Karate in Popular Culture

Written by Sensei Jon Davis

24 May 2024


Karate has come a long way from its humble origins in Okinawa. It has transcended its roots to become a prominent feature in popular culture worldwide. From movies and television to music and video games, its influence is pervasive and continues to inspire new generations of martial artists. 



The Impact of the Movie Screen

Movies have played a huge role in popularizing karate and other martial arts, by introducing its philosophy and techniques to a global audience. Bruce Lee’s films, particularly “Enter the Dragon” (1973) caught the attention of many. Although Bruce Lee practiced Jeet Kune Do, his movies often included elements of karate and significantly boosted interest in martial arts. Lee’s incredible skill, philosophy, and charisma made him a global icon and inspired countless individuals to take up martial arts training.



Among my personal favorites, is the 1984 film, “The Karate Kid.”. This iconic movie features Mr. Miyagi and his young student Daniel LaRusso, and it not only showcases karate techniques, but also emphasizes its core values of discipline, respect, and perseverance. The franchise of Karate Kid 1, 2, 3, and “The Next Karate Kid” would be later revived by the successful “Cobra Kai” series on Netflix, highlighting karate’s lasting appeal.

Television’s Role in Karate’s Popularity

Television series have also contributed to the spread of karate. In 1972, the popular TV series, “Kung Fu” hit the airwaves, exposing the west to the adventures of Kwai Chang Caine, a Shaolin monk who travels through the American Old West, armed only with his spiritual training and his skill in martial arts. 


The “Cobra Kai” series mentioned earlier reinvigorated interest in karate among new and old fans alike. Set decades after the original “Karate Kid” films, it explores the lives of the original characters and introduces new ones, blending nostalgia and fresh storylines.


Shows like “Power Rangers” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” have done a good job of bringing martial arts, including karate, to younger audiences. These shows combine action-packed fight scenes with positive messages about teamwork and self-improvement, which reflect karate’s ethical teachings.


Video Games and Karate

Video games have played an important role in bringing karate to the digital age. One of the earliest martial arts games was “Karate Champ” (1984), and it allowed players to engage in karate tournaments. This game set the stage for future fighting games and helped establish karate’s presence in the gaming world.


Later, games like “Street Fighter,” “Tekken,” and “Mortal Kombat” feature characters who are martial artists using signature moves and special techniques. These games are not only fun, but can also introduce players to different martial arts styles and their characteristics.

Karate in Music and Fashion

Martial arts have impacted other genres as well, including music. For instance, the Wu-Tang Clan, a legendary hip-hop group, frequently references martial arts, including karate, in their lyrics and imagery.


Martial arts influences can be seen in the fashion industry as well! From high-end designers to street wear brands, elements like gi-inspired jackets and shirts, as well as belts have made their way into mainstream fashion, highlighting the art’s aesthetic appeal.


Karate’s Broader Cultural Impact

Beyond entertainment, karate has influenced many aspects of popular culture, including literature, commercials, and even motivational speaking. The principles of karate - discipline, respect, and self-improvement resonate with many people, making it a powerful metaphor in a multitude of scenarios.


In literature, books like “The Way of the Warrior Kid” by Jocko Willink use karate and other martial arts as a framework to teach children valuable life lessons. Commercials often use karate to convey messages of strength, confidence, and control, using the art’s powerful imagery to connect with audiences. 


Whether through movies, television, music, fashion, video games, or literature, karate continues to captivate and inspire. For our dojo, this widespread cultural presence is a testament to the art’s powerful impact and ability to reach and influence people from all walks of life. As we train and grow together, let’s remember and celebrate the rich cultural heritage of the martial arts, both in and out of the dojo!

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