Karate Down Block

What Is Style?

For centuries, we have divided the martial arts into various styles. Some we divide due to geography (Japanese styles or Chinese styles, for example), others by the way they train (striking or grappling). But why do different styles, of the same type or from the same place, exist? For that matter, what is a martial arts style? That’s what we explore in this article.

How do you survive a violent encounter?

That question has plagued humanity for centuries. And the many answers our ancestors came up with created the many martial arts styles we know today. But why are they so different? Why are there so many answers to the same question? And, with so long to develop, wouldn’t these styles have refined themselves to the point where they all look the same?

Even today, from Jiujitsu to Karate to Wing Chun, the casual practitioner can tell the difference between different styles. Watching a Tae Kwon Do black belt execute a round kick is a different experience than observing a Muay Thai champion throw the same kick. Again, why? Wouldn’t Tae Kwon Do or Muay Thai, both with long histories, have incorporated such efficiency into their training and execution that their techniques would look identical? Yet, the differences remain even with half a century of cross-examination in the modern world.

Those differences in a style’s technique likely got you interested in martial arts in the first place. Whether it was the way someone threw a kick in a movie, the way a fighter won their title match, or the no-nonsense approach of a self-defense system, you likely chose your first dojo based on the style practiced there.

If all styles seek to answer the same question, wouldn’t that mean that all styles, in the end, are the same? For example, if you train in Karate, wouldn’t you learn how to survive a violent encounter just as well as if you trained in Jiujitsu? Your opponent is human, after all.

Unless there are human beings with three arms and four legs, unless we have another group of beings on earth that are structurally different from us, there can be no different style of fighting.

–Bruce Lee

The answer to “what is style” is the same as why there are different styles in the first place, and it all begins with the concept of strategic doctrine.1

Strategic Doctrine: The Essence of a Martial Arts Style

The most common question a new student asks a martial arts teacher is, “what do you do if…?”

What do you do if someone grabs you from behind?

What do you do if the bad guy has a knife?

What do you do if your opponent is stronger than you?

On and on to infinity. Those questions never end. I’ve asked them. You’ve asked them. We not only ask them of our instructors but of ourselves as we train a new technique and wonder how we would deal with it if someone else were using it against us.

Fortunately, the past masters answered many of these problems for us. And it’s the reason that different styles exist at all.

When a past master came up with an answer to a common question of addressing violence, they craft a strategic doctrine. That doctrine necessarily demands specific techniques to execute the strategic doctrine, which requires specific training methods to refine. And thus, a style is formed.

Case Study: Karate and Tae Kwon Do

Let’s look at examples of strategic doctrines by comparing two styles that many believe to be similar yet are quite different.

Neither style was created strictly for the military, although various armies have adopted both. They concerned themselves, initially, with civil self-defense against armed or unarmed attackers.2

Karate and Tae Kwon Do address the same problems and likely influenced each other, given their proximity. So why do they both exist? Why, when the modern exchange of ideas happened, were they not melded together into one super style?

The answer is that both Karate and Tae Kwon Do have different strategic doctrines. Of course, a style might adopt a different strategy for many reasons, but in this case, the difference is largely due to geography.

Mountains cover seventy percent of Korea. Therefore, when encountering a violent attacker, Koreans had to take the terrain into account more often than their Okinawan counterparts. Having the high ground is quite powerful, after all.

Obi-Wan Kenobi High Ground Meme - What is Style

Tae Kwon Do’s strategic doctrine is simple: use your strongest tools, your legs, to destroy an opponent before they can get close enough to fight.1 Such a doctrine was the natural strategic answer to fighting in the mountains. If you have the high ground, not only is it easier to kick your opponent in the head, but your opponent’s tools are limited, as they are beneath you and thus unlikely to effectively kick you back. Using the terrain, Tae Kwon Do practitioners found a clear advantage in striking at vital targets and simultaneously neutralizing their opponents’ best tools. Obi-Wan would approve.

Karate masters, who had flatter environments to contend with, came up with a different strategic doctrine: seize an opponent’s limbs and strike them repeatedly to the head and neck.2 This straightforward approach comes from the need to control the opponent since using the terrain to maneuver to a better position was not an option. Using the hikite (the pulling hand in a karate punch) to jerk on an opponent’s wrist and pull them off balance, a Karate practitioner can limit the weapons an opponent can bring to bear.

Both styles came up with a means to neutralize their opponent’s weapons while simultaneously putting themselves in a position of advantage to launch an effective attack. In this case, their environment dictated how an opponent might launch a violent assault and how a civil self-protector could most effectively defend themselves.

Strategic Doctrines Can Change

Goals are at the center of strategic doctrine. A Tae Kwon Do practitioner wants to finish their opponent with a powerful kick before they get close enough to attack. The Karate practitioner intends to control and suppress an opponent, so they can’t attack back.

What happens when the goals change?

The longer a style exists, the more likely it is to become a competitive art. It makes little sense to use devastating techniques against a friendly opponent to test ourselves, and training in overcoming an opponent often fills us with the desire to have an opponent to overcome. If we can’t use our skills in real life (and we shouldn’t want to), then a friendly competition is often the best way.

Karate and Tae Kwon Do are perfect examples of the transition from pure self-defense to a combative sport. Their strategic doctrines solved particular problems of violence in the past, but today they look very little like they did when their doctrines were being refined. That’s because the problems they were meant to solve have been replaced with a different strategic doctrine: ways to earn belts and win competitions.

For safety, competitions form rules. Unfortunately, those rules create critical flaws in the techniques to remain “safe.” For instance, chopping to the neck is not allowed in any modern competition, yet it’s a core technique of traditional Karate. As such limitations are applied, the practitioner’s goals begin to change. And as goals change, so too does the strategic doctrine—new answers to the question of “how to win” are created, and thus new training methods to support that doctrine. Eventually, the styles look entirely different.

New Styles are Created All the Time

As a style’s popularity grows, so does the need to allow a broader range of people to compete. However, since not everyone who practices a style will be a hardened warrior, and instructors need to cater to young children more often, competition eventually waters down every style.

Sometimes this distillation creates an identity crisis within schools that teach a particular style.

For example, Karate now has two types of schools: kata and kumite. In the past, these were necessary parts of the whole that allowed Karateka to defend themselves in a violent encounter by deploying the style’s strategic doctrine. But as competition created new goals for Karate practitioners, they split into two camps: one focused on the perfection of technique (kata) and one emphasizing sparring (kumite). Some styles of Karate, such as Daido-Juku (also known as “Kudo”), have removed kata altogether as it doesn’t help their goal of winning kumite competitions. This may seem like a slight to the past masters, but it is a natural progression as the strategic doctrine of modern Karate changes.

This begs the question: if a style changes its strategic doctrine, is it still the same style?

The most practical answer is no; they are no longer the same because they do not answer the same questions and thus have entirely different strategic doctrines that necessitate different techniques to execute them. However, marketing is a thing, and the popularity of these styles has created brands within the martial arts that attract students. Most practitioners of a modern martial art would say their style is an evolution of the original, and that is true given how it came to be.

Creating Your Own Style

Creating your own style was looked down on in the ’80s and ’90s, often by people who were in the above process of having their strategic doctrine changed by incorporating competition. But why not? If all it takes is a goal to form a strategic doctrine around, and if that strategy doesn’t already exist in another style, it seems perfectly viable to create your own style by incorporating elements from different sources that support your strategic doctrine.

That’s what The Ronin’s Path is all about: taking control of your martial arts destiny and fearlessly exploring the world of martial arts.


(1) Living the Martial Way, Forrest E. Morgan (1992)

(2) Bunkai-Jutsu: The Practical Application of Kata, Iain Abernethy (2002)

A lifelong martial artist with more than three decades of experience in a wide variety of disciplines. Black belt in Wado-Ryu Karate, instructor certified in Jeet Kune Do, and has since given up on rank to explore the martial arts more freely.

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