Over the years, you're probably going to find multiple answers to that question on this blog, each highlighting something a bit different. But this post is intended to give you some idea of the background and utility of each of the three martial arts you are most likely to have available to you (in my judgement, anyway): karate, taekwon-do, and kenpo.
I am certain--dead certain--that some of my readers will take exception to the idea that their martial art may not be common enough in this country to warrant inclusion in this post. And I'm not perfect; maybe I'm wrong. But I'm approaching it from the perspective of someone who's been in big cities, been in small towns, and lived in a middle-sized city.
A middle-sized city in an overwhelmingly rural state, actually--and as I look at the electoral map over the last couple of elections, I can't help but notice that the people on my side, the people I most want to help, also live in mostly rural states, and often in the countryside or small towns. Many of us call this "Red State America." And the bald-faced reality is that unless you live in one of the bigger cities in those rural states, it is most likely that you will find instruction in karate, taekwon-do, or kenpo (varying by the part of the country somewhat) before you find instruction in any kind of kung fu, aikido, jujutsu (Brazilian or otherwise), bando, silat, etc. That's what's largely available, and here--in short and ugly form--is how they came to be, and what to expect from them.
If you want to know how I came to find this information out, I don't want to disappoint you, but it's hard to get the whole picture from just one or two sources--especially since some of the writers, frankly, lie or pass on unsubstantiated information. I have read so much material on this subject that it would probably make most people choke. But if you want to do some investigation of your own, I'd suggest you start with Taika Seiyu Oyata's RyuTe-no-Michi, Patrick McCarthy's The Bible of Karate: Bubishi, and Mark Bishop's Okinawan Karate: Teachers, Styles, and Secret Techniques. I'm not going to footnote or reference as I go through this. It's a blog-post, not a scholarly article, and this is one of those subjects where, if you don't believe I'm right, you and I can both go home, relax, and get a good night's sleep. Some are sure to think I've oversimplified things.
Ah, well. I've done my best to explain things in a short space. Take it for what it's worth, please--that is, about what you paid for it. I admit that I do not speak from authority, just from what I've seen and read. You may decide I'm a fool. If so, please politely enlighten me via the comments section.
Several times a week, I pass a MMA--"mixed martial arts" school on the way home. I have no doubt that the people who train there are serious students, and no doubt that they are fit, capable fighters, people whom I would not like meeting in a dark alley.
I also have no doubt that I will keep practicing the old Okinawan karate that I love, and no doubt that for self-defense purposes--at least my self-defense purposes, it is a superior system. One of the reasons I say this is that the old Okinawan karate--in my case, brought into the modern era via Taika Seiyu Oyata and RyuTe will work just fine for me as I age. It's success has little to do with how much muscle I apply--in fact, having to apply muscle in RyuTe techniques strongly indicates that you are doing something wrong.
Mixed Martial Arts, judging from what I read and from what I've seen on the TV screen, has pretty much abandoned self-defense as its goal. No doubt MMA practitioners will dispute this, but everything I've seen has far more to do with what works in the ring than with what works against assaults on your person by someone larger and stronger than you are (and why would you train to defend against attacks by smaller, weaker opponents?) and getting yourself home alive, unharmed, and not in legal jeopardy.
For that, karate is very effective. But for those who don't quite understand why I would say that, for those who know "karate" only as the stuff that little kids do on America's Funniest Home Videos with the pillow-like pads on their hands and feet, here's a little history, a little something to explain how karate has changed from one of, if not the, most effective life-protection arts on the planet to something of a martial sport that doesn't dwell all that heavily on self-defense.
The first thing you need to understand is the concept of the "closed-door disciple." This is important because it explains much of the state of modern martial arts.
In the old days, back in China and Japan and Okinawa (and some other places, too), a teacher of martial arts might take on a number of students. However, it was not at all uncommon for the teacher to teach everything he knew only to a very small number of pupils, sometimes only to one. This might be his son, it might not. Such pupils were closed-door disciples--they were taught the complete art behind closed doors. The rest of the students were taught a slightly altered or watered-down version of the art.
However, the teacher, not being a complete fool, did not make this practice common knowledge. The upshot is that the headship of a style tended to remain in family hands, with the current head of the system being seemingly unbeatable.
Now, there's one obvious problem: people would come and study with the sifu, learn for years, and eventually be granted teaching credentials (or maybe just claim them), and go on to teach others, and yet they would not know the whole system. Those students would then teach others, and so on. Eventually, a point was reached where hardly anybody knew the meaning and application of those weird-looking movements, and people sometimes now make the absurd mistake of believing that the movements have no meaning. If I wanted to, I could stop right there, for that is the state of so much kung fu and karate (we'll get to taekwon-do and kenpo in a bit) around that world that it staggers the imagination.
Now: years and years ago, there was a country, a little country, just planted smack-dab between southern China and Japan. A natural stopping point for trade vessels. It was free only sometimes; more often than not, it was under the domination of another country. As a matter of fact, for a fairly substantial period of time, it was actually under the domination of two other countries: China, which had formally taken it on as a tributary country, and Japan, specifically the Satsuma clan. It was a very weird situation. The Satsuma dominated the country, but because they didn't really want open conflict with China, insisted that their domination remain secret. The Chinese knew what was going on, but as long as they got their annual tribute, maintained a polite silence about it. Talk about a pressure cooker! And add to that the fact that Japan forbade the inhabitants of the country to possess weapons. That country is Okinawa, the birthplace of karate.
It wasn't always known as karate. For centuries, Okinawa's indigenous fighting art was known simply as te, or hand. There were a number of sub-systems and family systems, many of them secret. There is little doubt that there are still secret family systems that have not been revealed to this day. Over the years, the three countries--China, Japan, and Okinawa--traded, and Okinawa picked up martial knowledge from Southern China, as sailors and travelers from both countries exchanged knowledge and techniques.
Many Okinawan styles--Uechi-ryu is a great example--still show a great deal of resemblance to some styles of kung fu.
The Okinawans were also influenced by the Japanese. Okinawan fighting stances are typically squarer than their Chinese counterparts, possibly--probably, in my opinion--reflecting the influence of Japanese swordsmanship--notably the Jigen-ryu of the Satsuma clan--and unarmed combat technique, specifically jujutsu.Then there was tegumi, or Okinawan sumo. It is not much like Japanese sumo. There is more to it, more close-quarter grappling and throwing and the like. It also influenced te.
The resulting art--what emerged as te, principally as practiced by the warrior elites around Shuri castle, absorbed Chinese and Japanese influences--is a uniquely dangerous, eclectic art that revolves in almost every aspect around the knowledge of the body's vulnerable points and makes brilliant use of human psychology, and of physics and body mechanics to generate power. Almost every technique in every kata (formal exercise) is designed to attack one or more of these vulnerable points. Some are attacked by striking, some by close-quarter grappling techniques. However, without the knowledge of where those points are and how to use them, the kata look like nothing more than a series of blocks and strikes. And you know, the system isn't totally ineffective, even on that level. A thoroughly trained practitioner can make those blocks and strikes work, often enough that karate has acquired the reputation it now has. However, that block-and-strike level doesn't even begin to approach the effectiveness of the total art. Properly understood (and I am certainly not claiming to be an expert), the Okinawan kata contain very few blocks. Things that look like blocks are often grappling techniques, or strikes. Sometimes a movement is intended to represent something that the attacker is doing to you; sometimes, a movement that touches your own body can indicate something to be done to an opponent. In one of the naihanchi kata, the practitioner executes an odd-looking move, lightly and rapidly kicking himself on the opposite leg, in a very particular spot. Usually, this is taught as the returning wave kick, and interpreted as a means of kicking away an oncoming attack. It could be. It also will work as a foot sweep. But the application that first really got my attention is one where the practitioner kicks himself to engrave upon his brain the location of the spot where he is supposed to kick the other fellow. The kick--to that particular spot--combined with the attacks on two other pressure points contained in the same overall movement, will knock a person down as though he were a pole-axed ox. There are many places like that in the kata, places that don't look as though they make sense.
By now, you've figured out that the closed-door disciples got the pressure-point knowledge, the grappling knowledge, the proper body mechanics, the psychological tactics and that a lot of the students--some would say "most"--didn't. To learn any one of the whole systems, at least enough to gain teaching credentials, takes about ten years of steady application. And if you haven't been shown the secret material, you might spend all that time thinking you were learning "karate," when you were really just dancing in its shadow. Remember that the next time some eighteen-year-old kid tells you he's "mastered" three or four styles.
Now, bring this situation into the early twentieth century. Te is now often referred to by the names kempo (which is a Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese characters for chuan fa, or fist art) or kara-te. With the characters originally used, kara-te meant "China Hand." However, Gichin Funakoshi, the Okinawan master who introduced karate to a very nationalistic mainland Japan and is widely regarded as the father of Japanese karate, realized that "China Hand" simply wouldn't fly in that atmosphere and he is generally credited with changing the characters to read--though the pronunciation is the same--empty hand.
Funakoshi was, over a period of time, very successful in introducing karate to Japan, principally through its university system. Among other things, he was a born diplomat and made friends among the influential. Notably, he was very well acquainted with the hugely popular and influential Jigoro Kano, founder of Judo.
Do you think Funakoshi revealed the whole art to all those people? To the country that'd occupied his own for centuries? My initial thought was, not on your life. He appears to have left out most of the pressure-point knowledge, most of the close-quarter grappling, and some have suggested that he even altered the fist and the method of striking with it. He even said in his autobiography that the karate practiced in the fifties (when he wrote his autobiography) was a far cry from the karate he'd grown up practicing on Okinawa, and that he'd deliberately simplified the kata to make them easier for people to learn. That was apparently necessarily at least partly because Funakoshi was trying to teach large numbers of people all at once, whereas on Okinawa before that time, teachers would typically teach only a handful of students at any given time. It now appears to me that it is just possible that no matter what Funakoshi may have wanted to reveal, there wasn't time to teach it effectively. The man taught a great many students and had to simplify the curriculum in order to effectively spread karate around the Japanese mainland. If you look at his Karate-do Kyohan, there is a significant section that is pretty much copied from the Bubishi and it deals with at least thirty-six vital points, though specific kata applications don't seem to have been made. Perhaps Funakoshi left some of this devastating combat technique "hidden in plain sight," available in text form for those who cared to seek it out.
At any rate, amazingly, even with the drastic modifications mentioned above, the art is still often very effective! Of course, that may be partly because another modification took place, possibly apart from Funakoshi's intentions: his style, Shotokan, began to emphasize the development of power in the execution of techniques. What else could his students do? If you don't have the pressure point knowledge, you had better be able to hit hard. And hit hard is something modern-day Shotokan practitioners can do, without a doubt. I have often thought that Shotokan is all about generating power in techniques. It seems to me that Shotokan power often comes at the cost of a certain amount of "telegraphing" of one's techniques, but nevertheless, they do hit hard! And if a practitioner somehow comes into possession of the pressure-point knowledge, then Shotokan becomes all about shockingly powerful strikes to vital points. Certainly nothing to sneeze at.
Even though it's not the system I practice, I have something of a soft spot for Shotokan. But I digress. And of course, there were other teachers that popularized karate in Japan: Yamaguchi, Mabuni, Motobu come quickly to mind. But none of them had the impact that Funakoshi did.
At any rate, then those university students and influential friends went on to teach others, and so on. Then came World War II, and the occupation of Japan.
It's largely been forgotten that the traditional Japanese martial arts--kendo, kenjutsu, jujutsu, judo, and the like, were not allowed to be practiced during the first few years of the occupation. It was felt that their martial nature had encouraged the Japanese people in their nationalism. Karate, however, was allowed. I have been told that this was because Funakoshi told his students to perform the kata before the occupying authorities very slowly, so that their martial nature was not clearly revealed, but I do not know if this is true. The upshot is that for a few years, karate had the martial arts stage in Japan almost all to itself, so to speak.
So along came the GI's, and some of them wanted to learn karate. From the university students who'd been taught the watered-down (but still pretty effective) version. Do you suppose that they learned everything the university students learned? Personally, I would bet "not." But they learned enough that when they came back to the states, karate earned a reputation as being pretty rough stuff--even though by this time, what they knew was watered down by two levels at minimum. And for the most part, that is what you are learning when you learn karate in most of the world, including the United States. It can be darned effective, especially if you know something about the human body's vulnerabilities.
*****Now, let's flash back a bit. Remember the university students? Not all of them were from Japan. At least one of them was from Korea, a fellow named Choi Hong Hi, referred to afterwards as General Choi. General Choi learned karate--Funakoshi's karate, Shotokan karate, while in college in Japan, up to the second degree black-belt level. That is not formal teaching-level rank. After the war, he took karate and its kata back to Korea, where he and others like him combined it with an indigenous fighting technique that emphasized kicking, tae kyon. Later, he introduced the result to the nation as taekwon do. Back then, it was often referred to as Korean karate. You can still find old books by that name. It's interesting to note that in those old books, it is virtually impossible to distinguish taekwon do from Shotokan karate. The kata were either taken directly from karate or directly influenced by it--but the important thing to note is that the critical knowledge, pressure-point knowledge, the close-quarter grappling, was mostly missing. As far as I can tell, Choi never learned it. I doubt that he ever had an opportunity to learn it. (For a very useful and informative interview that confirms my principal point here--that old-time taekwon-do was very similar to Shotokan karate, go here. The interviewee, one Colin Wee, an Australian taekwon-do teacher, might not agree with every jot or tittle of this post, but I think he wouldn't be too surprised at the main direction I'm taking.)
As the popularity of taekwon do expanded and Choi tried to make inroads for it in North Korea, his International TaeKwon-Do Federation gained a rival: the World Tae Kwon Do Federation. The WTF introduced new formal exercises--new kata--which, not having even the tenous connection to the old system that the ITF's kata did, contained even less usable knowledge. Taekwon do became so consumed with the sporting aspect of the art--which was about all that was left, once the pressure-point knowledge was lost--that by the mid-eighties, I read an article with side-by-side interviews of General Choi and the head of the WTF (Un Yong Kim, if memory serves), in which both stated, in almost identical words, that their goal was to offer taekwon do to the world as a universal sport.
The martial aspect of taekwon-do is almost totally gone, consumed by the sport. It could hardly be otherwise, given its history.
I know an awful lot of you have been told that taekwon do is an ancient martial art, or based on thousands-of-years-old martial arts similar to Kuk Sool Won or Hwarang-Do. I know you've been told that it's "super karate" (there used to be a school in Tulsa that used that very phrase in its advertising). I'm sorry to disappoint you, especially if you've spent a lot of time and effort to send the little ones to TKD classes, and especially if you thought they were learning something about fighting. The reality is that it is only about sixty years old, and is basically an amalgam of Korean foot-fighting techniques and a watered-down version of Okinawan te.
You also need to understand that there is big money to be made in taekwon-do. It is infamous for such things as the Airport Promotion, where a "master" boards the plane in Korea as a third-degree black belt and gets off the plane in the states as a seventh-degree black belt. You can't tell by looking at the rank certificate, not unless you read Korean, and sometimes not even then. People do this because, not unnaturally, parents want their kids to learn from a "master." People get away with it because unknowledgeable parents desperately want to believe that their little ones are learning to defend themselves in a dangerous world, so they uncritically swallow what they are told and what they see, even though what they see generally doesn't look like any real fight they've ever seen or been in.
But on the other hand, it just might be--very likely is, in much of the country--all you've got available to you. Only God knows how many church-basement, or rec-center martial arts programs are run by some first or second-degree taekwon-do black belt. If you live in Pasture Fritter, Montana, that may just be your only choice. If it is, keep in mind that you can at least learn how to punch and kick darn hard in those classes, and that there are lots and lots of books and videos available these days. My suggestion is that you concentrate on learning--very, very carefully--as much about the vulnerabilities of the human body as you can. If you can hit an opponent very, very hard on someplace vulnerable, you're a whole lot better off than if you never got any training at all.
*****Lastly, there's kenpo. You may notice that it's spelled differently from "Ryukyu Kempo," which was mentioned above. Technically, in Japanese, I believe they are the same word, but in this country, when you spell it with an "n," you are almost always talking about something related in one way or another to Ed Parker's American Kenpo. It is much more prevalent in some parts of the country than in others. At one time, it was very popular in Northeastern Oklahoma, as was Japanese Goju Ryu karate, but it has kind of faded away from prominence and now, if you find a teacher, he is most likely teaching out of his garage or something. Not that that's a bad thing. As a matter of fact, it may just be closely akin to private lessons!
So what is it, and where did it come from? In the case of kenpo, even to ask those questions is to immediately find one's self embroiled in controversy. I have read a substantial amount of material making the case that kenpo is an American variant of a centuries-old Japanese martial art, and material making the case that it is the result of one very talented individual more or less creating his own martial art from bits and pieces of various martial arts then being taught in Hawaii.
The one thing that just about everyone agrees on is that kenpo, as far as this country is concerned, started with James Mitose. Wherever his knowledge came from--and I am simply not going to get into that discussion--it was impressive enough that he garnered some talented students, several of whom went on to be teachers in their own right.
And this is the thing about kenpo that makes it interesting: Mitose's students didn't just take what he taught them and leave it. No, they mixed it up with other stuff. Most notably, one student, William K.S. Chow, combined it with such kung fu as he had learned from his father. Chow, in turn, taught (among others) Ed Parker, who eventually came to the mainland and opened what was one of the first "karate" schools (it was often called "kenpo karate" in those days; still is, sometimes) in the continental United States.
And Parker didn't leave what Chow taught him alone, either. He continually worked on it and refined it. Only God knows how many subsets and subsystems of kenpo there are now. If you try to work out a "family tree," it can seem like every kenpo student has felt free to alter the art to suit his own tastes. But in general, I think it may fairly be said that kenpo in this country is a strong self-defense art that focuses principally on hyper-fast strikes (which might sometimes seem to sacrifice bone-breaking power for the sake of that speed) to vulnerable points of the human body. I have never seen anything to indicate that the knowledge of those vulnerable points is as extensive in kenpo as it was in the Old Okinawan karate, but on the other hand, it seems to me that it is generally substantially greater than you are likely to find in most taekwon-do clubs. Kenpo usually makes a very decent, sometimes an excellent, art of self-defense.
If you can find a good teacher. One of the unfortunate side-effects of the everybody-feels-free-to-modify-it culture of kenpo is that there are way too many people who've promoted themselves (they would deny this) to high ranks so as to found their own systems, and some of them are much better than others. When looking at kenpo, the rule is caveat emptor, but I certainly wouldn't turn up my nose at it if I found a good teacher.
You might also find that in your small town, the only martial arts instruction available is actually a combination martial art. There are an amazing number of these being taught in church basements all across this country. And as likely as not, one of the parent arts will be some variety of karate, or taekwon-do, or kenpo.
Whatever you find, work hard at it.