Question: Why Are Korean Martial Arts Held In Low Regard?

Before anybody jumps on me, this is NOT my statement, this is a question I received on the Bunkai Jutsu Facebook page, from Seth Boggs:

“I’ve practiced Tang Soo So and TKD in the past and am confused and dismayed by the lack of respect given to Korean martial arts especially when you consider that TKD was developed for the military besides Olympic TKD why are they held in such low regard”?

I can’t do the question justice with a short answer so I thought I’d do a full post and share my thoughts with you all.

Before going any further, this is going to be an emotive subject (especially for Korean stylists) but I appeal to you all to keep any comments subjective and friendly. I will publish comments that give constructive feedback/criticism, but not comments that are just rude and abusive.

I will try to make my response impartial and fair. I have previously posted on the differences between Karate and Taekwondo, which did receive positive comments from practitioners of both styles.

But by looking at the criticism leveled, hopefully it will:
1. Help non Korean stylist to understand better why things are done a particular way.
2. Help Korean stylists to understand why others think the way that they do

Hopefully this will bring more understanding and tolerance of each other.

First of all though, although the question did not specify which other styles were guilty of criticising Korean martial arts, being a Karateka myself it will be easier for me to answer from a Karate perspective than from say a Kung Fu or Krav Maga perspective!

Secondly, this is a 2 way problem and not just aimed at Korean martial arts. I know that many Korean martial artists consider Karate (especially Shotokan) to be stiff, wooden and overly tense!

Thirdly, there are many styles of Karate and many versions of TKD/TSD, so no comments made can really be accurate for ALL Karate and ALL Korean Styles! There will always be exceptions to all the points/comments below.

Finally, I am going to discuss criticisms leveled at Korean martial arts, that does not mean that I necessarily agree with them (just trying to answer the question)!

OK, here goes!

Emphasis On High Kicks:
Many people feel that there is an over-emphasis in Korean martial arts on high flashy kicks, which leave the practitioner vulnerable. I believe that the Korean argument is that the legs are the stronger limbs, so it makes sense to use them as primary striking weapons. Other styles would argue that having one foot on the floor and the other one head height leaves you vulnerable as your groin is open to attack and your balance is very easily taken if somebody grabs your leg or pushes you during the execution of a kick. I have to admit here that I am not a fan of this emphasis on high kicks.

I don’t know how true this is, but I was told years ago that there used to be a rule in Kickboxing that they had to do at least 6 properly committed kicks per round. The reason: under pressure people naturally reverted to punching as hands are faster and balance is easier. It was difficult to do a lot of continuous high kicks under pressure, so people reverted to what’s easiest . . . . using hands! There was a danger that Kickboxing could become . . . . well . . . . just Boxing. So the 6 kick rule was introduced (so I was told) to make sure that kicks were included. This puts a question mark over styles that emphasise a lot of high kicks.

Now some Korean stylists will probably argue that if you can kick high, it’s just as easy (if not easier) to kick low where balance will be better. However, we tend to try and fight how we train, so if we train mostly with high kicks then that is what we will instinctively try to do when under pressure.

Also for women, if they constantly practice head height kicks when sparring against other women, what happens when they have to fight a man who is significantly taller? After all, a man is a woman’s worst case scenario for self protection and for many women they spend a lot of time practicing techniques that can’t be applied against a man due to height differences!

Also in some versions of TKD, they are not allowed to strike to the back. Why not? Well many versions of TKD often adopt an “L” stance when sparring with the weight on the back leg so that they either kick of the front leg or push themselves forward. It also means that they are practically side on to the opponent. Being side on leaves a vulnerability such that if the if the opponent moves to the outside, behind your leading arm/leg, they could strike to your back relatively easily (note, I said “relatively easily”; not “easily”). This would make the L stance vulnerable and front leg kicking more difficult! Hence, ban attacks to the back so that they can safely carry on using this stance and the subsequent kicks, which would otherwise likely be shut down.

Emphasis On Sport:
Many modern martial arts put high emphasis on sport. Judo was very deliberately evolved as a sport at a time when martial arts in Japan were beginning to be seen as obsolete, in order to ensure it’s survival as an art. Karate and TKD also evolved heavily down the sport route. In Japanese and Korean society where crime is low, there is not quite such an emphasis on self protection as in the West. Also, the number of trophies and championships won give a measure of success and credibility to a school trying to promote itself; a mindset which is a little bit more prevalent in the East than the West!

As Seth points out above, TKD was developed for the military. However, in spreading it to the civilian population a greater emphasis has clearly been placed on sport in most versions of TKD and the military combat aspects largely watered down. Now I’m not saying that this has happened to every single TKD school as it hasn’t, but I think it fair to say that it has happened to most mainstream schools!

So the Oriental masters come to the West and teach in this way. Westerners tend to question more what movements are for and how to use them. Many Western martial artists have worked in law enforcement, security or as bouncers, etc; and have found that much of what is being taught does not work well in the street without being adapted. Many Western martial arts schools have dropped the sporting approach altogether focusing much more heavily on self defence. Now forgive me Korean stylists, but this is where I think it’s fair to say that in general the Karate world is way ahead of the Korean martial arts World and I think there is a reason for this. Karateka look to Okinawa as it’s Mecca; the home of Karate and where it was practised as a matter of life or death, not for scoring points (as in Japan and Korea). So many Karateka go and look how the Okinawans train or even how the Chinese train (as Karate was based on Kung Fu).

Now for a long time, most Korean stylists would not look back beyond their Korean history, seeing themselves separate to Karate and wanting to distance themselves from it. This is understandable when you put things into a historical perspective. TKD was formally founded in 1973, less then 30 years from the end of the Second World War. Japan had occupied Korean for years and memories of their brutality and cruelty would still be raw in the Korean memories leaving them with 2 problems. First of all, with TKD being based on Karate; it was not good for marketing to promote a Japanese art in Korea when Japan was still hated!

Secondly, for anybody looking from overseas, why learn a Korean version of a Japanese art; why not go to source, Japan to learn a Japanese art (or Okinawa)!

TKD had to be made “more Korean”, given a separate identity! Patterns were changed, names were changed, more emphasis was placed on using legs as primary weapons instead of arms and even the bowing is different. This resulted in many (not all) Korean martial artists not wanting to look back at their Japanese/Okinawan heritage. So when Westerners started looking to adapt their arts to the street, the Karate world had a big advantage of looking back further to Okinawan and China. So in general, (and there are many exceptions) many Karateka who have gone down the practical self protection route see Korean martial arts (especially TKD) as being behind in this area and see them as still being very sport oriented, hence, lacking in real world application!

Derek Skidmore, demonstrating at joint seminar

There are many exceptions, but as a broad generalisation, I think this is fair comment. Now I have to say the TKD world is catching up. The book; A Killing Art: The Untold Story Of Taekwondo explored the real history and exposed the truth behind the “marketing” and re-writing of TKD history (including it’s relationship to Karate)! I think it’s fair to say that most TKD people these days are more accepting of their Karate roots then say 20 years ago! People like TKD’s Stuart Anlsow, Matthew Sylvester, Jason Burgess, Russ Martin and Derek Skidmore (who I had the pleasure of teaching alongside at a joint seminar) have trained outside of the confines of TKD. They’ve trained with reality based martial arts and leading Karate teachers and have applied this knowledge to making their own TKD more practical. Stuart and Matthew have both authored very good books on practical application to TKD patterns. More and more Korean stylists are attending applied Karate seminars with the top Karate teachers like Iain Abernethy, John Johnston, Russell Stutely and others. However, although the TKD world is catching up, I think it fair to say that it is still, in the main, behind the Karate world; which going back to the original question, is part of the reason why some (not all) hold it in low regard.

Olympic Taekwondo:
The original question does say “besides Olympic TKD”, so he does acknowledge that this is not the best example of TKD. It is my understanding that in the Olympics, they are not allowed to block with their arms. This is purely to make high kicking more feasible and to make it more of a spectator sport. From a martial perspective, not being allowed to use your arms is obviously absurd and this is NOT REPRESENTATIVE of all TKD. I know some TKD practitioners who despair at this.

I personally do not think that is fair for non Korean stylists to look at Olympic TKD and consider it representative of Korean martial arts. It’s not. But it did lead to many Karateka being opposed to Karate being accepted into the Olympics, as they feared that Karate would be similarly adapted!

Lacking Real Power:
Steady on guys, I’m not saying that. I’m just saying that it’s what many people think!

But why?

I’ve trained with TKD guys, (my brother in law is 3rd Dan TKD) and I’ve held kick-shields for them. I can tell you, their kicks are powerful!

I think one of the reasons that TKD “looks” weak in other peoples eyes is the sinewave.

Notice, I did not say it is weak, I said “looks” weak!

For the uninitiated, one the Worlds biggest TKD Federations, the ITF (International Teakwondo Federation) adopted the sinewave whereby the practitioner raises him/herself up at the beginning of the move and sinks down at the end. The idea is that on the first half of the technique they rise up, inhale and relax their muscles ready for the strike. In the second half of the technique, they accelerate from that relaxed position and add a downward vector to the forward moving vector to make make on overall more powerful slightly diagonal vector. For a more complete explanation, please click here to see a video by Master Ed Newcomer.

However, going back why other styles criticise! Compare these 2 videos of TKD’s pattern, Won-Hyo and Shotokan’s Heian Nidan which is quite similar. The Karate version accelerates from the very beginning of the movement, whereas in Won-Hyo they rise slow then accelerate as they sink down. From a Karate perspective, even if the finish is fast and powerful, that rising up “looks” very slow and telegraphed. In fairness, there are many TKD people who don’t like the sinewave either, so it’s not just Karate people who feel this way.

Now I have to say, that I personally think most people misunderstand the sinewave method. It’s a training method, not how they’d actually fight for real! Anybody who has ever sparred with a TKD person will know that they don’t rise up slowly before they attack! Although I understand why people think that way about the sinewave, I think they’ve misunderstood it. In Shotokan we practice formal stances in our Kata, but that’s not how we fight. Our formal stances are training methods, just like the sinewave!

Very High Stances
In some versions of TKD, some early patterns are performed in very high stances:

Now this is not an area that I’m too familiar with, but I believe the pattern above is from the World Taekwondo Federation version of TKD, whereas the sinewave above is from the International Taekwondo Federation.
From the perspective of many, these high stances do not give a good root to the floor reducing the amount of power that can be developed.

OK, Shotokan used to be criticised a lot at one time for having too stances, so it’s a matter of perspective!

I’ve seen a case made that these high stances are like that on purpose as that is how people walk normally, hence it’s a more natural way to step. Stances get deeper as people progress. I can see a logic in it, though to be honest, I’m not fully convinced by that logic! When you flinch, you naturally bend your knees and lower your weight, so I think it’s a natural thing to do when faced with an assailant. That said, it’s not the whole system. Just the first few patterns (I believe).

Other (non Korean) martial artists are not going to like me for saying this. The Korean martial artists have been much better at their marketing themselves and have risen in popularity at a much faster rate than the rest. Marketing has largely targeted kids and promoting values over self defence skills (which appeals to parents wanting discipline for their kids).

At 16 when I first started looking at martial arts, I saw a poster for Taekwondo and I didn’t even know what it was. Everybody knew what Karate was, but what was Taekwondo? Now TKD clubs are everywhere and although I don’t have any figures, I’d guess they they have far more people training than the Japanese arts. Their growth and success has been extraordinary and others don’t like it (especially if they hold the negative views described above).

I realised years ago, that when people want to show that their style is best, they normally compare it against the biggest most popular style(s) about. When I started that used to be Shotokan. Everybody would criticise Shotokan to show how their style was (supposedly) better. Now it’s TKD’s turn, as they are (I believe) bigger (certainly are where I live).

More Business Like:
Hand in glove with the Jealously section above, is that the Korean styles are (in the main) more business like. In many Karate associations, the instructors are not really expected to teach for profit, they should do it for the love of the art. Many Karate classes are run as non-profit making clubs. Only the Japanese and a small selection of top British instructors are expected to earn a living from it. Meanwhile many TKD classes are run as business and instructors are quite encouraged to earn money from their teaching. I know some TKD 2nd Dans in their late 20’s who are making a very good money teaching, whilst some Karate 4th Dans in my area who have been training for decades don’t consider themselves worthy to make a living it or that it could damage the integrity of their school.

This more business like approach inspires the TKD guys to invest more in professional websites and posters and looking more professional.

Korean martial arts are seen as being overly flashy on a number of levels. And there is a certain cynicism within our culture that sees anything flashy (whatever the subject) as being lacking in content!

Most Korean styles heavily lean towards high kicks along with jumping and spinning kicks which are widely regarded by others as flashy but impractical! That said, they are great for athletic prowess and physical dexterity, which I believe is the main point in practising these techniques in the first place. I don’t think many Korean stylists pretend that they would use these kicks as first choice in a real self protection situation, just as a most Shotokan practitioners would not drop into a really deep stance that used to be really popular in the early the days of Shotokan (less emphasis these days)!

Korean uniforms also tend to be a lot bolder than others. But it’s fair to say, Korea has a different culture to Japan so of course they are going to do things differently. Many Japanese martial arts have associated themselves with Zen. There is an argument that this is a relatively recent thing and was not always the case, nevertheless there is often a connection these days. Amongst other things, Zen is about being minimalist. Hence plain white uniforms, with no adornments or additions, except the colour of the belt and maybe a club badge.

Most Korean styles have something like “Tae Kwon Do” or “Tang Soo Do” on the back, “ITF” (or whatever federation) down the leg, extra black trim on the jacket and/or trousers depending on which Dan grade they are. Now I have been guilty of sneering at this myself in the past, but on reflection; if we’re not Japanese and we’re not training in Japan, why should we be bound by their culture? Respect it by all means, but don’t take on their prejudices! Martial artist do take on to some extent the culture of their arts origin, but we should accept that other arts come from different cultures and we as Japanese stylists can sometimes be a bit judgemental. We are especially judgemental to Korean arts as Korean arts are largely based on Japanese arts and there is a certain feeling of “look what they’ve done to it”! They done the same as the Japanese did to the Okinawan arts and the Okinawans did to the Chinese arts. They modified them and done them THEIR way! That’s their right and we shouldn’t judge.

Korean styles are also much more liberal with the title “Master”! In Karate (or Shotokan at least, I can’t speak for all styles), a 9th or 10th Dan is still addressed as “Sensei” to their face. If we’re talking about them, we’d refer to them as Master, but to their face they’re Sensei. So when hear Korean stylists calling themselves Master at 5th Dan (or in some cases 4th Dan), it makes us cringe! But again it’s a different culture and we shouldn’t judge.

And finally their marketing is much more . . . . shall we say . . . confident! Korean stylists are generally better at it and are much more likely to announce that they are the best, which doesn’t always go down well with other people. But it goes back to the being more business like as discussed above. Marketing is about how you position yourself in the market place. Having bolder uniforms and using the title Master, is part of that positioning. And before anybody condemns them for how they market and position themselves; a more relevant question is; why aren’t we doing the same? And the answer to that is, the Japanese have given us a very hierarchical culture where we don’t think we’re worthy unless we’re either Japanese or national champion or the likes. It’s about control . . . their control!

I hope this will help Korean stylists to understand why others see you as flashy and the implications that go with being seen that way. I also hope this will help non Korean stylists to hopefully see things in a different light and be less judgemental.

As mentioned at the beginning, this is not meant to be a post attacking Korean styles. It’s in reply to a question I received. The original question was:

“I’ve practiced Tang Soo So and TKD in the past and am confused and dismayed by the lack of respect given to Korean martial arts especially when you consider that TKD was developed for the military besides Olympic TKD why are they held in such low regard”?

This low regard is not universal. Furthermore it’s not all one way as I’ve been aware of many Korean stylists having low regard for other styles, especially Shotokan Karate (distancing).

I have tried to list the reasons why many people do have some low regard, though I don’t personally agree with all of it and have expanded on the points where I disagree.

This does threaten to be a controversial post and could be a bit emotional for some people. I do ask that any comments and feedback are kept constructive and friendly, I don’t want this to turn into a slagging match.

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