Karate vs TaeKwonDo: Is One Better Or Just Better For You?

Is there an objective better or worse choice when it comes to Japanese Karate or Korean TaeKwonDo? What if we were to lay out all of the things that make them similar and different? That would surely point to one that is better or worse right?

Japanese Karate hails from China via Okinawa. It stresses hand strikes and deep stances. TaeKwonDo is a recent Korean style with influences from China, indigenous Taekkyon, and Japan. It uses high targeted kicks and ‘walking’ stances. Each is effective for different people if used for its intended purpose.

The answer has to do with an individual’s preference, age, and athletic experience and skill rather than simply an objective comparison. As well, each of these styles were designed by different peoples, with varying influences, and for very different focuses. Let’s look at some of theses differences and similarities.

Karate vs TaeKwonDo – Tale Of The Tape

There are some distinct and very concrete things that can be compared between the two styles. As some are aware, preference doesn’t have to take any of this into account. Preference is simply a like or dislike, a personal choice.

Yet, when someone wants to form an opinion, that has to be at least loosely based on objective facts that others can then review to see where the opinion came from. An opinion is public and up for public consideration.

So to form an opinion about each of these, we have to go a bit further than preference and base it on something concrete. In the chart below, I have laid out many areas by which to judge the two side by side. This is a good starting point for forming an opinion.

#Movements Or ConceptsKarate’s FocusTaeKwonDo’s Focus
1Kicking TechniquesLower and higher targets with simplicity preferredHigh targets with jumping, and spinning encouraged
2Hand / Arm TechniquesHead targeting with lunging stressedDiscouraged, especially to the head
3BlockingHands are held higher do to fast head targeted hand strikes. Blocks, head movement, and distance control are also used.Hands are held much lower since hand strikes to the head are not usually used. Leaning, distance control, and counters are preferred to blocks.
4Footwork / StancesWider, lower stances are usedMostly narrower natural standing stances
5Patterns / FormsOkinawan based forms using straight line footwork (Kata)Modern Korean designed Forms (Poomsae), though influenced by Japanese Kata
6Free Fighting / SparringLess padding, hand to head shots scored, point or knockdown basedMore padding, head shots not scored with hands, point based
7CompetitionHigh level of international competition which includes the OlympicsExtensive world wide tournaments circuits based on and including the Olympic Games
8Uniforms / ApparelThe majority utilize the more Japanese ‘wrap around’ uniform (Gi)Most use ‘V neck’ newer Korean designed uniforms (Dobok)
9Training SpaceKarate uses the term dojoTaeKwonDo schools or halls are called a dojang
10Terms And PhrasesTerminology used is JapaneseTerms used are Korean
11Style HistoryKarate traces its techniques traditionally to China via Okinawa. It was then blended with the local ‘te’ or hand styles.TaeKwonDo is a recently developed style with roots in Chinese and indigenous practices with strong Japanese influences due to their long occupation

With this as a starting point, you can get a general picture of what to base an opinion on when deciding which style is a better fit for you and your needs. Some of these may appeal to one type of person while not another.

We also need to take into account what each of these styles were designed to accomplish. Trying to make a style fit your desired application when it was designed for something completely different is the cause of many negative views of a martial arts system.

Let’s look at the history of Karate versus the history of TaeKwonDo. This I believe will shed some light on why each have their focuses so varied from one another.

History Defines Purpose: Karate vs TaeKwonDo

With each of these styles you have some common links in their overall stories. These links are both from common origins as well as interactions between the two cultures.

We can take a look at each individually, but points of obvious overlap and commonalities will be apparent. Yet, it is their unique stories that gives a better understanding of the differences they have in their respective styles practiced today.

Karate’s History Influences All Of Our Present Cultures

Karate’s history begins not simply with the infamous Samurai culture as many may suppose. The Samurai had included in their fighting techniques many similar concepts and movements found in most Karate systems today.

The difference is that these techniques used by Samurai were based primarily around the use of the sword or other long weapons. Their ’empty handed’ techniques were supportive and not primary in nature.

This means the techniques they used and how they were applied were very different than the ones we see in Karate. Some of these techniques still exist in Japanese forms of Jujitsu, but not so much in Karate.

So where did Karate come from if not from the Samurai of Japan’s past? The answer lies in a combination of Chinese influence and the indigenous unarmed fighting systems of the island of Okinawa. The traditional empty handed fighting arts of places like Okinawa were called ‘te‘ or hand arts.

There are several variances to the story of how the influence of Kung Fu and the Chinese method of fighting entered the picture in the Okinawan culture. Southern China’s low land long form stances can be seen in the deep stances of Karate.

Yet, the linear movements and the economy of motion inherent in Karate bespeaks of the Japanese cultural influence. Where Chinese Kung Fu in many of its iterations display circular movements, Karate tends toward direct and efficient actions.

Another consideration when comparing TaeKwonDo and Karate throughout history is their similar motives for the spread of their respective arts. Karate’s rise in worldwide popularity corresponded nearly directly with Japanese cultural exchanges as it tried to reestablish itself on the world scene after World War II.

We will see a similar attempt by the Korean people, though with a different cause. What is noteworthy is both of these styles being used to bolster a national identity and cultural significance to a world audience.

The rise of Karate on the world wide scene was through many avenues after the end of the war. Its appearance in films was as wide ranging as westerns to cartoons. Television nearly from its inception had traces of it with its beginnings in nearly the same time period.

It is evidence of a concerted effort to redefine the world perception of Japan and celebrate its unique culture’s ability to add to the global community as a whole.

Now Karate is a household Japanese word that usually garners respect and admiration for the Japanese people. There are numerous Karate schools around the world and their influence on our media, entertainment, and cultures is undeniable.

If you would like an in depth look at the belt structure and the difference in the top 20 styles of Karate, click here to read my article explaining it all.

The Korean, Japanese, and Chinese Roots Of TaeKwonDo

According to an article published by Michigan State University, the story of the name TaeKwonDo and all practitioners using that name only stretches back to the year 1955. Before this there were a series of recorded versions of contributing styles and numerous influences.

Some try to directly link TKD to the ancient military fighting arts practiced on the peninsula and used with great success by the Silla kingdom. This is a fairly large oversimplification. The original roots are an amalgamation of Chinese, Japanese, and indigenous Korean influences.

One of the most ancient influences on the fighting styles of the Korean peoples is the connection with China. Evidence of this can be expressly seen today in the existance of a diverging branch of Korean martial arts that was a continuation of the nine ‘Kwan‘ schools dominating Korea before 1955.

Tang Soo Do is a style regularly seen under the Moo Duk Kwan designation that refused to transfer to the international sport based TaeKwonDo formed during the 50s. The name literally means ‘The China Way’. This understandably would not do for a country attempting to establish itself with a unique identity on the world scene.

This brings us to the similar reasons for the rise of TaeKwonDo in the international scene, reminiscent of the ascent of Karate. Japan showed increased aggression toward the Korean peoples and lands for many years before, but officially occupied Korea after the Korean annexation treaty of 1910.

This forced occupation, suppression of culture, and outlawing of non-Japanese martial arts lasted until the Japanese surrender to allied forces on the 15th of August, 1945. After this erasure of freedom and culture for many decades, the Korean people wanted an authentic symbol of their uniquely Korean heritage.

Thus, at the same time Japan was attempting to repair their worldwide reputation using cultural contributions like Karate, Korea was attempting to construct an authentically Korean one. With this in mind, it is clear why a martial art like “The China Way” would just not do.

Korean efforts were greatly aided with the formation of the WTF and the influence of its first president who was also a member of the Olympic committee. The push for a distinct Korean identity was aided in no small part by the rise and spread of TaeKwonDo. This ultimately led to it being accepted as an official Olympic sport in 1994.

If you would like to see a well done, detailed history of the martial arts of Korea and its people, check out Alex Gillis’ book on Amazon at this link.

To read more about the rise of TaeKwonDo and the formation of the differing TKD associations, see my article on TaeKwonDo’s belts, associations, and history to find out more.

Karate Hands Versus TaeKwonDo Hands

With an understanding of the differing roots and overlapping histories of each of these styles, we can then turn to the application of the techniques themselves. One of the most ‘striking’ (pun intended) differences in Karate vs TaeKwonDo is the general focus of the systems.

For anyone that has spent time studying each of these styles it is immediately apparent that they have an emphasis on completely different types of striking. Karate is a hand focused art with a nearly equal balance of kicking. For most part the associations of TKD are primarily kicking based.

Karate’s Hand Focus

Karate uses hip movement, sliding, and jumping to add power to lunging hand strike combinations. This difference from TaeKwonDo is further bolstered by the fact that a large portion of these hand strikes are targeted at the head.

There is also a distinct use of open hand and backhand types of attacks in Karate. These are not as prevalent in TaeKwonDo sparring and competition, though they are taught as techniques. The focus on ‘the hands’ is a major element in most Karate styles.

In TaeKwonDo there is a concerted effort to encourage varied forms of kicking techniques. This is done by sport rules, teaching practices, and links to traditions. What this in effect does is relegate punching and most hand strikes to a secondary role.

The ITF (International TaeKwonDo Federations) does attempt to remedy this, but it comes across as only a slightly higher second class technique. The rules in Olympic TaeKwonDo essentially ruled by the WT, World TaeKwonDo (formerly the WTF, World TaeKwonDo Federation) essentially relegate hand strikes ineffective in competition.

Here is the Olympic scoring system for TaeKwonDo. Its downplay of hand techniques and encouragement of kicking and associated stances is obvious with the following chart.

TaeKwonDo Olympic Scoring

Type of Valid StrikePoints AwardedComparison to Hand Strike Points
Hand strike to the chest protector1
Valid kick to the chest protector2Double (2x)
Valid kick to the head3Triple (3x)
Valid spinning kick to the chest protector4Quadruple (4x)
Valid spinning kick to the head5Quintuple (5x)

From this chart it is obvious to see the concerted effort on the part of competition organizers and style leaders to encourage not only kicks, but spinning and even jump spinning kicks.

There is also the fact that one of the major disallowed techniques in most TaeKwonDo competitions is the hand strike of any kind to the head.

With these as the central focus of the vast majority of TaeKwonDo schools and competition teams, is it any wonder that a practitioner of this system will have severely underdeveloped hand strikes? Karate wins ‘hands down’ (pun intended) when it comes to hand striking.

TaeKwonDo is not the only style that does this though. This is a major component of sport in general. If a style becomes hyper focused on the sport associated with it, this is unfortunately the inevitable outcome.

The Nature of Sport

Judo for example, severely limits the time allowed grappling on the ground to encourage the more dynamic throwing techniques of the art. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu doesn’t allow ‘slamming’ in an attempt to encourage exactly the opposite result. They allow simply sitting in a match where it is a penalty in Judo.

These two are only a couple of examples that resemble TaeKwonDo’s practice of determining what techniques will be seen more than others in competitions.

This can also be seen in ‘sports’ like Mixed Martial Arts. In the early days it was called No-Holds-Barred and nearly all techniques were allowed. With the growing spectator popularity, it was noticed that fans wanted more knockouts and the safety that sport rules bring for combatants.

This was also furthered by organizers wish to keep grappling viable in a Mixed Martial Arts environment. They also outlawed groin strikes, headbutts, and most strikes on downed opponents from standing.

All of these moves severely curtailed techniques available to grapplers used to fighting from their backs. These rules were put in place to keep the abilities of grapplers usable ‘in the cage’.

This type of control in competition is actually foundational to competition itself. Boundaries and rules are formed around preferred actions and exclude others. It is the nature of sport.

The Difference A Kick Makes – Karate vs TaeKwonDo

If there is that much difference in the use of hand techniques what about kicking techniques? Are there as many differences there as well. The short answer is, yes.

With Karate being a more balance style and TaeKwonDo laser focusing on kicking, the application and use of what should be very similar technique arsenals is very different. TaeKwonDo kicking becomes much more acrobatic in most cases, and Karate’s kicks follow a more minimalist and decidedly Japanese format.

What Makes A Karate Kick vs A TaeKwonDo Kick?

Let’s go over some of the basics that make the kicking philosophy different in TaeKwonDo and Karate. To the untrained eye, there may not be a significant difference, but to those that have train in or with each the difference is fairly strong.

The kicks of Karate are shorter in reach and designed more for quick impact and retraction. This has a lot to do with the fact that they are usually led by hand strikes or followed up by them. The distance required for hand strikes to be applicable is shorter than for kicks.

For this reason you will see more angling off with hand strikes and throwing close in kicks even to the head level. It also changes some of the kicking form as with a ‘hook kick’. It tends to be thrown from closer in for Karate and the bending of the knee to curve the kick up or around defending limbs is more pronounced.

In TaeKwonDo kicks are usually from farther out, done with more hip rotation to gain power, and many times left hanging in the air longer in last ditch efforts to hit their target.

Due to the takedowns inherent in most Karate styles and the quick follow-up of hand attacks, leaving kicks in the air too long could result in a hard fall.

There is also the tendency in TaeKwonDo to do more spinning and jumping kicks. In Karate, the more athletic maneuvers lean more toward lunging and sweeps to downward strikes.

How Do Such Differing Views Of The Same Techniques Come About?

There is a direct correlation to the techniques in a style and the uses it was designed for. A style like Karate was designed for empty handed self defense of an unarmed civilian. This was what is became at least.

Yet, we have to look at its original influences and their intents as well. Many of the forms of Kung Fu that come out of many differing regions of China offered solutions to common problems of war time and peace time defense. In the southern lowlands of China deeper stances were prevenlant on flatter terrain.

These lower regions were where Karate got its initial roots before it came to fruition on the Japanese islands.

In contrast, the more mountainous terrain in the north of China informed the more narrow stances of the styles that in turn influenced the fighting systems in Korea. Though there are always variations and changes throughout time, these ancient foundations remain.

Some of the stances in both Karate and TaeKwonDo come from a time when those using the technique would be mounted on horseback. Others are based on being waste deep in water.

To understand the reason these could be sometimes opposite in application within each style, you have to understand what the intent and purpose of the original designers was.

Another issue is the development over time and use that the techniques take on in a modern setting. Today with both Karate and TaeKwonDo having an Olympic stage, the sport side of these arts has become dominant in many schools and styles.

This can be seen also in styles claiming their ‘street effectiveness’ like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Kali. The more popular the sports become, the more geared toward that specific rule system and set of techniques the style will be. It is just the way of things.

Which Is Better, Karate Or TaeKwonDo?

To be honest, I have studied for many years in both Karate and TaeKwonDo as well as many other styles. They both have useful and not so useful techniques and philosophies. Some of my favorite kicks come from Isshinryu Karate. Yet, some of my most successful knockouts landed in competitions have come from a modified version of a TaeKwonDo style kick.

Each need to be used in the way it was designed and true to the way it was intended. If you use them in an environment or for a purpose for which they were not intended, you could be setting yourself up for disappointment, an injury, or worse.

Now for a bit of reality based discussion when it comes to Karate vs TaeKwonDo. This applies to absolutely every fighting style, military strategy, and weapons of all types.

I have followed the career of Lloyd Irvin, a very successful MMA/Grappling instructor and competitor for many years. In the following video he discusses some serious topics that many looking at the differences in styles should watch. Watch all of it and you will soon realize the significance in the differences in styles, why they exist, and the intrinsic value in each.

Here is that video. This is an adult style conversation about real life situations. Parents and adult students alike owe it to yourselves to watch it all the way through. (Caution: the topics in this video are not for children.)

This is the reality behind much of the hype and propaganda that comes along with the martial arts.

The Karate Vs TaeKwonDo Takeaway…

With this brief overview of these two rich and deep martial arts styles, we have covered everything from politics, wartime realities, history, sport, and practicality. Hopefully you can see why this small journey was necessary.

There is no one style that is better than another. All have value if used for the purpose in which it was intended. If you are looking for a style with economy of motion, an equal use of hands and feet, and a decent amount of grappling and weapons training, then Karate is for you.

If on the other hand, you are needing a distance controlling style where you can be holding anything and still have effective striking capabilities primarily with your legs, then TaeKwonDo is up your ally.

Of course, there are a multitude of other reasons to study each of these styles, this is just for illustration purposes. Hopefully I have impressed on you the value in each of these arts.

With their rich and interesting histories and their success in spreading their respective cultures around the world, both styles are a worthy pursuit. My personal recommendation would be to study them both. I did and it made a huge difference in my ability to defend myself and look logically and reasonably at what real self defense means.

Mathew Booe

Mathew Booe is a father of four, husband to Jackie since 1994, retired international competitor with over 50 wins, an international seminar instructor, a master instructor of hundreds of Little Ninjas each week, and the one bringing you the great content like you just read. Sign up for the newsletter to hear about his upcoming books before they are released to the public.

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