The Differences Between Karate and Taekwondo

25 April, 2021
Karate and taekwondo are two martial arts that have many things in common but are actually quite different. Today's article will tell you more about them.

Karate and taekwondo are two commonly practiced martial arts that can be difficult to tell apart at first glance. They’re definitely similar but not the same.

Indeed, both disciplines originated in Japan, and emphasize self-discipline and a high code of personal conduct. In addition, they share the competitive side. However, taekwondo is an ancient fighting style while karate, as a discipline, only emerged a few hundred years ago. It derives from Chinese kung fu.

Note that the specific postures and movements differ significantly between taekwondo and karate despite the similarities.

Origin and history

Taekwondo is a Korean martial art characterized by its emphasis on overhead kicks, jumping and spinning kicks, and fast kicking techniques. It’s been around for more than 2000 years.

In its early days, this technique was an unarmed defense martial art and people knew it as Subak. Taekkyeon was the style that gave rise to it. There were three rival kingdoms in Korea that trained their men in unarmed combat at the time.

However, the Japanese banned Korean martial arts when they invaded Korea in the early 20th century, although some groups continued to practice them in secret. Moreover, the styles branched out for various reasons. Later on, at a conference held in 1955, they merged into a uniform form of teaching.

As a curiosity, let’s point out that Tae means “to destroy with the feet,” Kwon means “to strike or destroy with the hand” and do means “way.” Thus, Taekwondo translates into something like “the way of the foot and fist.”

In comparison, karate arose hundreds of years ago on the Ryūkyū Islands in Japan, which we know today as Okinawa. It emerged from Chinese kung fu.

Its origin dates back to the 16th century when Japan forcibly occupied Okinawa in 1600 and confiscated all its weapons. The locals fought with their bare hands and feet, as they had nothing else.

As for its meaning, karate means “empty hand.” The term is likely related to the origin of the discipline, as a system of self-defense based on the effective use of the unarmed body.

A person practicing martial arts..
While they’re not the same, both practices have some things in common and it can lead to confusion among those who’ve never practiced them.

Learn about The Japanese Method for Eliminating Stress

Fighting style and techniques

Karate is a martial art based on punches, kicks, knee or elbow strikes, and open hand techniques. This discipline also includes blocking techniques, such as parries and some projections (takedowns). As for the movements, these are sharp and linear.

In contrast, taekwondo emphasizes kicking techniques. However, the training is complete and involves learning punches, open hand strikes, takedowns, throws, and joint locks.

Note that the traditional starting style in taekwondo is with the arms together, while in karate it consists of straight against the torso, hands just below the waist, and bow executed by bending the torso downward while keeping the gaze on the opponent.

Differences between karate and taekwondo in competition

The differences between karate and taekwondo are visible to the naked eye in competition. The latter requires a case and a chest protector while there’s no protection whatsoever in the former.

Furthermore, both martial arts used to be an Olympic sport but karate will no longer be present as such at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.

Punches and kicks earn the same amount of points in traditional karate tournaments so participants will do the same amount of both moves. However, people earn more points for kicks than punches in Taekwondo.

Check out these Extracurricular Activities for Preteens

Commonalities of karate and taekwondo

Karate and taekwondo are different but have some similarities. The most relevant are:

  • They’re taught in a dojo
  • Both disciplines require similar uniforms, generally white and light cotton to facilitate mobility and flexibility
  • Both have traditional rules
  • Also, both disciplines emphasize respect for teachers and peers
  • The techniques used in both taekwondo and karate are part of a set of choreographed forms known as kata in the latter and Poomsae in the former
  • Both disciplines facilitate the development of skills and qualities, such as patience, self-discipline, and self-confidence
A Taekwondo match.
Taekwondo is distinguished by the use of pads.

The particular characteristics of these martial arts

Having analyzed this information, you can now see that the differences between karate and taekwondo are quite evident, especially on television. However, it’s probably not so easy to notice them if you see them in an action movie.

Nevertheless, it’s interesting to know about the characteristics of each of these martial arts, as well as their common points.

Finally, in case you’re wondering whether Bruce Lee practiced karate or taekwando, the right answer is: Bruce Lee practiced Wing chun gung fu and ended up creating his own fighting style: Jun fan gung fu!

  • Ojeda-Aravena, Alex, and Jairo Azócar-Gallardo. “Comparacion de la composición corporal y el rendimiento físico entre practicantes jovenes de karate deportivo vs. Karate tradicional.” Revista Horizonte Ciencias de la Actividad Física 11.1 (2020): 1-12.
  • Zhu, Hua, Wei Li, and Daria Jankowicz-Pytel. “Whose karate? Language and cultural learning in a multilingual karate club in London.” Applied Linguistics 41.1 (2020): 52-83.
  • Cardozo, Luis Alberto, et al. “Aspectos fisiológicos de deportistas elite de taekwondo: Una revisión narrativa.” Revista Española de Educación Física y Deportes 418 (2017): 35-46.