Why do all the first steps of Heian kata go to the left side? (Part 2) 何故平安形の第一歩は左側に進むのか
(Part 1 title: The first step of Tekki is to the right and it is to the left side with Heian kata)
In the earlier part of this essay (it is posted under the title of “The first step of Tekki is to the right and it is to the left side with Heian kata”) , I concluded that Itosu decided to make the first steps of Heia/Pinan to the left side because all the first steps of Tekki/Naihanchi kata go to the right side. This is only my assumption and there is no document by Itosu or anyone related to him on this subject so we really do not know.
Regardless of the reason, it is definitely a fact that all the first steps of Heian kata from Shodan to Godan go to the left side or the 9 o’clock direction. I feel we need to look deeper to find out why Itosu chose to move in this direction instead of stepping forward or backward.
It is also interesting to see that zenkutsu dachi is used in the first steps of Heian Shodan only. For all other Heian kata, neko ashi dachi is used for the first step (for Shotokan this stance was changed to kokutsu dachi by Funakoshi after he migrated to Tokyo). Though this is also an interesting subject to research as to why neko ashi dachi was favored in Heian kata by Itosu, we will not discuss this in this essay. For those who are interested, I have written a separate essay on this subject in the past. You can find it in Shotokan Mysteries, Chapter 1: Funakoshi’s New Techniques.
For now, we need to focus on the interesting subject of why all the first steps of Heian are done to the left side. Before we jump into this, I think it is worthwhile for us to see the first step of other Shotokan kata. As we all know that there are 26 standard Shotokan kata (list below) honored by most of the Shotokan organizations.
If we discount the 8 total kata of Heian and Tekki from the total list, we have 18 kata left and they are listed below. The list also shows which direction the first step takes. Note that some kata have an in position (no feet movement) moves initially; Kanku dai, Chinte and Unsu. We discount those moves and the list shows the very first foot step, therefore it may not be necessarily the first body motion.
Bassai dai steps forward (12 o’clock)
Bassai sho steps forward (12 o’clock)
Hangetsu steps forward (12 o’clock)
Chinte left foot forward (12 o’clock) to make kiba dachi
Sochin steps forward (12 o’clock)
Gojushiho dai steps forward (12 o’clock
Gojushiho sho steps forward (12 o’clock)
Unsu steps forward (12 o’clock)
Jion left foot steps back (6 o’clock)
Jutte left foot steps back (6 o’clock)
Jiin left foot steps back (6 o’clock)
Gankaku right foot steps back (6 o’clock)
Nijusshiho right foot steps back (6 o’clock)
Kanku dai: stepping left foot to 9 o’clock, facing 9 o’clock
Enpi left foot takes half a step to 9 o’clock, facing 12 o’clock
Wankan diagonally left forward in 30 to 45 degrees in neko ashi dachi
Meikyo right foot moving to 3 o’clock (kiba dachi), facing 12 o’clock
Kanku sho stepping right foot back to 3 o’clock but facing 9 o’clock
Here are the interesting statistics of the first step:
Forward: 8 cases
Note: See an added comment below about Chinte.
Backward: 5 cases
To the left (including diagonal): 3 cases
To the right: 2 cases
Have you checked this before? What do you think? Is this list surprising to you? These numbers are very interesting but not too surprising, at least not to me. As we expected, 8 out of 16 kata, or 50% of these kata have the first step moving toward 12 o’clock. I must point out that there is one exception in these six kata. Five of them face and execute the technique to 12 o’clock, however, in Chinte you step forward to make kiba dachi but you face and deliver the technique to 3 o’clock. Even its first technique is delivered (from heisoku dachi) to 3 o’clock.
It is also interesting that the first step in 5 of the kata is to step back. I assume that most of the readers were taught that in kata our motions are always forward and stepping backward is a poor move. It is obvious that stepping forward toward the imagined opponent is the best move and stepping away or backward is most disadvantageous. Even during the kata, we do not see any stepping back movement except in Gojushiho dai and sho (steps 55 – 57 in Sho, 52 – 54 in Dai, illustration right) and the other cases of taking one of the legs back from kosa dachi (Kanku dai, Enpi, Jion, etc). Some people may point out the last three steps or hops of Chinte are moving back. However, it is a known fact that those three steps were added in the middle of the 20th century. The reason why they were added was simple, the ending spot would be about 3 steps forward of the starting spot. This was a problem in kata competition as we are supposed to return to the starting point. In order to “fix” this problem, these three strange hopping backwards (steps 33 B, 34 A and 34 B, illustration left) were added. This is not my pure guessing. You can easily see the original kata by Shorin ryu and you will find that it has no hops.
There are only two kata whose first step moves to the right side or 3 o’clock. In Meikyo, though the first step is to 3 o’clock you will face and deliver technique to 12 o’clock which is similar to Tekki Sandan. In Kanku sho, though the first step is to 3 o’clock, you will face and deliver the technique to 9 o’clock. This means there is no kata that faces to 3 o’clock in the first step with the possible exception of Chinte. So out of all those 18 major Shotokan kata, there is no kata that you step to the right (3 o’clock) and deliver the technique to the right side. This is why it is interesting that we find this movement in Tekki Shodan and Nidan in which you step and deliver the technique to the right side (though I am aware that the most popular bunkai for this movement in Tekki Nidan is to break a hold and throw the opponent from behind).
There are three kata that develop to the left side: Kanku dai, Enpi and Wankan. However, in Enpi, though you move the left foot to 9 o’clock, you face and deliver the technique to 12 o’clock (illustration right). Therefore, obviously the imaginary opponent is positioned in front (12 o’clock) and not to the left side (9 o’clock). If you add Kanku sho from another category (above), there are three kata (Kanku dai, Wankan and Kanku sho) that develop to the left side (to 9 o’clock).
So we found that out of the 18 kata, only three of them develop to the left side. We also found that most of the first steps are either stepping forward or backward. Then, why didn’t Itosu follow suit with this trend? Was that an error or did he miss this? I do not believe so. I believe he intentionally chose to make the first step as well as the direction of the first technique to the left side.
I concluded this hypothesis from studying the physical mechanism. Before I explain what this physical mechanism is that I referred to above, I wish to remind the readers to remember why Heian kata were created a little more than one century ago. Yes, they were created for the middle school (for 12 to 16 years old students) physical education. In other words, Itosu designed a series of “easy” kata for the young students for the physical fitness purpose and those students were totally novice to karate training.
Obviously for the purpose of martial art, it makes more sense to formulate a kata based on an actual fighting situation. Thus, it is natural to make the first step to either step forward or backward as you will fight an opponent who is in front of you. Even if you find an opponent on your left or right side, it is unwise if you do not face the opponent first. Thus, a kata that starts with a step to left or right side and delivering a technique to a side cannot be classified as a martial art minded kata. Itosu knew this but he created Heian in that way on purpose.
What are the reasons? Now this is the core question of this essay. The hypothesis I have is purely my own guesses based on the movements I find in Heian kata. I am happy to share them and I would like to hear from the readers if they think my ideas make any sense.
OK I think there are at least three reasons why Itosu picked the first step and technique delivery to the left side.
- Natural left rotation including our solar system
You do not need to be a scientist to know that it is more natural to rotate in a counter clockwise direction. It is known that our Solar System that all of the planets, with the exception of Venus, rotate counter clockwise even the moon rotates counter clockwise (as observed in the northern hemisphere). It is also a known fact that most of the figure skaters choose to spin in that direction. Also, we know that a track not only for tack-and-field events but also for indoor bicycle racing, running the bases in baseball, speed skating, Roller Derby and even NASCAR racing is set in the counter clockwise direction. Also, notice that is the direction for merry-go-rounds and revolving doors. I can name more examples but I believe I have made my point. I am sure there is a scientific reason but I believe it is simply because our planet revolves in that direction we feel more natural to turn that way. Regardless of the reason or reasons, our body seems to feel comfortable in an instinctive way when we turn in that direction.
Both Heian and Tekki are training or kihon kata. The first martial art or budo kata is Bassai dai. The first step of this kata is to move (or almost jump) forward and this makes the most sense from a martial art perspective. This is the correct direction to practice. On the other hand, as I will explain further in the next point, being able to move forward quickly is not an easy technique thus it requires a lot of training.
So here is my hypothesis. Itosu, having known this, intentionally chose turning the body left as the first movement. He knew this body movement was much easier and better for the novice students with their introductory kata.
- The foot: a shape for natural shifting
I believe I have written an essay on the definite relationship between the shape of our foot and the body shifting mechanism of Tekki kata in the past. Since it is a simple concept I will repeat it here. As you can see the illustration on the right, our foot is designed to be longer than its width. You may feel it is so natural that you do not think about it twice. The shin bone is positioned not in the center but rather towards the back or the heel.
This design makes the body steadier or better balanced with the body forward. In other words, you can keep your balance pretty well even if someone would push you from behind. However, if someone pushes you from the front, you tend to lose your balance much easier. The same thing can be said when the pressure comes from either the left or right side. Of course, you have two feet so you can keep your balance with both of them firmly planted. Try this when you are standing on only one leg.
You can manage your balance well when you are losing it towards the front as you can bend your knee and tighten your calf muscle. At the same time, there is a lag of time if you wish to move forward. On the other hand, it is much easier to lose balance to the rear and the sides. As we do not consider moving backward as a wise choice so we will skip this direction in this essay. So, the conclusion is it is easier to lose your balance and that translates to that you can move or body shift faster. Just as the creator of Tekki designed to move only sideways, Itosu used the same concept in Heian kata.
Shifting to a side may not be a wise or a desirable move from a martial art perspective, it is, however, a useful training method for a karate novice to learn how to shift smoothly and swiftly. In fact, many of the Judo techniques are to the sides, they teach and practice how to fall sideways correctly or without getting injured (illustration right).
I conclude and praise that Itosu choice of this concept in the first step of Heian kata was very wise and also innovative.
- Easier to make a hanmi (半身) position
For the beginners it is typically taught that the first technique in kata (and karate in general) is a block. For instance, it is gedan barai in Heian shodan, chudan uchi uke in Heian Sandan and Godan. Those blocking techniques must have a hanmi or half hip stance. In addition, other than Shodan, the stance in the first move of other Heian kata is neko ashi dachi (or kokutsu dachi) which is a defensive stance and works better with hanmi.
You can try this on your own, to shift to one side is not only faster but is also better suited to form a good hanmi. This is so simple because making hanmi is natural as the sides of your body is already turned either to your left or right side before you start your first step. Itosu could have picked the right side but he chose the left side for the reasons I have explained in Part 1 of this essay.
Try the first step of any one of the Heian kata. You will bring your left hip by stepping forward with your left foot to the 9 o’clock direction in your first step. As you deliver either chudan or jodan uchi uke, you will discover that you are in a distinctive half hip stance and capable of making an excellent hanmi zenkutsu and much easier regardless of the stances of Zenkutsu, Neko ashi and Kokutsu.
After trying it on your own, did you see if what I am proposing above is true or not? I am sure you have felt with your body that it is much easier to make a good hanmi when you shift to your left side compared to step forward that you typically do in your kihon training.
Here is Itosu’s idea (according to my theory). A novice, first, learns how to quickly body shift to the left side in all Heian kata. He will learn next, shifting to the right side with Tekki kata. Therefore, after these kata, the student can begin to practice body shifting forward as found in Bassai dai.
OK these are my ideas for the reasons why Itosu chose to make all the first steps in five Heian kata a step to the left side or 9 o’clock direction. I want to emphasize that the first steps of these five kata did not come about by an accident or without much thought behind them. I conclude that the creator, Itosu, put a lot of consideration and made them very strategic moves.