Tae Kwon Do in Japan: A Crossing of Cultures
I wasn’t always a writer you know.
Back in my teenage years, as a budding practitioner, I harboured dreams of someday becoming a teacher of martial arts.
I frequently profess on this blog my love for Japan and many aspects of Japanese culture. Indeed, I have even blogged here previously about the joys of studying Kendo and Karate, two of Japan’s most popular fighting arts.
And yet, my introduction to the world of martial arts, ironically, came from one of Japan’s fiercest historical rivals, Korea.
I refer of course to one of the few things North and South Korea can agree upon, their shared national sport, Tae Kwon Do.
Although work doesn’t allow me to train at the moment, I have, on and off been doing Tae Kwon Do, since I was 13 years old. I went to what could be described as a rather “rough” high school, back in Scotland. Without a doubt, certainly the knowledge and skills I acquired from Tae Kwon Do not only helped me survive a few run-ins with the bullies, but it also gave me the inner-peace and clarity of thought to cope with all the additional stresses being a teenager who isn’t part of the “in” crowd can bring with it.
In the end, I made it to first degree black belt, and even taught classes for a while, before relocating to Japan in 2006. There was a time when I even managed to win a few tournaments at the national level.
Of course Japan, rightly, is very proud of its own indigenous sports. So why then does a sport as so obviously foreign as Tae Kwon Do find itself growing so rapidly in popularity here in Japan?
One possible answer could be that at its core, Tae Kwon Do is a bi-product of the Japanese way of fighting.
Unlike some other martial arts that can trace their origins back hundreds, even thousands of years, Tae Kwon Do is a relatively new player to the game, only being formally recognized as a sport in 1955. The founder of Tae Kwon Do, Major General Choi Hong Hi, sadly passed away a few years ago. However, his legacy serves as a prime example of the best that both Japan and Korea have to offer.
Born into a period of Japanese occupation, General Choi was one of the thousands of Koreans who chose to come to Japan to study during this turbulent period. This was at the same time as war was brewing in Europe and Japan’s own Imperial ambitions were fast spiraling out of control. Nevertheless, General Choi was fortunate enough to study in Kyoto for an extended period during his teens and early twenties.
During this time, he trained under many of the great Karate experts of that period including the legendary founder of modern Shotokan Karate Gichin Funakoshi. By 1940, General Choi had attained the rank of 2nd dan black belt in Karate.
Like many Koreans of the day, Choi reluctantly served in the Japanese army during the Second World War. Following the end of the conflict, and the subsequent end of Japan’s Empire, Choi joined the Korean Army in 1946 rising eventually to the rank of major general in 1951.
Eager to ensure that Korea would never again be invaded by Japan, Choi concluded that the best way to defeat the Japanese was to defeat their Karate. Much in the same way Bruce Lee would later refine Wing Chun Kung Fu to create his own style of Jeet Kune Do, Choi used elements of the Shotokan karate he had learned in Japan with the indigenous Korean art of Taekkyeon to create Tae Kwon Do, or “The Art of Hands and Feet” to give it its loose English translation.
Ostensibly similar to Karate in both visual style and execution, there are a number of subtle differences that set Tae Kwon Do aside from its Japanese progenitor.
For example, through the utilization of basic mathematical theory, Choi concluded that the “straight punch” used so commonly in Karate, could deliver up to 70% more force if the assailant moved in a “sine wave” motion rather than just straight forward.
General Choi went on to found the International Tae Kwon Do Federation (ITF) of which I would later become a member.
So, why is Tae Kwon Do such a big deal in Japan these days?
The resurgence of the sport in modern day Japan is thanks in no small part to the efforts of one woman, Japanese Olympian Yoriko Okamoto.
An Osaka native, Okamoto studied Karate from the age of 12 before making the transition to Tae Kwon Do during her studies abroad in the US in her college years.
All that hard work paid off in 2000, when Okamoto took a bronze medal in the 67kg class at the Sydney Olympics, becoming Japan’s first Olympic Tae Kwon Do medalist in a sport where Korea was expected to once again sweep all before them.
This success not only brought fame and plaudits to Okamoto, it also inspired a whole new generation of young athletes to turn to Tae Kwon Do for their health and fitness needs. Not only was it symbolic to see a Japanese succeed in what has always been perceived to be a Korean sport, but also in what is still a very male dominated society, it was both encouraging and heartwarming to see such a strong, confident young woman succeed in her sport at the world level.
Today Tae Kwon Do schools can be found the length and breadth of Japan as the search for the next Yoriko Okamoto continues in earnest.
An important footnote, if you are considering practicing Tae Kwon Do in Japan. There exists two distinct schools of Tae Kwon Do, each preaching a slightly different style of combat.
The World Tae Kwon Do Federation (WTF) was set up in 1973 in South Korea, and today carries with it the official Olympic recognition.
Secondly, there is the previously mentioned International Tae Kwon Do Federation, of which I am a member. This organization predates the WTF and was originally founded by Choi himself. However, the fact that it is currently based out of North Korea and the lack of Olympic recognition, means that ITF schools are a little more difficult to find in Japan than WTF ones.
However, if you’re a purist like me the lineage going right back to General Choi makes the searching worthwhile. I must admit, I still chuckle to myself sometimes when I see the looks on my Japanese friends’ faces when I tell them I am trained in the same techniques as the North Korean Army!
Whichever style you choose to follow, there are few sports more intense more, challenging or ultimately more rewarding than Tae Kwon Do.