Differences Between Karate and Tang Soo Do

As usual with any such comparisons on the differences between styles, we have to accept that all comments are generalisations as there are many styles of Karate and Tang Soo Do, so it’s impossible to make comparisons which hold true for every single style of Karate and every single style of Tang Soo Do.

Also, I have to say that although I have had influences from many different martial arts I am primarily a Karateka and have not formally trained in Tang Soo Do. So my observations on Tang Soo Do come from attending multi-style course that they were teaching at, watching classes, further reading, Youtube and a trained/experienced eye. That said, I will endeavour to be fair, as I have done with similar comparisons between Karate and Tae Kwon Do, which TKD practitioners were happy with.

From the Karate side, I will be coming mainly from a Shotokan perspective as Shotokan is my main style (so what I know best) and is one of Tang Soo Do’s parent styles.

But first, lets look at the links between the two systems. During the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910 - 1945), Korean martial arts were banned and Koreans wanting to learn martial arts would have to learn from the Japanese. So Karate was fairly widely taught in Korea.

The original translation for Karate was “China Hand”. This was later changed to “Empty Hand” as Japan was fighting China at the time and it wasn’t very good for marketing to promote a martial art named after your enemy! However, if you show the kanji characters for the Way of China Hand to the Japanese, they will pronounce it Kara Te Do. Show the same kanji characters to a Korean and they will pronounce it Tang Soo Do. So Tang Soo Do, is the Way of China Hand, and is the same as Kara Te Do before it changed it’s name to Empty Hand.

If you look at Tang Soo Do patterns/forms (Hyung in Korean), despite some adaptation they are clearly recognisable as the same as the Shotokan Karate patterns/forms (Kata in Japanese). Just check out the following:-

First the Shotokan Karate version of kata Bassai Dai:

And the Tang Soo Do version of Hyung Bassai Dai:

So you can see the definite relationship between the 2 styles. If you look on Youtube you’ll see that Tang Soo Do’s Pyong-An series of Hyungs are directly based on Karate’s Heian/Pinan kata series.

You could probably write a book on the subject, but this is just a short overview. So after a brief glimpse of the history and similarities, what about the differences?

Post war, since the Japanese withdrew from Korea, Tang Soo Do has evolved to incorporate a lot more kicking. Similar to other Korean arts such as Tae Kwon Do and Hapkido, it now includes a lot high kicks, spinning kicks, jumping kicks, axe kicks and multiple kicks of one leg! The Shotokan kicking repertoire is a bit basic by comparison. Here’s an example of some Tang Soo Do kicks, many of which you won’t find in a Shotokan Karate school!

I believe that the Korean perspective is that the legs are the strongest limbs, so it’s good to use them for fighting. The Japanese/Okinawan perspective is that high kicks leave your balance vulnerable and they use kicks more as a backup with the hands/arms as primary weapons.
Note: I’m not taking sides on this, just pointing out a difference in thinking!

Another significant difference is the way that the 2 systems use their hips with “blocking” techniques. I put “blocking” in parentheses as the techniques normally called “blocks”, can also be used for striking, locking, weapons and other applications beyond just blocking.

In Shotokan, think of it like a jab. A jab is always done with the leading hand and the leading hip (the hip on the same side as punching hand) moves forward to power the punch. When Shotokan does it’s blocks with the lead hand, the lead hip moves forward too. This allows the other hip to be coiled back ready for a powerful counter punch (cross). As an example see the Karate Rising Block below:-

In the Tang Soo Do version of the of the Rising Block, the striking hand and hip on the same side are pulled across to the opposite side of the body half way through the technique. Then as the arm is released it is powered by the reverse hip (the hip of the opposite side to blocking arm), so that the hips are brought square to the front at the end of the technique. This is the same as with Taekwondo but the reverse of the Karate method and is shown below:-

The hand/arm in the Tang Soo Do Rising Block moves across from the reverse side of the body to the it’s own side, making it more circular. It’s Karate predecessor does the opposite, starting with the hand/arm on it’s own side of the body and drives the hand forward, upward and across to the opposite side of the body.

Both styles move their body weight behind their technique, but as the arm moves in the opposite direction on the 2 styles, so the hips also move in opposite directions too.

The Tang Soo Do version requires a “wind up” of the hips half way through which from a Karate perspective slows it down as it’s an extra movement. Also, the hand would more naturally start on it’s own side of the body so the Karate version is arguably a more natural starting position. That said, all basics have an unnatural element to them as they are in large part there to teach you body mechanics/structures, self awareness and mindset; they are not actually supposed to be used literally the way we practice them.

Whereas Karate originally included Okinawan weaponry (Kobojutsu) most Karate schools and associations have dropped them along the way. One of the reasons being the occupation of Japan by the Americans after World War 2. It was one thing to get permission to train unarmed combat, but really pushing your luck to try and get permission to train with weapons at that time. Later, the Japanese were looking more to the sport side, so weapons continued to be down played.

Tang Soo Do however do routinely train with the staff (Bo). They use a smaller staff than the Okinawan do and their grip is different, but the staff in generally an integral part of Tang Soo Do, whereas Karate (despite it’s earlier historical use of a whole range of weapons) tends to treat weaponry as an occasional add on, or don’t bother at all!

After World War 2, the Korean masters wanted to distance themselves for the their Japanese/Okinawan roots due to the often brutal Japanese occupation of Korea (just like the earlier Karate masters wanting to distance themselves from their Chinese roots due to Japan’s conflict with China). There was little left of the original Korean martial arts, but what could be found was incorporated and emphasised in the promotion of Tang Soo Do and later Tae Kwon Do.

Tang Soo Do was nick-named Korean Karate and marketing a Korean version of a Japanese art would not be easy in Korea during the post war years when the Japanese were still hated. Also, marketing on the international scene would not be easy, as why would foreigners go to Korea to learn a Japanese art when they could go to source and learn from the Japanese/Okinawans?

So the Koreans had to re-brand themselves. This I suspect was in part the reason why Korean martial arts split between Tang Soo Do and Tae Kwon Do, with the latter being more aggressive at reinventing itself, including eventually discarding all the Karate kata and creating it’s own from scratch. Tang Soo Do is in some respects a half way house between Karate and Tae Kwon Do. It maintains the same katas, similar routed deep stances of Karate, whilst adopting the emphasis on kicking and change in how the hips are used of Tae Kwon Do. Whereas most mainstream Tae Kwon Do organisations went heavily into sport/competition, Tang Soo Do kept more of a Budo approach (including embracing weaponry). It did embrace the sport side, as did Karate; but not the same extent as Tae Kwon Do.

Although Tang Soo Do obviously had reasons to distance itself from it’s Japanese roots in the early days, it no longer has that need today, yet many still do. Most Tang Soo Do websites that I have seen talk vaguely about Korean martial arts going back thousands of years. One such website for a school close to me describes Tang Soo Do thus:

“The martial art of Tang Soo Do is relatively modern, but it’s roots lie in the ancient Korean art of Soo Bahk Do, which can be traced back many centuries. Tang Soo Do is a style composed from three major areas and styles, which are Soo Bahk Do (60%), Northern China Kung Fu (30%) and Southern China Kung Fu (10%) Literally translated, the word TANG means T’ang Dynasty of China which reflects the shared cultural background between China and Korea. SOO means hand, but it implies fist, punch, strike or defence. DO means way of life or art. Thus TANG SOO DO means the korean classical martial art which was influenced by the T’ang method of martial art. The final translation can be put together as the rather poetical - WAY OF THE CHINA HAND”

Not a single mention of Karate, Japan or Okinawa; despite Soo Bahk Do being founded by Hwang Kee who is known to have studied (amongst other things) Karate and the fact that their patterns (hyungs) directly come from the Karate patterns (kata)!

I would say to Tang Soo Do practitioners, that your art is what it is; and where it originated from does not change or depreciate the art that you love and practice today. There is no point in Westerns maintaining the past rivalries of the Oriental nations, it serves no purpose and only creates artificial barriers. The Chinese routinely altered their arts as they went along to embrace new knowledge, different physiques of master/student and changing environments (that’s why we have thousands of Kung Fu styles today). The Okinawans did the same with the Chinese arts they learnt, hence Karate was developed. The Japanese did the same with Okinawan arts they learnt (and, in my humble opinion, messed them up to a certain extent). And of course the Koreans did the same with the Japanese arts that they learnt. However, despite it’s obvious Karate roots, Tang Soo Do is quite a different style today with it’s own unique character.

If anybody has any further thoughts on the similarities/differences between these styles, please comment below and share your knowledge. As per usual, keep it polite and respectful or your comments won’t be published.

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