Martial Arts

What's in a Name - Is Tang Soo Do Suffering An Identity Crisis?

By Master Constantino Terrigno - 6th Dan
Editor, Tang Soo Do World

If you asked anyone in the U.S. as early as the 1940s to name a martial art, the likely answer would have been, Judo, which was introduced to the U.S. in the late 1800s. In 1904, Yoshitsugu (Yoshiaki) Yamashita, a student of Judo's founder, Jigoro Kano, traveled to the U.S. and taught this Japanese sport to Theodore Roosevelt as well as West Point cadets. It wasn't until after World War II that Judo began developing nationally by way of returning American servicemen who had studied it in Japan during the occupation. As a result, the Armed Forces Judo Association (AFJA) was established. As time passed and more servicemen began returning home, the term "Karate" also began imprinting itself in a large way in the American language. Fortunately, Judo and Karate were so distinctly different, there was no way one could be confused for the other.

The introduction of Tang Soo Do to the U.S. ran along the same lines, that is, by way of servicemen returning from Osan Air Base during 1959 and 1960 and setting up schools in their respective areas. Most notable were Grandmaster Dale Drouillard in Michigan, Grandmaster Mariano Estioko in Northern California, Grandmaster Chuck Norris in Southern California and Grandmaster Robert Cheezic in New England. By the 1970s, Tang Soo Do had begun its spread across not only the U.S., but the world, and this growth, particularly in the U.S., led to Grandmaster Hwang Kee's charter meeting in 1975 to establish the U.S. Tang Soo Do Moo Duk Kwan Federation.

By the 1980s however, and despite having at least eleven major Tang Soo Do organizations operating in the U.S. alone, the art was still relatively unknown, or shall we say, "unrecognized" by the general public. Even to this day, chances are high that if you told someone you study Tang Soo Do the likely response would be "I never heard of it". I personally experienced this quite often at my own dojang even as late as last year. And it was not uncommon for prospective students to follow up with the question, "is it similar to Tae Kwon Do?"

So how do we account for this? Certainly, in Tae Kwon Do's case the public's familiarity with it can be attributed to its inclusion in the Olympics, but I believe it goes deeper than that, namely, marketing. Companies today spend billions of dollars to market their products and in the world of marketing, "brand" recognition is the name of the game. Think about some of the products we are familiar with that have been around for years - Scotch Tape, Velcro and Taser for example. What's noteworthy about these is that while they are specific "brand" names, they eventually ended up being the generic term for that specific type of product. This can be a blessing in the beginning but a curse in the end since, over time, as other companies begin producing similar products their identity is lost due to the public's perception that one type of "scotch tape" for instance, is as good as another.

This is in fact what has happened to many martial arts, not only Tang Soo Do. The importance of a name cannot be understated. Grandmaster Hwang Kee experienced this when he first called his art Hwa Soo Do. As we all know, in this period following the Japanese occupation the name did not resonate with the Korean people and so his school didn't do well. Realizing he needed a name that was better recognized, he adopted Tang Soo Do from Won Kuk Lee and re-named his art Tang Soo Do Moo Duk Kwan. From that moment, the school became more recognizable and began to prosper.

This name dilemma continues to this day where in the general public's mind, "Karate" has become the generic term for anything to do with kicking and punching. It's no surprise then that many Tang Soo Do schools incorporate the terms karate or martial arts directly into their name or even use them exclusively, with no mention of Tang Soo Do at all. While the latter may be an understandable business decision, it only serves to reinforce the problem of recognition.

I was therefore curious at how prevalent the use of the terms Karate or Martial Arts was in naming Tang Soo Do schools around the world. Fortunately, with 1,300 schools listed on Tang Soo Do World, I had a fair amount of data with which to do some market research and compile some statistics. Following then are the results broken down by world region and based on the following categories:

(A) Schools using only Tang Soo Do in the name. (e.g. Two Dragons Tang Soo Do)
(B) Schools using only Karate in the name (e.g. Hawthorne Karate)
(C) Schools using only Martial Arts in the name (e.g. High Stepping Martial Arts)
(D) Schools using Tang Soo Do in combination with Karate or Martial Arts (e.g. Virginia Tang Soo Do Karate)
Schools using none of the above in the name (e.g. Kick Masters)

Note: Soo Bahk Do Schools are included in the same way, i.e., how the art's name is used. All figures are as of March 2015.

Region # of Schools
TSD Only
Karate Only
Martial Arts Only
North America 940 24% 35% 28% 6% 7%
Caribbean 11 64% 9% 9% 0% 18%
Central America 10 70% 10% 0% 0% 20%
South America 55 16% 4% 5% 0% 75%
Europe 226 69% 4% 12% 3% 12%
Africa 20 60% 0% 5% 0% 35%
Asia 13 77% 8% 0% 0% 15%
Australasia 25 44% 16% 16% 24% 0%
Total Worldwide 1,300 34% 27% 23% 5% 11%

So what conclusions can be drawn from the above? First, while the use of Tang Soo Do on its own is small at only 34% as a worldwide total, areas like Central America, Europe and Asia are quite high, at over 70%. North America by contrast is only 24%, with higher percentages using Karate or Martial Arts, suggesting that in areas where there is greater competition with other martial arts systems, use of the generic terms is more prevalent. This idea seems to be supported when we look at U.S. schools in high population states such as the following.

State # of Schools
TSD Only
Karete Only
Martial Arts Only
California 71 27% 21% 25% 14% 13%
Connecticut 60 10% 42% 47% 0% 1%
Florida 56 29% 31% 30% 5% 5%
Michigan 72 11% 63% 17% 0% 9%
New Jersey 37 11% 54% 22% 5% 8%
New York 41 24% 39% 22% 3% 12%
Pennsylvania 162 20% 47% 24% 2% 7%
Texas 52 15% 48% 20% 13% 4%
Total U.S. 898 23% 37% 29% 6% 6%

Again, the figures seem to support the idea that in high competition areas, there is a drop in the use of Tang Soo Do in the name with the total percentage now at 23% versus 34% worldwide.

Admittedly, this is a very basic analysis and there may be many other factors that influence one's choice for a school name, but it does make for a compelling argument that there may still be considerable concern by school owners over recognition by the general public. I would venture a guess that if we analyzed Tae Kwon Do schools in the same way we may see a much larger percentage using Tae Kwon Do in the name since it is already a widely known "brand", so using it would in fact be a plus.

Maybe it's time we look at Tang Soo Do in the same way and begin promoting it for what it is - a viable art in its own right, worthy of being named. Something to think about.

As a postscript, I should also point out that many schools will put up an outdoor building sign simply saying "Karate" or "Martial Arts", regardless of the actual school name. While my own school sign did show the name Two Dragons Tang Soo Do on it, I too added the term Martial Arts off to the side to act as a further descriptive.

So there you have it. I would be interested to hear your feedback or comments to share with readers. Just email me at


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