I want to talk about Orientalism and Mr. Miyagi as stereotype, but that topic is not very novel. It's been done. Instead, I'm noticing things that have nothing to do with big topics like that.
For example, when Daniel is throwing away his bike, Lucille parks her car on that side of the building, but their apartment is on the other side of the building, there are limited spaces, and her space should be on the opposite side. It's actually a weird detail because it would have been easy to fix; just have the exterior of their apartment—which we only see that first day as Daniel enters and then as he leaves to go find the fix it man—be on the same side of the building as the walkway that goes out to Miyagi's workshop, and that dumpster where Daniel disposes of his bike.
Amusingly—and maybe I noticed this once upon a time years ago but not yesterday—Ali deliberately kicks Daniel's soccer ball far away when she sees that Johnny and the Cobra Kai guys are at the beach. She's only just met him and she's actively trying to keep him out of what she surely knows it going to be a problematic encounter. (Instigated by Johnny, by the way; I don't buy into the silly theories about Daniel being the aggressor here.)
And I find myself wondering about little things like why the camera lingers on the Native Sons of the Golden West plaque as it does early in the film. Charles Evans Hughes Junior High School, where they filmed, had the plaque. Director John G Avildsen saw it and "thought it perfectly related to the circumstances of the film" says Jared Cowan in a 30th anniversary slide show of Karate Kid locations at LA Weekly.
(Regarding that other subject I'm avoiding, Cowan opens his piece with this:Thirty years ago, a wise man from Okinawa taught the world - or at least the children of the 1980s - that waxing a car has significance beyond just making it shine. Mr. Miyagi inspired us to believe that our dreams could be achieved as long as they come from our hearts, and that if you could catch a fly with a pair of chopsticks, you could accomplish anything.
So Cowan, at least, bought into the semi-mystical Mr. Miyagi just like so many of the rest of us.)
The plaque, by the way, says:
THIS BUILDING DEDICATED TO
TRUTH - LIBERTY
- TOLERATION -
NATIVE SONS OF THE GOLDEN WEST...
Writing for the Houston Press, Christine Lynn says of the placement of that plaque in the film,
This is an implied reference to the school's zero-tolerance policy. Less than a minute later, Daniel is seen trying out for the soccer team and Johnny and his Cobra Kai's bully him. Their reason is clear: He is seen as a weak link and a threat to them. He tries to fight back but is still reprimanded—the gang wasn't punished.
The Native Sons of the Golden West is a fraternal organization founded in 1875. They began by "embracing only the sons of those sturdy pioneers who arrived on this coast prior to the admission of California as a state. As quoted in Frank H Wu's book, Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White and in Lawrence H Fuchs' book, The American Kaleidoscope: Race, Ethnicity, and the Civic Culture, in 1920, William P Canbu, the Grand President of the Native Sons of the Golden West, proclaimed, "California was given by God to a white people, and with God's strength we want to keep it as he gave it to us." Fuchs offers this quote as an example of "over white racism" in response to Japanese and Chinese immigrants' success in agriculture in California between 1911 and 1920. Densho Encyclopedia, citing a Native Sons pamphlet from 1942, says, "As early as 1907, the Native Sons approved a resolution calling for the exclusion of all 'orientals' from California." The Native Sons "sued San Francisco County Registrar Cameron King in federal court to remove 90 named Nisei from the voting rolls" and the previously cited Densho Encyclopedia claims, "The openly avoid goal of the Native Sons was to rescind the voting rights of American citizens of Japanese ancestry, as a step toward overturning the citizenship of all nonwhite Americans." Another court case the Native Sons were involved in went to the United States Supreme Court.
Whether Avildsen knew (or researched) all of this history, or simply saw the plaque's dedication of TRUTH, LIBERTY, and TOLERATION as something thematically connected to the story here, as Christine Lynn does, the plaque does two things; it does bite into the themes of the film, and it works as commentary on them as well. Like Miyagi having American-made cars, like Miyagi having served with the US military while his pregnant wife was at Manzanar. The film appropriates East Asian cultural aspects but also quite deliberately uses those aspects as its own commentary on their inclusion. Miyagi is both a stereotype and something deeper. (As, also, is Kreese, the Vietnam Vet who sees in Miyagi a weak old man, and who abhors mercy.)
(And, I didn't even intend to circle back into this topic, but so be it.)
The Native Sons, by the way, wanted surplus housing after World War II to go to "returning veterans (presumably white) and that Japanese Americans be returned to confinement in WRA camps [like Manzanar] until the postwar housing shortage was over" (Densho, citing the Fresno Bee).
Essentially, that plaque dedicates a piece of Daniel's school to TRUTH, LIBERTY, and TOLERATION, but that plaque was put there by an organization that actively supported the confinement of people like Miyagi and his wife, people that would have rather had East Asian immigrants gone entirely, not being celebrated for upholding the plaque's ideals better than they ever did.
Carlmont High School in Belmont, California also has one of those Native Sons plaques. Melanie Hamaguchi, writing for the school paper—the Scot Scoop—in 2014, says the school, "continues to uphold the same moral principles to which it was dedicated" and she quotes official district policy: "The Sequoia Union High School District does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex or disability in its educational programs or employment practices." Hamaguchi writes, "Carlmont upholds this policy by not accepting and not discriminating against all races or religions. No student is disallowed any privileges due to race, sexual orientation, or gender." I'm not sure if Hamguchi should be made aware of who put that plaque there (if she doesn't already know), or if maybe the dark is the better place to be here.
Similarly, Mr. Miyagi maybe come from some racist stereotypes, but he is given depth, and with the sequels, he is given room to grow. He feels more like a real person than, well, every other character in the film except for Daniel.
And, wherever he was coming from, whatever stereotypes, eight-year-old me saw Miyagi and Daniel (who may technically be white, but has darker skin) versus a bunch of angry white guys from Cobra Kai, and in Reagan's America, that meant something.