of posturing, and we’d then pay our cable companies $60 to watch two-minute fights? Yeah, we sure were idiots. I’m so glad we got over that nonsense.”