Martial Arts History: 6 Differences Between Karate and Taekwondo » Skip to content

Martial Arts History: 6 Differences Between Karate and Taekwondo

If you’ve ever confused different martial art styles, you’re not alone. Let’s look at some of the differences between two of the most enduring and popular martial arts in the Western world: karate and taekwondo.

You might be wondering which of the two is a better fit for you or just want to brush up on your martial arts history. By looking at the differences and the similarities of these martial arts, you can decide which you prefer. Just remember that there is no one type of karate or a single school of taekwondo. There are differences between Shotokan karate and Kyokushin karate for instance. While this overview will breakdown the basic, we’ll be covering generalities. 

Striking Differences

Karate tends to focus on hand techniques. Remember, the word karate means “empty hand.” This means an art of self-defense using no weapons. Taekwondo on the other hand—no pun intended—emphasizes kicking much more than karate. Tae means to kick, while kwon means to punch, and Do means “the way of.” So, we see in the word itself that the kick comes first in Taekwondo, literally. Tai-kwon-do: the way of kicking and punching.

Taekwondo is world-renowned for spinning kicks and high kicks. Crescent kicks, back kicks, front kicks are also used in karate, but taekwondo uses more than karate. Karate has plenty of kicking techniques, too, and Taekwondo does have striking techniques using punches. Still, this is one a major difference between the two arts. 

Origins and Language

Karate originated in Japan, more specifically, Okinawa—the island chain farther to the south of mainland Japan. Korea is where Taekwondo originated. Because of this, you’ll find that the languages within the two martial arts differ to describe common things. For instance, the lower rank belts in karate are called, kyu, whereas in taekwondo, they are called geup.

Interestingly, in both languages, the word dan is used to indicated higher level belts. This is because Korea and Japan are geographically close and share some cultural and linguistic similarities. Often in classes, students will learn how to do simple counting or pick up words in each of the languages depending on which martial art they are studying.

The Olympics

Taekwondo became a medal sport in the Olympics in the year 2000. It debuted in the Olympics as an exhibition sport in 1988. Karate is not a medal sport in the Olympics currently. There is a caveat to that though. Tokyo is the capital of Japan and hosted the Summer 2020 Olympic games there. Karate debuted as an Olympic sport for that event, but it’s not expected to be added to the Olympics permanently.

Weapons Training

The major taekwondo organizations lack a specific training protocol for weapons. Still, many schools incorporate some basic weapons training for advanced students. They tend to use weapons from other martial arts disciplines.

Karate has more weapons training than taekwondo. Shotokan karate uses the bo staff in some of their katas, or forms. There are five traditional weapons in karate, whereas taekwondo doesn’t officially train in any weapons.

Differences in Uniforms and Belts

The karate uniform is called a gi and the taekwondo uniform is called a dobok. Taekwondo got started as a popular sport later than karate; the uniforms for both can be the same in today’s martial arts studio. Taekwondo has moved away from the gi in some schools and uses something more akin to a shirt—this prevents the jacket from falling open if the belt is not cinched. Belt systems differ between karate and taekwondo and even within different styles and umbrella organizations themselves. 


It’s hard to get great data on this and it varies around the world, but it’s fair to make a few observations. Taekwondo tends to direct many of their classes towards kids and youth. Karate does the same, but taekwondo is often associated with a lot of after school programs and the like.

Ready to Start Your Martial Arts Journey?

  Now that you can separate fact from fiction when it comes to martial arts, getting your real-world training started is the next step. At Premier Martial Arts, we welcome students of all levels to enjoy the benefits of this ancient physical art. Find one of our many locations nationwide to start your own martial arts journey today.

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