Posted On : August 21, 2023

What is the difference between Taekwondo and Karate?

The martial art of Karate as we know it today originated on the island of Okinawa, largest of the Ryukyus.  During the time of the Tokugawa shogunate (Edo period) in Japan (1603-1867), and the Qing dynasty in China (1636-1912), the Ryukyus were an independent kingdom.  However, the kings of the Ryukyus gave formal allegiance to two outside overlords.  One of these was the daimyo of the fief of Satsuma in Japan.  The other was the Qing emperor of China.

While the Tokugawa shoguns largely isolated Japan from contact with foreigners, the daimyo of Satsuma was able to maintain limited trade relations with China via Okinawa.  This relationship of overlapping allegiances served Okinawa, China, and Satsuma relatively well during this time.

As well as their own traditions, the Okinawans of these times drew extensively on Chinese martial arts practices.  Some scholars of the martial arts speculate that Okinawans also borrowed to some extent from the peoples of Indochina.    

Taekwondo and Karate

The Okinawans first called their art simply te, which means “hand.” Eventually, the terms tode or toudi, both meaning “Chinese hand,” were used. Over time, instructors in various parts of Okinawa developed their own distinctive local styles.  Both Shuri-te and Tomari-te were named for the villages where these styles were practiced.

The Ryukyu islands, including Okinawa, were formally annexed by Japan in 1879, as part of the restructuring of the Japanese state and society during the Meiji restoration.  The Ryukyu kingdom was abolished.  The last king, Sho Tai, was taken to Tokyo and inducted into the new Japanese aristocracy with the rank of Marquis.  He was forbidden to return to his former kingdom.  The islanders officially became subjects of the Empire of Japan.

When a few Okinawan martial arts teachers emigrated to the home islands of Japan in the early decades of the 20th century, the term Karate had begun to be more generally used.

At this point, confusion about the meaning of the word karate arose — the term was used in speech, but it hadn’t been written down.  

Funakoshi Gichin and his students took it to mean “Empty Hand” — an art in which the human body itself was the only weapon used.  Although born and raised on Okinawa, Funakoshi was fluent in both spoken and written Japanese. Educated and articulate, Funakoshi’s instructors selected him to go to Japan to demonstrate and teach their martial art. He understood also that a martial art labelled “Chinese” would lack broad appeal for the people of a Japanese Empire now asserting a dominant position in East Asia – especially over the new and troubled Republic of China.  

It must be said that other Okinawan teachers disagreed sharply with Funakoshi’s interpretation.  They held that “Chinese Hand” was the proper meaning.  This based on strong oral traditions that, in the distant past, the fundamentals of te had originally been learnt from teachers in China.  Both terms were pronounced in exactly the same way but were written using different kanji characters.  The disagreement over the meaning of karate persists to this day.

What changed most significantly in Japan was how karate was taught.  On Okinawa, an instructor worked one-on-one with a student in a traditional master and apprentice relationship.  Training was a slow process extending over many years.  Only a very few people were accepted as students.  Fewer still had the time, energy, and dedication to pursue their study and practice of the martial arts to the point of being accepted as skilled instructors in their turn.

By contrast, in Japan karate instruction was rapidly adapted to the needs of a growing, urbanizing, and industrializing society.  The curriculum was expanded and systematized for instructing large groups of students working together in a single class.  In this, Funakoshi and other instructors were strongly influenced by the example set by Kano Jigoro – the founder of Judo (“The Way of Gentleness”). 

Funakoshi also took from Judo the use of grades (kyu) and ranks (dan) to assess student progress at novice, intermediate and advanced levels.  These were marked by colored belts worn by the students – including the Black Belt.  Funakoshi awarded the first Black Belts in karate to his students in 1924.

It is at this juncture of time and place that the Koreans first encountered the martial art of karate.

As they had done earlier to the Ryukyu kingdom, Japan formally annexed Korea in 1910.  This followed Japan’s wars with both China and later Russia for control over large parts of Northeast Asia – and especially of Korea. 

The last ruler of the Yi dynasty of Korea, the Emperor Sunjong, abdicated.  The imperial crown prince, Yi Un, was brought to Tokyo and became an officer in the Japanese army.  Korea became part of the Japanese Empire, as Chosen – ruled over by a Japanese Governor-General.  The Korean population officially were now subjects of the Japanese Empire. 

Ambitious young Koreans, looking to rise in the world, sought higher education in the colleges and universities on the home islands of Japan.   

During the 1930’s and 1940’s, some Korean students living in Japan learned the martial art of Karate there. At least one, Lee Won Kuk, is reported to have trained under Funakoshi at this time – and to have earned Black Belt rank. In the years following the end of World War II, these students brought the skills they had learned from their various instructors home with them.

In Korean, they called the martial art they had learned Kong Soo Do (“Empty Hand”), or Tang Soo Do (“Chinese Hand”), reflecting the disputed Japanese terminology.  The Koreans built upon the systematic approach to martial arts instruction applied in Japan.  They were also keen observers of how karate and judo practice was reorganized and regenerated in Japan following the end of U.S. occupation in 1952.

During this time, the physical skills involved, the equipment used, and the methods of instruction employed bore a strong family resemblance to each other.  What primarily distinguished the Okinawan and Japanese schools of karate from Korean empty-hand martial arts practice was the language used.  For the Koreans, using their own language was vitally important to reasserting their own national identity after a prolonged period when that identity had been either quietly ignored or actively suppressed.

Over the ensuing years, as the Koreans infused their own martial traditions into the art, they coined a new, Korean name: Taekwondo (“Foot Fist Way”).  In part, this was an effort to resolve the existing confusion, and in part it evoked a link to the traditional Korean art of Taekkyeon.  Originally proposed in April 1955, the new term Taekwondo was itself contentious, and took many years to gain recognition and much acceptance.

When the first Korean martial arts instructors began emigrating to the U.S. in the 1950’s and 1960’s, far from being accepted, the new term Taekwondo was still largely unknown.  These Korean instructors used a mixture of Korean and Japanese language terms, depending on which communicated their meaning more clearly for their students.  (Many educated Koreans during this period had a good working knowledge of Japanese, due to the occupation of Korea by Japan from 1905 through 1945.)  Often, these first Korean instructors, and their American students, would describe their martial art as “Korean Karate”.

From the 1970’s onward, the term Taekwondo gradually became better known, and more widely accepted among the Korean martial arts community in the U.S.  Some Korean martial arts — Hapkido, (“Way of Coordinated Energy”), for example — chose not to adopt the term.  The new term Taekwondo was often used alongside the older term Karate, instead of replacing it — a practice which continues to this day.

Karate and Taekwondo are kindred martial arts, branches of the same family.  There are certainly differences in practice and understanding between these two traditions.  There are also such differences within these traditions.  What is of greatest significance is the common purpose that they share – the exploring and refining the personal strengths of all of us who practice these martial arts.  

© T.R. Booker 2023