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pete.watson's picture
Head turns in kata

I was thinking the other day about kata; head turns and angles…. I kinda come to a bit of a dead end and was wondering if anyone could shed any light…

I’ve always been told a head turn is to spot the opponent before executing a technique; make sense seen as I don’t have Peter Parkers invaluable spidy sense. Well… it used to make sense back when I thought about angles in kata differently….

I now think of angles as a way of indicating where the opponent is in relation to you at the point of executing the technique… but more often than not they are not there to begin with, you move to that angle (Saifa, Empi, Kururunfa, etc…) or move/rotate/pivot them on an angle so you are now at the angle the kata implied but you haven’t physically moved yourself (parts of Bassai, Seiunchin etc…).

When you combine these two ways of thinking together they contradict each other… so that leaves me wondering, what is the head turn for? What does it mean? There are of course a couple of moves that these two ideas fit together, the first section of Kururunfa springs to mind immediately (as the head turns with the step, not before or after).

There is even a double head turn in kihon kata before turning 180. I would look at this kata and say it teaches a beginner the basics of navigating their opponent. How to take their side on the the 90o turns (toe2side combat) and even take their back (toe2back combat). The 180 bit to me means taking their back (getting to 180 of your opponent - their back – not you turning 180- to face the opponent)… thus thinking of things this way the head turns become irrelevant (particularly sharp, prominent, snappy ones)… and prescribing to the way of thinking that every movement in kata has value and is there for a reason this confuses me….

thanks Pete

Jason Lester
Jason Lester's picture

Hi pete, theres more to the head turns than one might think. Turning the head to look in a different direction and to see whats coming is of course one theory. But if we look at kata from close quarter combat (which kata was developed for) head turns are in fact headbutts and turning the head to say bite your attacker when in close range etc.

When studying kata one must always remember to look deeper into the techniques and their meanings.

Hope this is of some help.

Kind regards,


Jikoboei Ryu/google/youtube

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Well this may sound like an over simplification, but I think sometimes  things are just what they look like. To hit something effectively you need your spine aligned on it, which neccessitates facing it. I know it sounds like i'm being clever, but seriously..in many places people add a 'head turn' in kata where it's really just truncating one movement into two, obviously your head turns toward whatever you are dealing with.

Of course this doesn't address the kata that have full head turns in both directions and such.

Iain's Naihanchin drills if I recall treat this as a sort of grinding headbutt for lack of a better term...

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

The angle in the kata represents the angle we should assume in relation to the enemy. Mabuni gives the most thorough explanation of this:

Kobo Kenpo Karatedo Nyumon by Kenwa Mabuni as translated by Joe Swift wrote:

The meaning of the directions in kata is not well understood, and frequently mistakes are made in the interpretation of kata movements. In extreme cases, it is sometimes heard that "this kata moves in 8 directions so it is designed for fighting 8 opponents" or some such nonsense. I would like to specifically address this issue now.

Looking at the enbusen for Pinan Nidan, one can see that karate kata move in all directions, forward and back, left and right. When interpreting kata, one must not get too caught up in these directions. For example, do not fall into the trap of thinking that just because a kata begins to the left that the opponent is always attacking from the left. There are two ways of looking at this:

1 - The kata is defending against an attack from the left.

2 - Angle to the left against a frontal attack.

At first glance, both of these look alright. However, looking at only number (1), the meaning of the kata becomes narrow, and the kata, which in reality must be applied freely in any situation, becomes awfully meager in its application.

Looking at an actual example, the 5 Pinan kata all start to the left, and then repeat the same series of techniques to the right. Looking at interpretation (1), the opponent must always attack from the left, and while fighting that opponent, another opponent comes from behind so the defender turns to fight that opponent. This type of interpretation is highly unreasonable.

Looking at interpretation number (2) however, the 5 Pinan kata show us that against an attack from the front we can evade either left or right to put ourselves in the most advantageous position to defend ourselves.


Mabuni is explicitly clear that the angle is not the angle of attack (as most modern karateka believe), but the angle we assume in order to be in the best position for the technique in question. The idea that the head turns are looking to see the new enemy can therefore be discounted historically as well as practically. The head turns are better thought of as us keeping our eyes fixed on the enemy as we assume the angle.

Here is a video where I discuss some of the issues related to this when I was at Marc MacYoung’s Animal List BBQ last year:

Zach Zinn wrote:
Iain's Naihanchin drills if I recall treat this as a sort of grinding headbutt for lack of a better term...

In relation to the slow head turns at the start of some versions of Naihaichi that exactly right. The kata puts us in a strong clinch position where the main vulnerability is being bitten. The head twist therefore turns the enemy’s head and ensures their teeth are facing the wrong way. That’s on the Beyond Bunkai DVD for those who are interested in seeing it.

All the best,


Joshua.Harvie's picture

Hi Pete

In terms of the double head turns in Taikyoku I would ignore that, virtually everywhere else only has the one and I don't think it was slipped in there with any real signficance implied.

The other reason is the angle that you set your opponent to, for example in a throw. Pinan Godan has you looking down but it's never implied that your kneeling on your opponents shoulders. Although now that you mention it, I'm suprised I haven't seen that anywhere.

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Also worth noting, in the Rules of Kasai mentioned by Toguchi (and expanded on by Kane and Wilder), it is established as a general guideline that 'there is one opponent, and he is in front of you'.

pete.watson's picture

thank you everyone for your replies, they have really helped :-)

i was playing around with a few ideas last night (after doing some evasion work from a competative point of view) and thought i would mention one of the ideas i came up with (which i feel in principle works for both competative or reality training) and open it up for discussion...

as the head turn is done first (often as a sharp movement) and we are moving to the new angle maybe this singifies that as the head is the target (and our 'off 'switch) the important thing is to get that off the line of the attack. maybe the change of the heads angle first means that the head must go first (slip the punch) and then once you have evaded the strike your body follows.


thanks again all :-)

MykeB's picture

A lot of the turns in kata, with the prepatory movement to turn and block, set up nice throws.  Ever time there is a turn to a low block I can't help but see a throw.  The head turn isn't looking for the next attack, it's looking where I'm going.  It tells me where I'm putting my weight.  Just like looking down in Pinan godan helps with getting you to drop your weight.  It's not always the case, but I think putting your head turn/eyes gets your mind going the way your body needs to follow. 

Jon Sloan
Jon Sloan's picture

From the judo training I've been doing it's clear that a head turn often is used in that system to indicate the direction you want the person being thrown to go in. So, I guess I'm just agreeing with MykeB's assessement above.