Reading the "Taekwondo Grappling Techniques" book (Dr. Tony Kemerly and Steve Snyder, Tuttle Publishing, 2009), the first chapter provides an interesting overview of Taekwondo history, and the influences from Chinese and Japanese martial arts. It goes into detail on how Okinawan Karate came to be, and how Brazilian Jiu Jitsu originated from Judo.

The general "thesis" of the book is that the block - counter attack techniques are watered down versions of the much more lethal block -grab - counter attack techniques, and goes on showing how each type of block can evolve into a grab.

The authors trace this trend back to 19th century Karate, when it was introduced in Okinawa's elementary school curriculum:

In 1868 however, this all changed. Japan moved from a feudalistic government to a democratic one that resulted in a few changes to the martial arts.

The martial arts began to be taught as a way to promote the values of the past. This was done by using the martial arts to foster health, spirit, morality, and national identity, instead of the most efficient way to disable an opponent.

Finally, a sportification of Japanese martial arts began. This switch to a more holistic, sporting martial art gained ground in 1908 when Itosu “Anko” Yasutsune was able to incorporate karate training into the physical education programs in all elementary schools on Okinawa. In order to do this however, a few changes needed to be made to the art. For these changes, he was often criticized for effectively watering down the combat efficacy of karate.

He disguised the more dangerous techniques, i.e. grappling, and taught the art as one primarily based on blocking and punching. No combative application was taught for any technique, meaning the patterns were taught without their application thereby making them no different than any of the traditional dances popular at the time.

Lastly, deceptive names were given to the techniques that were taught, such as “high block” or “low block”. Prior to this, what we know as a “high block” or “low block” was utilized as a striking or grappling technique in addition to its role in blocking. It is now clear that karate patterns did at one time contain more than just striking and blocking techniques.

This strikes me as generally true for modern martial arts, particularly Kungfu and Taekwondo, that tend to become sports or performing arts, rather than disabling or killing opponents.

Is it fair to say that modern martial arts are intentionally made less effective, in order to appeal to a broader range of people?

  • Insights from other martial arts are welcome, but it's probably best to focus on Taekwondo and Karate, as the trend is older than TKD. I'm that a too broad question may become too subjective and be downvoted by moderators. – Daniel Reis Apr 25 '18 at 21:54
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    What do you mean by effective? The majority of the benefits of martial arts are not related to doing damage to another human. – Collett89 Apr 26 '18 at 7:30
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    Effective as is quickly being able neutralizing an opponent, usually by disabling or killing. That's the starting point for martial arts, right? – Daniel Reis Apr 26 '18 at 7:42
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    @Collett89 Just because there are some additional benefits of martial arts doesn't take away from the original purpose. Martial arts are for fighting. A martial art's effectiveness can be proven by its success in fights. To say something like, "yoga is an effective martial art because it helps one to become calm and centered" completely waters down the definition. – coinbird Apr 26 '18 at 15:04

Absolutely. Though I would say it's the case for modern "traditional" martial arts. There are some martial arts that have not been affected. Here are the main two reasons for what you're seeing (I use "scary", but I could have used "dangerous" or "violent" as well):

  • Fighting is too scary for kids

Effective martial arts are a hard sell for parents, and many large traditional martial arts gyms prioritize membership (money) over teaching effective combat techniques. Many parents would much rather their child throw some kicks at the air, or a bag, rather than see them learn to take someone down and sink in a rear naked choke. Fighting is brutal and violent, and there is an attempt to mask that from the general public that just want an activity for their child. Belt promotions come quickly and easily to keep the children interested, and the parents seeing "progress".

  • Fighting is too scary for adults

In the early 1990's MMA shot up in popularity. The UFC and Pride were major fighting organizations that showcased every fighting style that wanted to participate. This forced martial arts gyms to a fork: Can we train actual fighters? Or should we train the general public? (I should note that many MMA gyms do both) For many traditional gyms there was not a choice, their martial art was not effective on its own in MMA. A gym that wanted to teach strictly striking martial arts would not produce effective fighters, as they wouldn't train grappling. The same went for strictly grappling gyms that wouldn't train striking.

The result was a lot of fighters and prospective fighters moving away from the traditional gyms, to the MMA gyms. This left behind the hobbyists and sport fighters at the traditional gyms. Weeding out the fighters meant the majority of customers weren't going to demand an effective combat system. They weren't going to question a less hardcore curriculum. They were there to have fun and get a workout.

On a side note, two older martial arts that have not been affected by this are Boxing and Wrestling. These two were never popular with the casual crowd in the first place (I suspect due to live sparring being necessary). I came up in traditional martial arts and eventually switched to MMA, so I had the unique experience of seeing this unfold first hand.


I come from a background of philipino martial arts, i speak manly for those traditional, weapon-based systems (sticks, knifes, machetes)

Back in the day - 2 or 3 generations ago - it was not a sport. There was fighting between tribes and fighting against the Spanish or Japanese or American rulers. People got hurt. Badly hurt - we are talking about machetes and the term "Amok" is philipino.

Times changed after World war 2 - it shifted from a fighting art to a fighting sport. It's bad practice to hurt your training partners. For example basic blocks are done on the sticks nowadays, no longer smacking the "attackers" hand.

A teacher of mine used to show the old, traditional techniques as part of the culture, but "people freaked out".

Time has changed, it's no longer accepted to end a fight with a badly injured enemy - or a dead one. To kill is not that difficult, to heal and to grow is a much harder way.


I would like to add yet another (exclusively Japanese) perspective, with reference to sources written by people that lived exactly through the times when the transition took place.

First, let me introduce Eiichi Miyazato, who was a first-generation student of the founder of Goju-ryu Karate-do and wrote the following lines in 1978 (source: Okinawa den Goju Ryu Karate-do, preface):

Now that karate has crossed borders and has spread to every corner of the globe, the number of practitioners has increased enormously. I'm sure I am not the only one who questions whether or not letting the art spread so readily is necessarily a good thing.

There are a number of problems that arise with the spread of karate. The sudden increase in student numbers inevitably results in a lack of trained instructors. With this, the quality of the instruction decreases, and the art is transformed into a sport.

Such a transformation entails the loss of the very essence of karate as both the mental and physical aspects of the art are distorted.

If karate continues to spread as it has, there will almost certainly come a time in the future when such distortions will be cause for concern.

Goju Ryu Karate has its roots in the Nanpa Shorinji style of China's Fujian Province and therefore, the techniques of the style are very difficult. This is sometimes an obstacle that stands in the way of the instruction and learning of less advanced practitioners.

Long story short: The mere fact that there was a sudden jump in student numbers necessarily involved a "watering down" of the styles as there was no way of providing proper instructor-student ratios. Presumably, this involves dropping dangerous, more time-intensive (instruction-wise) techniques from the curriculum and in addition people starting to instruct others prematurely in what are mere preliminary steps towards learning the technique proper, thus a loss of the true meaning of the moves (i.e. the technique they are meant to lead to).

On the other hand, there is Kenji Tomiki, 6th Dan Kodokan Judo, first generation student of Morihei Ueshiba's in what formed to Aikido, founder of Shodokan Aikido (the only form that involves randori):

Let me start with my conclusion first. In Japan our budo of the past was something extremely bloody, vicious, and completely without bounds as to what methods or tricks one could resort to. Therefore, in viewing our present peaceful society and looking forward to a peaceful future, I think that “sportification” (kyogika), the conversion to competitive sport, is the best way to spread the outstanding points and the benefits of budo to the world. (link)

In other words: Especially in Japan, the sportification and omission of violent and deadly techniques of martial arts was an active post-war endeavour, both to preserve budo as a cultural element within the now heavily pacifistic society at all and to allow for the benefits preserved to further spread across Japan and the rest of the world.

This clearly is a post-war development, as Tomiki was highly critical of the "sportification" of budo in 1924 (link) that already was going on, sparked by the success of Kodokan Judo [I guess Shotokan Karate should be mentioned here, too, but was still in formation by then].

Considering the bloody history of mid-19th century wars throughout the world, it would not surprise me to see the same arguments hold true for other martial arts.


Where Does "Martial Arts" Come From?

I'm from a camp that believes that martial arts is just that: study and practice of battlefield tactics. Think military. So, modern martial arts would involve throwing hand grenades, bivouac, first aid, placing mines, using a LAW, and all of the support behind such things, like command structure, fitness, eating, hygiene and sanitation, and religion. Many "martial arts" we see today were just that long ago. Karate and Kung Fu are good examples - but they are now only a snapshot in time. Today's practice of strict Okinawan Karate, for example, is practiced only from historical context, not applicable modern context. As such, there is very little modern military application. The styles were not watered down, they simply didn't adapt to new military practices.

Taekwondo was built for a small, singular purpose: to survive on the battlefield. Historically, it would come close to a martial art, but only a portion of it. Taekwondo does not (and never did) concern itself with weapons, first aid, religion, etc. But there are shadows of martial similarities: there is a command structure in many taekwondo schools - some are very strict. Lots of "Yes, SIR!" in most schools. Religion may be out, but there are several character-building tenets built within. (Chung Do Kwan Taekwondo, for example, has an oath that is recited before each class. This oath is not unlike the Boy Scout's scout oath and scout law. It may not be religious, but it is all about character building.) And Taekwondo aims to keep the body physically fit, just as a soldier would expect to do the same on the battlefield.

But today, only the military practices true martial arts. The rest of us practice a (very) cherry-picked subset of martial arts. On a broad front, we have all adopted the combat fighting parts. From there, we diverge into grappling only, striking only, weapons only, wellness only, and hybrids. Some styles are for the individual, while others are for a team, and yet others are suitable for a family (eg, ATA Taekwondo).

Is There a Difference Between 'Less Effective' and 'Adapted'?

That is where your answer lies: that which we often refer to as "martial arts" hasn't necessarily been reduced in effectiveness, they simply adapted to today's purposes. None of them are effective on the battlefield, so in that sense, yes, they've all been made less effective for the battlefield. So maybe, it begs a question to your question "what do you mean by effectiveness?"

If by effective, you mean, can you use it on the battlefield? No, there is no combat fighting system which is suitable for the battlefield. Generally, the sport styles teach one-on-one only, with no weapons, and a limited set of techniques and targets that can be used. The self-defense styles teach only survival against non-military adversaries with knives and fists, although some will dabble in gun disabling. Today's wars are fought with long range projectile weapons; aerial combat; computer, chemical, biological, and nuclear warfare; and other tactics. No style of modern "martial arts" covers any of this in any dojang or dojo.

So the only possible definition you could possibly infer "effectiveness" would have to be either sport, self-defense, or personal wellness.

As to sport, each style has evolved into what it is today because of the nuances of sport. Taekwondo moved from the battlefield into street shops teaching fighting skills, and evolved into competition. You see the evolution as some techniques (like the crescent kick) are falling out of favor, while new techniques (like aerial spinning kicks) are introduced. Technology and customs change, too: there's specially trained referees, specialized mats, e-scoring systems, new forms developed for the sole purpose of competition. So, I would say effectiveness in sport has improved: each style is a niche sport, and every evolutionary change is made to make the sport more effective for that sport.

As to self-defense, this is where the arguments begin. It's also what most people are referring to, or infer, when they use or hear the phrase "effective". But reference to self-defense can be misplaced. Taekwondo (today) is a sport, it is not meant for self-defense. Like boxing, wrestling, BJJ, muay thai - there is only single-opponent, no weapons, and controlled environment practice. Can you use any of these styles for self-defense? Of course you can, just like you can use a wrench to hammer in a nail. But you might as well lump football and rugby players here, too: they may not be fighting, but they sure know how to take someone down - and sometimes, that's just what you need. But they will all struggle hard against someone with a weapon, or against multiple someones.

And as to wellness... well, Taekwondo is horrible. Yes, there's lots of cardio in most schools. But really, the risk to the knees and ankles isn't worth it - you'd be better off in a gym. Many places do not warm up or stretch a student properly. So use a hammer (ie, go to a gym), not a wrench, because it's more versatile and can handle most kinds of things needing hammering. Aikido is also horrible. Many places won't have your pulse elevating that much, but there is good stretching of the spine and neck. But if that's what you want, maybe best to go to a gym for the cardio and a chiropractor for the neck and spine. Again, use a hammer, not a wrench. MMA? Good for cardio, good for overall body workout. But like all other martial styles, it's not there for your wellness, it's there for competition. Use a hammer.

Can a Style Both Adapt and be Made Less Effective?

You brought up another point. Watered down techniques (ie, "made less effective") for the purpose of bringing the stuff into schools. Jigoro Kano and Ginchen Funakoshi were noted for doing just this. Schools can't have their students running around putting people in rear naked chokes, or throwing each other, now, can they? They need to come back the next day for more learning, and not in bandages and casts. Yes, the styles' techniques were "refocused". I'm shying away from saying "watered down" because in truth, nothing changed - only the explanations changed. What became watered down was when those kids - not having learned anything else - grew up and themselves became instructors. A good example is Gen Choi when he developed his version of Taekwondo. You can read the absurdities of kata application when he wrote and described his new kata (and called them hyung and tul). Even the pushers and movers of the opposing trending Taekwondo style (what would eventually become Kukkiwon, aka WTF Taekwondo), there, the textbook has just as laughable applications for poomsae (kata).

The water down was evolutionary: those kids being taught that spearhands were pokes to the stomach, and chambering hands were readying for a punch, and the like, they grew up to be instructors themselves, and they knew no better. THAT is where the water down happened. No one said "let's take this out of the style because it's too dangerous", they said "Let's rename this technique so it won't seem so dangerous and they won't go around using the technique as it was intended". A spearhand to the belly is benign compared to the throw it is meant to be.

Can Neglect Make a Style Less Effective?

More water down: read Choi's encyclopedia, or Kukkiwon's textbook (although, I will add that the newer edition of the Kukkiwon textbook shows more competency in applications than either its predecessor or its ITF compliment). The water down occurred when an authority (Choi, Kukkiwon) passed on misinformation - the same information the kids were taught. In bolstering this, neither side made any attempt to include application in their curricula. There is neither official ITF or Kukkiwon/WTF requirement to advance in rank by showing competency in self-defense, nor knowledge of application in their poomsae/hyung except to demonstrate proficiency in performing the hyung's movements only. This stands in contrast to good Karate schools (notably from Okinawan heritage) where demonstration of application is the requisite.

If you were a student of ITF or Kukkiwon/WTF Taekwondo, and steadfastly subscribed to the tenets of application as described in the styles' respective tomes without question, then you yourself are contributing to the watering down of the style. You could, of course, be studying it for the historical context - many ITF students do this - but I don't think Choi would want students to not grow intellectually and technically by not studying more about the style outside the encyclopedia. Whether either author placed the absurd bunhae as a means for the reader to do some real research is debatable. The books are, after all, a definitive reference for their respective styles. So to me, the authors take some blame for this watering down by way of students adhering to dogma and not thinking for themselves.


But did Choi and Kukkiwon do it deliberately? Nothing about the character of the founders suggests so (indeed, Dr Lee Kyu Hyung has a doctorate in physical education, has authored several books (including the textbook), and served as president in several organizations, and is highly regarded for his character and achievements. He didn't found the style, but he is instrumental in its evolution). And as to Choi, he had a lot of faults, but deliberately watering down his style would not be one of them. So it stands to reason that the inclusion of strange bunhae was meant to be what the Japanese call "omote bunkai" - or "obvious bunkai", and left as an exercise for "better reading". That students were not encouraged to do that better reading, that could be blamed on Choi.

There are those who completely subscribe to the limited bunkai (bunhae) in Taekwondo's poomsae as described in their tomes, and refuse to consider all other possibilities. I know, I occasionally work out with some of them, and occasionally compete against them. They are, or will be, instructors themselves, and they will perpetuate that watering down of the style. That there is deliberately watering down the style.

It is curious to me that Kukkiwon - a predominantly sport-oriented style - has updated their textbook to show more realistic self-defense applications for their poomsae (and as well, gone deeper into competition techniques). Of course, Choi is dead, but none of the "official" ITF federations has done anything about adjusting or clarifying Choi's bunhae either.

The Book

For the record, the book you mention is an excellent book. They focus on the ITF style of Taekwondo (the Chang Hon set of forms). They go into summary detail about real applications for most of the unusual movements in ALL forms. Conversely, Choi's encyclopedia covers only a fraction of the movements in all of the forms, and, what he did cover is not true bunhae - it's awful. Some of it is comical. And as we should know, there are many - dozens - of techniques that can be drawn from any given movement in kata, but this book presents only one. That's a great start, and it shortcuts the research someone familiar with ITF Taekwondo, but not Karate, must do in order to find competent applications. For those studying Kukkiwon/WTF Taekwondo, the forms (taeguek, palgwe, or yudanja) there aren't covered, but, there are many similar techniques, and there still exists some value to those practitioners. So it is an excellent start for those Taekwondo-in searching for competent bunhae in their forms.

This book, therefore, serves as an excellent first step in de-watering down, or revitalizing the style's effectiveness for self-defense.

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    "Schools can't have their students running around putting people in rear naked chokes, or throwing each other, now, can they?" This is precisely what schoolchildren do at judo. – mattm Sep 26 '18 at 19:47
  • Well in truth, I don't really know what was taught in school back then; perhaps, I would have been safer saying "Schools can't have their students running around poking people in the eyes, or kicking them in the groin, now, can they?" – Andrew Jennings Sep 26 '18 at 19:53
  • I do know that some techniques - like a spearhand, a C block (or stick block), and a few other blocks are actually throws. So I presume that the renamed technique was ostensibly to avoid having the students do just that. – Andrew Jennings Sep 26 '18 at 19:54
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    For thousands of years, including during the Roman Empire, the script for winning wars has been to raise an army and train them to fight together as a unit. Individual fighting skill is not very important; it's sufficient for soldiers to have basic proficiency but good organization. In this context, nothing that is currently called a martial art has met your definition of martial arts for thousands of years, since before anyone was called Mars. Martial arts have always been overspecialized for mass warfare. – mattm Sep 26 '18 at 20:13
  • Yes, agreed. Only those who are in the military practice true martial arts (or, shall I say, military science?) My definition is not well-accepted in the current martial arts community, since I subscribe to a more literal definition. But this time I deferred to that more unpopular definition in the hope to draw a contrast. Since taekwondo was specifically specified to limit answers, and that Taekwondo was designed in and for military use, I thought that showing the evolution from military origins to modern sport would better show evolution and not necessarily without loss of effectiveness. – Andrew Jennings Sep 26 '18 at 20:28

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