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Globalization has brought a number of unexpected changes to our everyday lives. Not only did it give us access to Facebook and Google, but we have also gained more insight into the Eastern world. One of the most prominent things every person in Europe will remember about Asia and the rest of the Eastern world is their variety of martial arts. Karate probably holds the position for the most popular of all; it is very rare for a person to claim they haven’ at least heard the term. Taekwondo is another one of the Eastern martial arts that have gained popularity in the last couple of decades, mostly for its flashy kicks. But what actually is the difference between them?
The main difference between Karate and Taekwondo is that Karate places much more emphasis on using the hands, while Taekwondo is primarily a kicking art. Even though they might seem similar, the actual fighting style is very different.
The two styles have a lot of similarities as well, and in this article, we have tried to sum up both these arts’ main elements, similarities and differences. In the end, there is even a part about the effectiveness of each art in a self-defense scenario, so if you are interested, let’s dive into these wonderful martial arts!
A little bit about Karate
When someone mentions Karate, the average person would think of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan or perhaps the Karate Kid. A person trained in Karate, however, called a „karateka”, would probably think of the Ryukyu Kingdom or Gichin Funakoshi. The style of Karate that is widespread today was developed in the Ryukyu Kingdom (Okinawa today), and the person most widely considered to be the father of modern Karate is Gichin Funakoshi. He founded Shotokan Karate-Do, the most popular style of Karate.
Karate is mainly a striking art that uses punching, kicking together with knee and elbow strikes. In traditional schools, some forms of grappling, throws and joint locks are also taught, but those schools are quite rare in the Western hemisphere. Contrary to popular belief, Karate is not only a bloody, raw and brutal form of exercise. Traditionally, it has deep ties to a form of Buddhism and is profoundly philosophical.
Looking at it from a less traditional perspective, Karate is actually a great form of exercise. Not only because karateka is usually in great shape, but also because the fitness they have is functional fitness. With great emphasis on stretching, karateka is not only strong, but also flexible and agile.
The techniques, strikes and defenses they learn can be used for self-defense and also as a way to increase one’s confidence and, surprisingly, mindfulness, or presence at the moment. Karate is great training for the mind and the body alike, so it is not a wonder that more and more parents are deciding to take their kids to Karate classes.
A little bit about Taekwondo
Taekwondo has some roots in Chinese martial art styles and Karate, but is ultimately a Korean martial art. Martial arts experts, who mixed Kung Fu, Karate and other Chinese styles with indigenous Korean styles such as Taekkyon and Subak, developed it in the 1940s and 1950s.
This martial art focuses mostly on using the legs to perform high-kicks, jumping and spinning kicks and other kicking techniques.
One of the core concepts of Taekwondo is Choi Hong Hi’s Theory of Power. Choi was a Korean army general and martial artist, who tried to analyze martial arts in order to systematically create a style with which he would synthesize all he learned beforehand. In his investigations, he found that the power of a strike increases quadratically with speed, but only linearly with mass. That means that the speed of a strike, and thus the speed of a fighter is much more important than muscle mass, since speed can generate much more force.
Another central idea to Taekwondo is the relax-strike principle. Choi and his followers believed that in-between the active elements of a fight (strikes, movements and defense), the fighter should remain completely relaxed. This way, the fighter can conserve energy and use more of it for an attack than they could if they used it while stationary.
Taekwondo, compared to other martial arts, can be considered quite flashy. The large movements and high kicks make for a very visually entertaining art, which is probably one of the main reasons it has also spread quickly around the world. Though it is not an all-around martial art like Karate, since one’s hands are barely used, an argument could be made that the extreme focus on kicks more than compensates for the lack of diversity.
What are the differences between Karate and Taekwondo?
Though both originate from Asia and both karateka and Taekwondo practitioners wear similar outfits on trainings, there is not much that is similar between the two styles of fighting. The word karate is usually translated to „empty hand”, though other translations, such as „Chinese hand” or „Tang dynasty hand” can be found as well, but one thing is clear: all translations contain the word „hand”.
The reason for that is the fact that Karate is a martial art based mostly around the use of the hands. As mentioned before, Taekwondo almost completely neglects the hand, which makes for the biggest distinction between the two martial art styles. The two styles seem to be a reverse of one-another: Karate uses hand attacks, but uses kicks as a backup, while Taekwondo uses kicks for attacking and hands for backup.
In terms of exercise, both can provide one with great athleticism, but Taekwondo might have an edge here since all the kicking and jumping make it somewhat of a better workout. Karate is more rigid and linear, there are usually more breathing techniques involved and less large movements. It must be noted though, that Karate has large movements compared to other styles, but it is not much compared to Taekwondo with its spinning jump kicks.
What are the similarities between Karate and Taekwondo?
Though much separates them, these two popular martial art styles do have a couple things in common. Aside from the fact that they originate from the same continent, not much of their history is shared, but much of the basic concepts actually are.
When one starts training either of the two, the basics are quite similar. The stances, the basic philosophy, the uniform and structure of the associations, and training are pretty much the same.
Both martial arts use the famous belt grading system, with belt colors starting at white for beginners and ending with black for masters. The exams are also structured similarly, though the contents of the exams themselves are clearly very different.
In conclusion, the skeleton of these two styles is the same. One can have a very similar experience in a Taekwondo school as in a Shotokan Karate-do school, except for the fact that the fighting style will differ greatly.
Which is better for self-defense: Karate or Taekwondo?
This is the question most martial artists do not like to be asked. Which one is better for self-defense? The answer one might get from a seasoned martial artist is always the same: it depends on who trains it and where. It is truly an individual and specific problem.
A karateka might get into a fight with three people and win, but can get punched once by a boxer and get knocked out. Many martial artists claim to throw their art out the window when it comes to the street, since the two contexts are incomparable. Nevertheless, it might be of value to try to compare the two in terms of street-effectiveness.
The usual self-defense video one might see on the internet is an attacker standing behind a tree, waiting for the „unsuspecting” passerby (usually a woman, for dramatic effect) to reach the tree, then be surprised when they get taken down with precise strikes by the passer by. The problem with these promotional videos is that they are unrealistic.
Most fights happen in close-up scenarios, in bars or cafés, in alleys or locker rooms. There are certain things both schools teach, which can be useful in these situations, like awareness of your surroundings and keeping distance, but Karate might have an edge over Taekwondo in everyday situations, because of the use of hands.
You only need one kick to be taken down by a Taekwondo practitioner, but what are the chances that a person could execute and precisely land a spinning kick in a bar scenario, for example? Not much. Karate keeps you on your feet and teaches you to use your hands efficiently. If you miss a spinning kick, you might end up on the floor, which is a very bad place to be in a street fight.
However, if you miss a punch, you probably can just send another one towards your enemy without losing your balance or having to turn your back to your attacker.
Classical Karate might give you more of an edge in a street fight, but it is worth mentioning that a Taekwondo practitioner also has a massive advantage over the average Joe who feels strong after three beers. It is also a useful tool to have on the streets, and if you know how to use your legs, they can generate much more force than your arms can.
Training either martial art is better than training none, both can provide amazing ways to train both the mind and the body, but if you are looking for a self-defense tool, you might be better off with training Karate.
If you are interested, check out how Karate and Taekwondo compare to other martial arts in terms of self-defense.