Karate vs. TaeKwonDo
The year was 1986 and I was certain I was going to be a ninja. I had the drive and I had the…well, I had the drive. But I also had unrestricted access to piles of sheet metal for throwing stars, a woodshop for nunchaku and about a half dozen copies of Ninja Magazine. Those skills coupled with my rad BMX, adventure and good fortune were a certainty.
But I soon realized that running around on our acreage in a discount ninja uniform purchased with beer bottle money was not exactly going to turn me into a fighting machine. So after an all night brain-washing session which involved watching The Karate Kid three times in a row with a six pack of Mountain Dew, I signed up at my local YMCA karate club. From there I spent nearly fifteen years getting trained in several Shotokan Karate dojos under the regional head, the legendary Yatuka Yaguchi Sensei. My career as a martial arts expert had begun.
But all things must end and from there I went to World TaeKwonDo Federation ( WTF ) dojang or as we call it in Shotokan Karate, slumming it. As such I soon became a fluent in two martial arts languages. Several of my family also have TKD black belts in various dojos and my son has also joined the local dojang.
So everyone ( yes, everyone ) asks me “DP, what’s the difference between karate and TaeKwonDo? Which is better?” Let’s start with the key components…
SPARRING vs. KUMITE
The difference in sparring between Karate and TaeKwonDo is dramatic at minimum and out-worldly at worst. Simply put, we’re talking about two completely different animals here.
Admittedly many different organizations do things differently. However, as a rule karate tournaments do not use padding with perhaps the exception of knuckle pads that only serve to minimize your opponents wedding ring imprint on your face. Karate uses a one hit/one point system which means both fighters move around a bit and look for the opportune moment to strike. Reverse punches are probably the most common scoring technique as kicks are deemed too slow and tend to leave the attacker open to a counterstrike. Each successful point stops the match and is resumed by the chief referee. The match is over when the winner usually reaches 3 full points.
WTF TaeKwonDo uses full gear and this is probably for the best as the extreme volume of kicks practically begs for the occasional high impact body shot. For that I admire TKD’s attention to safety because there’s nothing honorable about a concussion. Points are tabulated by a panel of judges and recorded on a digital scorekeeper. The point ranges can reach into the dozens and are almost exclusively kicks. Attacks are rarely blocked and punches are not viable point-getters. Generally the winner is whoever can activate their internal Tasmanian Devil Mode© and overwhelm the opponent. There are occasional pauses in the match to allow regaining of composure.
KATA vs. POOMSE
To watch Tanaka perform Unsu or Gankaku is like watching a stalking tiger. It is art. The air itself is sliced and the power of each punch has no doubt caused many a cameraman to hemorrhage. There is not a single movement that is not deliberate and laser precise. I spent some time in Goju Ryu and Uechi Ryu and they are much the same. Putting it mildly, there is no screwing around in kata. A punch is a damn punch and a block means business. A stance is a stance and getting it right takes years of practice. Extraneous moves are severely discouraged.
Poomse in TKD seems an afterthought as sparring is the primary focus. The stances are much higher to the point of not being much of a stance at all and movements bob up and down to the point of distraction. The punches are unconvincing and the blocks just plain pitiful. Worse yet, nobody seems to even care. Out of five dojangs I visited I saw no perceivable difference in Poomse quality. A multitude of YouTube videos showed much the same thing from high ranking WTF instructors. Sad to say that when it comes to forms, WTF TKD is woefully inept compared to traditional karate.
PROFIT vs. NON-PROFIT
So tell me why most TKD clubs are over a $100/month and many karate clubs are $20 or less? It’s all in the business model my friend. And it is here that WTF TKD is the undisputed champion.
While karate had it made in the 80’s, they certainly are a dying breed in todays consumer driven martial arts economy. Rarely does a traditional karate club own its own facilities. For many years I trained in a racquetball court. These low prices mean you buy your own uniform and any other gear you require. When I passed a test I even had to buy my own belts.
TKD on the other hand takes the high prices and puts it into things like large dojangs and equipment such as punching bags, loaner pads or complimentary uniforms for beginners. It’s hard to say if one system is superior to the other as while karate is cheaper, it would be nice to have access to all that sweet equipment TKD takes for granted.
This of course brings up the classic term: McDojo. I hate this word because I have seen it used in the wrong context so often. If a dojo/dojang finds a way to be financially viable, that is NOT an acceptable use of the term. True, WTF TKD is thought by many to be classic McDojo, but that should not be because they’re smart at business. For this they should actually be congratulated.
When I hit the big time in karate I splurged on a Japanese uniform that cost well over $100 at the time. It was thick, snappy 100% cotton and was worth every penny. Karate uniforms are almost always made out of cotton and range in quality from the discount Century uniforms to top of the line Shureido and Tokaido with a whole lot of middle. The top is put on like a jacket and the one side goes over the other. If there is any flair on the uniform it is usually restricted to a small crest. When I train at home I still like to put the old thing on from time to time just because it feels so badass.
The same quality range goes for TKD although they are generally 100% polyester such as what was used back in China thousands of years ago. They hold up to heavy use well, are lighter on the body and generally less expensive than their karate counterparts. TKD tops are also one piece V-necks and more often than not the waist band is elastic. Often higher up ranks have brand name uniforms that well… sort of advertise themselves a bit. Adidas stripes are the most common effect and you can decide on whether that appeals to you or not. TKD also likes to put club logos on the back and in extreme cases pepper that dang thing like a Boy Scout uniform with goofy badges although this practice is usually restricted to the kids.
POLITICS vs. $#@! POLITICS
Politics are one of those things that is very personal so my experiences may not reflect the greater whole. Your mileage may vary but be warned, I have seen the inside of many dojos and my experience is rather vast in this arena so don’t tell me about your problems if you’ve only been in this game under 5 years. You don’t know jack Junior.
One of the nice things about TaeKwonDo is surprisingly the politics. Don’t get me wrong, TKD can be a dog-eat-dog world like any other when you reach higher ranks. But let’s face it, with a WTF Certification it is easy as pie to pack your bags and move to another dojang down the block because there’s probably a half dozen of them. As long as the check clears you’re welcome anytime! With karate it would be easier to just smash your head through concrete.
Karate politics are friggin’ intense and I discovered this when I was a brown belt. I REALLY discovered it when testing for first Dan and once you’re a black belt it is nothing BUT politics. And if you decide to leave your dojo and want to still continue with karate then well, you’re pretty much screwed. Odds are there is not a similar dojo anywhere within driving distance and even if there was the Sensei’s exchange notes. That means in karate you have to eat poop much more often because the club is the only game in town. Plus, because most clubs are volunteer operated your money is worthless.
Also, ever wonder why karate is not in the Olympics? Simple. Too many styles that would never agree to a common set of rules. Yes, there are other TKD styles but the World TaeKwonDo Federation is big enough that they don’t really show up on the radar. Karate organizations divide like a Starbucks loaded bacteria.
In short, karate politics are hip deep in power games and woe be it upon you if you pick the wrong side. TaeKwonDo politics are more about business.
BELT vs. BELT
Ah, the ever subjective argument over which belt is of more prestigious value! It is here where we will dive into the proper use the term McDojo.
First, remember that either belt has no intrinsic value in itself. It is cloth. If it is worth something to you then that’s all that matters. Got it? I myself still keep my silk Shureido belt in its original case so evidently in the back of my mind it must still have some importance. Now chill out and continue.
A black belt in traditional karate will Break. Your. Balls. Nobody in traditional karate walks into a dojo and plans to have a black belt in two years. That kind of thinking will get weeded out of you very quickly once the training starts. And if for any reason…ANY reason…your instructor sees room for microscopic improvements then your Dan exam will be bumped up another 6 months. In short, a black belt in karate says as much about having incredible patience as it does having skill. If you got a black belt in karate then rest assured you bloody well earned it.
WTF TaeKwonDo…well…how can I put this tastefully? Look, I’m not saying having a club full of 10 year old black belts dilutes the…oh the Hell with it. That’s exactly what I’m saying. If a ten year old can pull it off then I think I know what the “WTF” means in WTF TKD.
When I was in TKD I was amazed that after a year I was already half way to my black belt. Wow! It would have taken me twice that long in karate and I not once had to take Sensei out for an expensive lunch!
Sadly, this is where TKD is a victim of its own success. I mean, you can’t exactly say “no” to all these paying customers who expect a black belt in 2 years can you? The parents want a picture to show on Facebook for cryin’ out loud and maintaining high principles means managing a small bank account balance. If Club A makes getting a black belt too hard, people just move over to Club B down the street and Club A goes out of business. This causes an infinite loop that dilutes the art of TKD even more over time.
To conclude, if you can ignore the color around your waist and see past all the Kung-Fu Theatre idiocy then both TKD and karate can still be incredibly rewarding recreational pastimes. The key to enjoying the one of your choosing is knowing what your tastes and expectations are before walking in the door. If you can do that then maybe you too can enjoy a good run.
But if Facebook bragging rights are your intent I suggest buying a cheap uniform, belt, and fake certificate online. Take your snapshot and move aside you lazy barnacle.
December 6, 2015 at
Well I must say, your description of TKD is definitely more focused on the super watered-down, Americanized, trash TKD. If you join the majority of dojangs for TKD, yes, they’ll teach you a crock of garbage. However, if you browse around enough, you’ll find a respectable, good dojang in which you can learn a usable form of TKD instead of the trashy sporting TKD taught nowadays. Keep in mind, it was once used in the Korean military, hands used, blocks used, punches used, as well as the legs. In short, it wasn’t the garbage being labeled as TKD nowadays, it was actually good and useful in a fight. If you wanna learn TKD, learn it from a highly-experienced Korean guy who doesn’t teach the Olympic crap. If you learn that good stuff, then it’s more on-par with stuff like Karate. Still, as with any martial art, it’s best paired with another martial art (or more), in this case something like Muay Thai, or boxing.
April 19, 2015 at
I joined Taekwondo because it’s really showy, and my friends and I love making action movies. It’s great for film. :)
January 28, 2015 at
Again, great article. I think WTF TKD is so broad that it varies. I definitely think its size & business influences leave it open to a whole lot more Mcdojos, but I think TKD is excellent IF YOU FIND THE RIGHT SCHOOL…. I think that’s true for all martial arts. I myself am a little sad you say our Poomsae were not good, but I definitely think this also varies with schools (i’ve seen TKD poomsae so bad I wanted to vomit). My school is Mu-Do (my apologies if it’s misspelled) meaning it is a traditional style school that puts extreme emphasis on powerful, smooth, intense Poomsae that comes from Gm. Won Kuk Li’s Okinawan Karate Katas & others which sometimes I think is a little too much intensity. But I sure do agree with you that it really varies :)
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November 21, 2014 at
Black belt in 2 years, really? The WTF TKD dojang my son attends to in Greece gives belts every six months. Given the fact that TKD has 10 belts (inluding the half ones) he is expected to get a black belt in 5 years. Thaht is pretty much how low it took me to get my black belt in Okinawa Karate. Anyway both Karate and TKD are good for kids and begginers. Practicing with Hapkido made me realise how little I knew!
March 15, 2015 at
No offense, but your WTF credentials are worth much more than your McDojo ATA credentials.
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March 15, 2015 at
Agreed. Lucky there is no ATA here in Greece. And to hapkido add the pro Hapkido trainining because there is a lot of mc dojo there to.
June 28, 2015 at
5 years is really quick compared to itf tkd. I’ve been training 9 years and I’m only getting a black belt now. Also I’m the quickest anyone has gotten a black belt from my instructor in 20 years of teaching
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June 29, 2015 at
Nine years to earn a black belt in ITF TKD to learn what? tules??? I imagine your instructor teaching hapkido. You would die from old age to get a black belt.
November 13, 2014 at
This literally made me laugh out loud. I have to agree with you, dude. When I was a kid, my sister & I took karate for 6 years and earned 3 belts! I even placed 2nd in a national competition. All that to say … it was tough. Fast forward 20 years, and now I’m a parent looking for a karate school and there’s only 2 in the whole city of Dallas. So I decide to put my sons in the Tae Kwon Do dojo nearby. To his credit, the master was great, tough, and old school. Definitely instilled discipline & respect. But man was it painfully repetitive! And I definitely could not figure out why the kicks were not blocked!?! And don’t get me started with the testing fees. When I grew up, your dues paid for the testing fees & your belt. Now I have to pay for every test? Yea, TKD is way, way, less challenging than karate, but great for kids. :-)
October 27, 2014 at
My taekwondo master say that the gear is for security but also you don’t put attention in what you’re making, you just throw kicks like a hurricane, and that take away the martial art because you don’t apply technique, you don’t focus on defense because if you receive a hit don’t hurt so much so you can continue without the worry of the damage, on the other way is unsafe if you don’t use the gear, but you put more attention in the combat because you’re focusing on attack AND defense, also you learn to be patient and apply strategy because you’re trying to make moves without lowering your guard and wait for the best momento to attack (something like judo), I practice WTF but my master make fights without the gears so we can adapt to a “real-life” fight (sorry about my english isn’t my natal lenguage and is awful but i think is understandable xD)
September 21, 2014 at
I gather you never studied or trained under a Traditional ITF Grand Master like Grand Master Kwon Jae Hwa…I have had this honor for over 40 years… ITF uses many upper body techniques like punching and like block punching as you mentioned.. Useless I have no idea why you would even write and article like this.. It’s sure better to have some sought of idea how to protect yourself in a dangerous situation than there is to have no idea what to do at all… Taekwondo changed many lives for the better, with strong minds along with strong bodies & sharp techniques knowing how to use a deverstationing punch or kick to a shock zone…I can go on all day long writing about TKD but what’s the use… Your mind is made up that pretty much all martial arts are not worth learning…You are so wrong my man…I’m 77 years old and have been training over 40. Years in the ITF with the same master and oh what a journey it was…So don’t take to mind what this author was writing about degrading the Martial Arts…If you are already training, keep training, if you’re thinking about joining a Martial Art , don’t walk, run to the nearest DOJANG and get started. I can promise you, you will not be disappointed…
September 21, 2014 at
Guy can’t be everywhere!
No, I did not train ITF. The article also explains that WTF is the style being referred to. I have however trained in Shotokan for fifteen years with the JKA under Yaguchi Sensei who is the last of a dying breed of true karate-ka. Since ITF is a cheap copy of JKA, I see no reason to repeat my training with an inferior product.
Right now, the idea of going back to a dojo…ANY dojo, makes me cringe. I’m just so tired of the cult mentality and the waste of time involved in being with martial arts. Honestly, take up fishing and do P90X or something. Far better use of your time and better results to boot.
October 3, 2014 at
The ITF training I undergo is well rounded. More kicking than karate from the get go, while still keeping the punches, hitting things, e.t.c – everything karate should have been, but isn’t. Couldn’t be more happy.
September 16, 2014 at
WTF taekwondo is pretty much a joke, yeah. But I’ve seen a few articles on this site in general just ragging on tae kwon do in all its form, one guy even toating his “shotokan” superiority.
You guys do realize tae kwon do is essentially an off shoot of shotokan karate with a korean label on it and a bit more kicking? lol?
Its no more useless than karate would be.
September 16, 2014 at
If you truly had read the other articles, then you would know I give karate an equally hard time, as is evident by the scores of hate mail my inbox keeps filtering from rabid karate-cultists.
I have also mentioned that yes, TKD is an offshoot of karate, albeit a very sloppy one. That’s pretty much common knowledge in the greater martial arts community.
May 22, 2014 at
Dear Jean Paul. I have read all you Martial Arts articles and absolutely enjoy your style man…but the opening paragraph of “Karate vs. Taekwondo” takes the cake. I laughed and laughed and laughed as it brought back so many good memories. My old school workshop roof is still peppered with ‘sheet metal stars’ thanks to Michael Dudikoff (The American Ninja). Please keep writing forever!