The Meaning of Kai in ‘Cobra Kai’

William Zabka Cobra Kai Dojo

YouTube Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) smiles while teaching his students at Cobra Kai.

In the Karate Kid film franchise, the members of the Cobra Kai dojo continually antagonize Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio). The dojo, located in the San Fernando Valley, is owned by the ruthless Vietnam veteran John Kreese (Martin Kove).

In the acclaimed series Cobra Kai, Kreese’s former student Johnny Lawrence (William “Billy” Zabka) opens his own dojo in a strip mall under the same name. While he is not the most politically correct sensei, Johnny teaches his students to fight with honor. However, that soon changes when Kreese gets involved with Cobra Kai and eventually takes over the karate studio.

Fans of the martial arts franchise may be curious as to how the iconic dojo got its name.

The Word ‘Kai’ Has a Simple Meaning

Barrett Carnahan as Young Kreese

YouTubeBarrett Carnahan portrays a younger John Kreese in Cobra Kai Season 3.

According to Den of Geeks, in Japanese, “Kai” translates to “assembly or meeting.” The publication noted that in the context of martial arts, “it’s a suffix that denotes an organization or group.” 

It is not confirmed, however, as to why the karate studio is named after a type of snake. That being said, it seems the name may have been inspired by a horrific experience Kreese went through while serving in Vietnam.

During Cobra Kai’s third season, Kreese’s background is explored through flashbacks. In Season 3, Episode 10, a young Kreese, played by Barrett Carnahan, is shown being a prisoner of war. He makes the sacrifice to fight his commanding officer to save his friend Twig. The men are forced to face off on a platform that had been built above a large pit containing a countless number of snakes. 

Before the fight, the officer reveals to Kreese that his girlfriend Betsy had passed away after she “wrapped her car around a tree driving to visit her grandmother in Pasadena.” The devastated soldier nearly loses the brutal fight before subduing his adversary. 

While the officer is clinging on to the platform, American troops rescue the imprisoned soldiers. He then commands Kreese to “pull [him] up.” However, Kreese ignores his request and stomps on his hands, ultimately causing his demise. 

While Cobra Kai Is Not a Real Dojo, the Show’s Cast Trains in the Martial Arts

Johnny Lawrence at Cobra Kai

YouTubeJohnny Lawrence (William Zabka) teaches his students at Cobra Kai.

Unfortunately for fans of the Karate Kid franchise, Cobra Kai is not a real dojo. That being said, cast members of the Karate Kid films and Cobra Kai went through rigorous martial arts training to depict their karate-loving characters. 

During a 2018 interview with Sports Illustrated, William Zabka described the training process for the 1984 martial arts film. 

“We worked five days a week, four hours a day for the month before we shot. Then every day after that. They’d just roll out gymnastics mats on the set,” said the actor. 

He also disclosed that the film’s martial arts choreographer, Pat Johnson, could be tough at times. He told the publication: 

If I was doing something sloppy, Pat would grab me and twist my leg. If I ever turned my back on him, he’d sweep me to the ground and say, ‘Never turn your back on anybody!’

While speaking to Backstage in a recent Instagram live interview, Tanner Buchanan, who plays Johnny Lawrence’s Robby Keene, noted that he and his Cobra Kai co-stars have hectic training schedules. 

“We’re working seven days a week training [for fight scenes] as much as you possibly can if you’re not shooting, you’re preparing for a fight or training or working on lines it just doesn’t stop,” said Buchanan. 

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