Karate vs. Taekwondo: What Is The Difference?

December 10, 2020

Once you decide to enroll yourself in martial arts classes, you will come across two common options: Karate and Taekwondo. You may have learned about Karate from the infamous Mr. Myagi whereas Taekwondo can typically fly under the radar.

Karate is a Japanese martial art form, whereas Taekwondo originates from Korea. A noticeable difference between the two is that Taekwondo places more emphasis on kicking as compared to Karate.

Both Karate and Taekwondo are very useful in situations where you have to defend yourself. Many forms of Taekwondo are related to jumping and spinning kicks, whereas some aspects of Karate focus on simple but effective strikes that come with less margin of error.

You might find yourself wondering about the difference between the two and which one more is suitable for you. 

The History of Karate

History of Karate

The first practice of Karate was started around 500 years ago on the island of Okinawa in Japan. Although there isn’t much-written evidence to back this up, many people believe that Karate was created when King Shoha, who ruled back then, stopped the use of weapons on their Island to prevent war. For this reason, people started to use hand-to-hand combat to defend themselves.

Karate has both Chinese and Japanese influence since the two cultures were exposed to one another. The first-ever master of Karate, Funakoshi Gichin who was born in 1868 and decided to dedicate his entire life to teaching Karate across Japan.

His followers immediately picked up where he left off and decided to establish the Japan Karate Association in 1949 to promote his martial arts style.

In the U.S the first karate space for training opened in 1945 and has spread over the years all over the world. It is evolving constantly as a martial art and has also branched itself in a few different styles. Today, the most common distinct styles are:

  • Wado-Ryu
  • Shotokan
  • Shito-Ryu
  • Goju-Ryu

Origins of Taekwondo

History of Taekwondo

Taekwondo has ancient roots as well. The earliest records of people who practice this hand-to-hand combat method date back to 50 B.C.E in Korea. Tae means to kick, whereas Kwon means to punch or destroy, and Do means a way of doing things. So, in short, Taekwondo means to use your entire body to defend yourself.

When Japan took over Korea in the 1900s, the Japanese banned military arts training, which included Taekwondo. However, some groups went on to practice it in secret, whereas others traveled to learn arts in Japan and China. Since Judo, Kung Fu, and Karate were all introduced in Korea, Taekwondo morphed into different styles due to their influence.

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The Taekwondo that we learn today started in 1955 when Kwan masters met together for a conference on martial arts. They merged their different styles to produce a more uniform way of martial arts, which they then named Taekwondo.

What Are The Differences Between Karate and Taekwondo?

Taekwondo and Karate can be very similar to someone who recently developed an interest in martial arts. But when you look at their gear, techniques, and rules, you can understand how different they actually are from one another.

Both art forms can be differentiated based on the following factors:

Techniques

Karate is more popularly known as the art of striking. It features kicking, punching, and other open-handed techniques. Although joint manipulations, vital point striking, grappling, and throws are taught with the same emphasis within a class setting. Karate allows the person to defeat their opponent by using two methods: kicking and striking.

For Karate, the practitioner has to go through hard physical training to develop a set of skills that require mental and strenuous physical discipline. Karate means “empty hands,” which refers to the fact that Karate is a system of self-defense that relies entirely on the use of an unarmed body.

Taekwondo, however, is popular for using kicking techniques, which makes it different from Karate. The reason behind this is that the leg is the strongest and longest weapon a martial artist has, and kicks have the ability to execute powerful strikes.

Physically, Taekwondo develops speed, strength, flexibility, balance, and stamina. It masters the technique of concentration and symbolizes the joining of one’s physical and mental discipline.

Style/Forms

what is the difference between karate and taekwondo

Taekwondo is taught in two different forms. Kata and sparring. Kata, similar to karate, is known as “form” which is a choreographed routine of martial arts movements. Taekwondo sparring on the other hand is full contact fighting using a combination of offensive and defensive tricks and techniques against your opponent.

Karate, on the other hand, has all the basic and fundamental movements present in its learning system. It consists of the Three K that include Kata, Kihon and Kumite. Kihon stands for basics and are the roots of style and art.

When it comes to karate, basics include our stances, kicks, blocks, punches, and strikes. In order to have a strong Karate foundation, we must first practice Kihon basics on repeat.

Kata stands for form and is a sequence of movements put together to form a pattern that you have to then memorize. Kata training involves elements such as speed, technique, direction, rhythm, and power.

When it goes on a deeper level, the analysis of kata can provide you with discoveries for self-defense in practical life. If Kihon is our vocabulary, then kata is the grammar of karate.

The last K stands for Kumite, which means sparring or partner work. Partner work helps to introduce you to drills that, in return, help you get used to kicks, blocks, punches, and strikes.

Through these drills, you can apply your counter attacks and defensive movements against actual self-defense scenarios. Kumite is the sentence formation of karate and depends on how you express yourself using vocabulary (Kihon) and grammar (kata).

Rules

When it comes to rules, scoring in Karate competitions is very simple. It is limited to the following areas of the challenger’s body: head, neck, face, chest, side, abdomen, and back. A score is awarded when a practitioner performs a technique that conforms to the following criteria and lands on the above-mentioned body parts:

  • Good form
  • Accurate distance
  • Vigorous application
  • Good timing
  • Awareness
  • Sporting attitude

Fighters can score one, two, or three points for attacking techniques; three points are awarded for a Jodan kick or any scoring technique performed on a fallen opponent. Two points are given for mid-level kicks, and one point is awarded for mid or upper-level punch.

On the other hand, scoring for a taekwondo match is very simple. A player gets three points for a kick to the head, two points for a spinning kick to the opponent’s torso, and one point for a basic attack on their torso.

In major Taekwondo competitions, electronic scoring systems are used that are attached to the players’ chest and are adjusted to figure out the points, according to the pressure exerted on the system.

For head kicks, when electronic scoring is not used, panels of four judges have to push a button when they see scoring points, and when three judges agree to the score, a point is awarded.

Gear

A Taekwondo uniform is white and is known as the do bok. A colored belt is tied around the middle, which signifies what rank you are.

The belt colors range from white to yellow, green, blue, red, and then lastly, black, specifically in that order. Black belts are then provided with “dan” grades when they progress further in expertise and experience.

On the other hand, all competitors for Karate have to wear a traditional gi, which is plain as well. Karate also wears different belt colors to signify their rank, but also have stripes to indicate progress within that belt color.

Other equipment includes body protection, foot protectors, gum shield, and shin pads. Groin guards can also be worn but aren’t mandatory.

Is Karate or Taekwondo Better For Self-Defense?

is karate or taekwondo better for self defense

Both Karate and Taekwondo belong to the same branch of martial arts. They have very few differences in terms of form and ranks, and both provide you with a good workout while keeping self-defense as the main focus. Karate tends to focus more on solid stances, power, and strength, whereas Taekwondo focuses on flexibility, speed, and mobility.

Karate also tends to give equal time on foot and hand techniques, whereas Taekwondo focuses entirely on kicks. But when it comes to self-defense, Karate works more on-street self-defense with minimum preparation for tournaments, whereas Taekwondo focuses on tournaments more rather than self-defense.

Should You Learn Karate or Taekwondo?

Both Karate and Taekwondo are one of the best forms of martial arts present. They work well with both boys and girls and provide body strength and exceptionally good exercise. However, when choosing between the two, you need to think about the factors presented in this article.

Karate focuses on self-defense, whereas Taekwondo focuses on competition. The one that suits your needs the most is the one you should learn.

About the author 

James de Lacey

I am a professional strength & conditioning coach that works with professional and international level teams and athletes. I am a published scientific researcher and have completed my Masters in Sport & Exercise Science. I've combined my knowledge of research and experience to bring you the most practical bites to be applied to your combat training.


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