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Kousaku Yokota: Is Shotokan lacking circular techniques?


I often hear the comment that Shotokan karate lacks circular movements or techniques.

Some claim that other styles such as Goju ryu and Uechi ryu have more of those circular techniques. I hear this not only from the non Shotokan karate practitioners but also from the instructors of Shotokan itself. If the instructors feel that way then it must be true. Or is it? Before believing this idea we must do some investigation.

ChokuTsuki The most popular attacking technique in Shotokan is “Choku zuki” or “straight punch”. It is very true that a choku zuki punch travels very straight as shown in the picture on the left . Your teacher tells you to keep the elbow in and down so that your punch will not make an arc. So, you might say, “Oi-zuki and gyaku-zuki are very popular in Shotokan so our attacking techniques look straight.” You are absolutely correct on one thing. That is the word “look”. The line of movement of a fist is indeed straight. We will discuss this point further later.
YokogeriKikome The above mentioned mechanism also applies to “Yokogeri kekomi” or “side kick”. In this kick the kicking foot, after being tucked up near the opposite knee will indeed travel (at least it’s supposed to) straight to the target. Beside these “straight” techniques, our kata’s enbusen is very linear, a combination of straight lines crossed by either 90 degree or 45 degree angles. In addition to kata, our kumite syllabus such as gohon kumite and sanbon kumite engrains in our brain that our moves must be very straight and linear. Considering those, no wonder our karate looks linear. We will discuss further these two points; kata and kumite, later in the article.

Let us get back to the discussion of karate techniques.

Here, we must look deeper into the physical mechanism of our body. What goes on behind the scene is a combination of the shoulder socket turning as the upper arm makes a circular movement forward as the punch is delivered. So the elbow makes a pendulum swing as you extend your punching arm and that is a circular movement. This is the basic concept of the physiological mechanism of our body. We are all aware that our body is constructed from many sticks (bones) and the joints (knees, elbows, etc) to connect them. This means all the complex body movements we make in our daily lives such as walking, shaking hands and eating are made up of both straight and circular movements of those sticks. Of course, some of the movements are more complex and sophisticated but in general those two motions are the basis of our body movements.  If this is the case with our normal daily activities, then it is easily guessed that all the karate techniques require some kind of circular movement.

squeleton You can review all the “straight” techniques from every punching, kicking and blocking technique and you will see that those techniques require some combination of circular movement.  In other words, these techniques use the circular movements of our arms (including the shoulders) and legs (including the hips). In addition, there are some circular movements using hip rotation (like in gyaku zuki). And this is true not only for Shotokan karate but covers a much broader spectrum including not only all karate styles and martial arts but all athletic and physical activities.
knifeHand Believe it or not, we already have many techniques in Shotokan that are very circular. An excellent example we all know is Shuto uchi or knife hand strike.  Let’s take a closer look. The diagram on the left surely shows a circular movement of this technique. We find this technique done once in Heian Yondan and many times in Kanku Dai, so it is a very familiar technique to us. The diagram of shuto uchi shows an inward swing but this technique can be applied also with an outward swing. In fact, we practice this technique called shuto uke, a knife hand block very frequently.  Even though the outward movement does not travel with a larger circular course, it is a circular technique. And, we start practicing this technique as early as our first kata, Heian Shodan.

Let’s look at the kicking techniques.

The most popular kick in Shotokan is mae geri, front kick. Many people believe it is a straight kick because in mae kemomi the foot does move straight forward. (Illustration1) But if you look at the mechanism of this kick closer it is definitely a circular kick and not a linear move technique. (Illustration 2)


Illustration 1


Illustration 2

MawashiGeri When you think of a circular kick you will quickly remember mawashi geri, round house kick. We all agree its movement is very circular. I am sure you were taught to bring up the kicking knee to the hip height and then deliver a kick in a very circular and horizontal way. Not only the kicking leg but you were told to rotate the entire hip area along with the kicking leg. We can also say other kicks like yoko keage and mikazuki geri are also the kicks that must be considered as circular techniques.



Earlier we discussed that shuto uke is a circular move. How about other blocks?

  Let’s look at two very popular blocks; chudan soto uke (Illustration 3) and age uke (Illustration 4). See the diagrams below. Those two blocks are definitely circular in their movements. As a matter of fact, if you examine the motions of the other blocks like chudan uchi uke and gedan barai, you will find that they also move in a circular way though they may not be as obvious as soto uke.


Illustration 3


Illustration 4


OK so far, we have looked at quite a few popular techniques and you must admit that all our techniques employ circular movements. Well, you will say “OK I agree that these techniques are supposed to be circular. But our moves do not look circular.” Well, I think you hit the bull’s eye. That “impression” may well be the exact reason why many of you feel that Shotokan karate lacks circular movements.

Now, it looks like we are back to square one.

Here, I challenge you by asking this key question, “Why must our technique be or look circular?” You must believe a circular movement is better than a straight one. At least, you put much value in circular techniques, then we must know why. Let us examine the circular techniques and see if there are any significant merits to support your beliefs.


Three popular advantages of circular movements:

1.   An easier transition from one technique to another as the completion of one technique would blend into the one that follows. In other words, a series of movements can be made without stopping between the movements.

2.   A whip like motion (uraken uchi, shuto uchi, mawashi geri, etc.) could generate a lot of speed and a great impact as it hits a target.

3.   Circular movements look smoother than straight ones. Our techniques give an impression of digital or jerky motions.


Next let’s review those advantages.

1.   Easier Transitions: This is probably the biggest reason why we believe a circular motion is better than a linear one. In a circular motion, one technique can lead into another technique without stopping or slowing down. A good example may be a combination of shuto jodan age uke and a jodan shuto soto mawashi uchi using the same arm. This shows that one movement or an action could contain two, three or more techniques. This is extremely difficult to get from a linear technique. It can be done with two techniques packed in one motion (for instance a yamazuki which may be a jodan uke and simultaneous jodan zuki) but having 3 or 4 is almost impossible.

2.   Whipping Motion Produces Speed and Power: It is true that a whip like motion could create tremendous speed at the end of its motion as a real whip can prove the point. However, from a scientific point of view, a circular motion takes more time to arrive at it’s target than a straight one (provided those actions move at the same speed). No one would argue that the distance of a circular movement is longer than that of a straight line. So a quick straight punch to a target will reach the target sooner than a large round shuto or back fist (again the speed of those techniques are supposed to be same). So, a circular movement is not necessarily a better solution when you are talking about a quick technique.  One thing I must add is the need for distance and angle from which a technique is delivered. In close, (grappling distance), circular techniques, (i.e. mawashi uchi and mawashi geri), are very effective as they are not visible and it is easier to make a large impact. In such close distance even though it is possible, it is extremely difficult to make such impact with choku zuki and mae geri.

3.   Circular Motions Are Smooth: Circular motions may look smoother than linear movements. A smooth motion is definitely better or more effective than a jerky one. But are all linear motions jerky? You might say “Not necessarily”. But it is true that a linear motion inherently has that tendency. Why so? Let’s look at a piston motion. We know that this movement can easily become jerky because it must stop it’s motion every time it gets to the end of a movement and is pulled back before it can repeat its motion. For this reason a linear movement inherently has a tendency to become jerky and it needs further explanation. In fact, I am sure you agree that it is not too difficult to come to a complete stop with a movement such as a choku zuki. You might ask, “Well then, why do you say a piston’s motion can easily become jerky?” To be able to answer this you must understand the mechanism of relaxation and tension. I know you are familiar with these terms and you believe you manage and control them while you practice your karate. But I ask “Can you really?” Believe it or not, achieving complete relaxation is a technique that requires an extremely high level of body mechanism control. Most practitioners are trying to relax their muscles totally but in fact they are more tensed than relaxed. I am sure you have seen an inexperienced driver on the road who keeps one foot on the brake pedal while he is pressing on the accelerator pedal with the other foot. So, this driver is always putting some brake action to his car thus it is not running at the speed it would without drag. He will also needs more time to stop his car as he is pressing on the accelerator while he is trying to stop the car by pressing on the brake. A similar situation often happens with your muscles during your punches. At the end of a choku zuki, the stopping action of your fist will not be instantaneous but sort of dragging and the next motion will be, yes, jerky. You rarely see a renzuki of more than 5 or 6 punches in our kumite match but in a boxing match we often see the combination of 6 straight punches or more in one “action” or an exchange. If you remember the great boxers like Ali and Leonard, I am sure you can recall their renzuki that was smooth and fast. They never gave an impression of jerkiness, did they?


The disadvantages  of circular techniques

Now we need to look at some of the hind side of circular techniques. Yes, we must understand the disadvantages and the unattractive side of circular techniques to fully appreciate our karate techniques.

a.   I have already mentioned this before but this is scientifically a fact that a distance between a set of two points, a straight line is the shortest. We all know this. This means any type of circular route that ties those two points is longer in distance than a straight one. If the speeds are identical, a circular movement will take a longer time to reach a target than a straight movement. According to this theory, a choku zuki to the opponents’ head will reach the target sooner than a mawashi zuki.

b.   Another fact is that most of the circular techniques are structurally more visible. A good example may be a uraken uchi is more visible than a choku zuki. The larger the circular movement is, naturally the more visible. Though a mae geri and a mawashi geri both use circular movements, the mawashi geri is definitely more visible as it has a larger circular motion including the hip region. On the other hand, a mae geri has a smaller circular action with the fore leg beneath the knee thus it is much less noticeable. This is the major reason why a mae geri is found in many kata but Okinawan masters did not incorporate a mawashi geri in any kata (Unsu may be an exception but it can be argued. I wrote another article on Mikazuki geri vs. Mawashi geri. This unique kick in Unsu is explained in detail.). A similar tendency is observed in modern day tournaments. A mae geri is less visible and possibly faster which means easier to score, therefore, a mae geri is the most popular kicking technique used to score a point. .From a martial arts perspective this issue (visibility and invisibility) is a very serious matter. In a life and a death situation, you want your technique to be as unnoticeable or stealthy as possible.

So now how would you answer if I were to ask you the question, “Are the circular movements better than the linear ones?” Well I hope you will answer, “Not necessarily.” This is why we need to learn and use both types of techniques. As we all know it is more advantageous to have different types of weapons in a real battle. In hand to hand combat the concept is still the same. The straight and linear techniques have unique advantages, as well as the circular techniques have their own advantages. In Shotokan karate we indeed have both kinds of techniques. Then, why do some of us feel our karate is linear and jerky? Well that is the big question and we must find the answer to that.

We must know the reasons and causes before we can fix these “problems”. I wish to present several facts that are causing them. Let me present two causes for the “jerky problem” and one big fact for the “linear look“. First, let’s look at the causes for our jerky or digital movements. One cause is kime and another is tournament kumite.


"What’s wrong with kime?"

If you are a hardcore Shotokan practitioner, you might burst out saying: "What’s wrong with kime?" You need a kime to knock down an opponent. How could it be a major cause?” I have written an article focused on the effect of wrong kime in the past. I will not go deep into the explanation of this at this time so I’ll get right to the point. We are tensed too much and we’re making kime too long. We were not taught how to relax and to make a proper kime. So, we look like a car with an over careful driver who puts his feet on both the accelerator and brake. We just need to let our foot off the brake but, it is easier said than done. To learn how to relax is much more difficult, believe it or not, than to tense. Kanazawa took up Tai Chi to supplement his training so he could be more relaxed. Late Asai took Chi gong (ki training) to train his body to be more relaxed. It is unfortunately true that out of box Shotokan karate training does not teach you sufficiently how to relax and it pays too much attention to “kime” or tension. As a result, our movements tend to look jerky.


What are involved in tournament kumite?

Now we need to see what are involved in tournament kumite to see why this ads to the jerky motions. As we all know, in a sundome (non contact) tournament, a point is given by a referee. His job is to watch the techniques of the competitors and give a point if he determines that an attacking technique was effective. If a competitor throws a good technique but hits his opponent and knocks him down, then he gets a warning or even loses the match, even though the technique was indeed effective. The competitors need to pull back or stop the technique to get a point. Pulling back became so important that I heard some practitioners practice more on fast hikite (draw hand) than on how to throw a strong punch. Stopping a technique is inherently not the character of a circular technique thus it is rare to see a shuto uchi or a uraken uchi in a tournament. The circular techniques are very effective in a close fighting situation for two reasons. The techniques angle is most effective if a punch or a kick lands at a right (90 degree) angle and a circular technique works best in a short distance for that particular reason. The other reason is its invisibility in a short distance. We pointed out that a circular technique is more visible than a linear technique in general. However, in a close distance situation a movement coming from the side gets out of the line of vision thus less visible. However, when the opponents get into so called grabbling distance, a referee quickly stops the fight and forces the opponents to step back. In addition, a round technique like a mawashi uchi or kagi zuki in such a distance will most likely not be recognized as a scoring technique by the judges. I have experienced this in my own tournament days. The judges gave me a waza ari to my choku zuki and gyaku zuki but when I delivered a mawashi zuki, though very strong and fast, I never could gain a point for that technique.


A similar situation is found in tournament competition of kata.

As you must show your movements you need to stop and hold a position for a long time (although it may be a few seconds, I consider it too long) at several kime positions. If you run through the movements like a series of combinations, your kata will not score high. However, a true kata performance should be done in one stroke, so to speak and there should not be any real stops in the middle. It is like a brush writing of a kanji sentence. From one kanji to another, the brush must have a connection even though the stroke is not visible (sometimes you may see a line of small drops of ink from the ending point of one kanji to the beginning of the next one that shows the connection is indeed there)


As long as a practitioner participates in a tournament this trend cannot be avoided. So what can we do? Well it all depends on what your purpose is. If you want to win a tournament then you have to use whatever techniques you need to win. But if you wish to excel as a martial artist then you need to go beyond the tournament techniques and practice all the techniques that would work in a real fight. A definition of “real fight” needs to be defined and further discussed but I will not do so here in this article due to the lack of space. I’ll just state that it is a fight without any rules and bars.


Now let’s summarize the facts of Shotokan karate that makes our performance look linear.

Those facts are our kata and kumite training. Let’s take a look at our kata. As you remember we are talking about the enbusen being linear. Tekki kata with a long Kiba dachi stance and moving only sideways makes you look extremely linear. By the way, it is a mysterious kata in itself (read my book, Shotokan Myths. I put two chapters on this kata). The other kata have the turns (most of them are either 90 or 180 degrees) and some kata have angle movements but the lines are still very straight. As we know in shotokan kata we have no circular enbusen which we find in Ba Gua (a style of kung fu) whose enbusen is a combination of circular foot work and steps.


Here is an excellent Ba Gua kata: 64 Palms


As you watch this kata you will quickly notice the performer simply walks in circles, multiple and complex circles. In Shotokan we do not have any kata like this one. Asai sensei recognized this and he created a kata called Mawari no kata (Circle kata) and also Tekki Mugen, a modified Tekki that can be performed in a circle (or for that matter almost any other shape) enbusen. Just imagine this truly linear kata, Tekki can be done in a circle or a square or a double loop. I must tell you, it is indeed fun to do Tekki Mugen in different shaped enbusen. He also taught me how to do all Heian kata in a circle; a very creative and interesting kata modification.

For those who are interested in Shotokan karate that applies more circular techniques, I suggest to look at Asai style Shotokan karate. In Asai ryu Shotokan you need to pay more attention to relaxing before thinking of a kime. In WJKA, we practice more than 30 Asai kata that supplement the standard JKA kata.   Here are videos for two Asai kata performed by Asai sensei himself.






Kakuyoku Nidan:




As you can see, these kata are based on many circular movements. I am sure you will agree that all the techniques you see here flow very nicely and you see no jerky motions.


The second issue is our kumite syllabus particularly sanbon kumite and gohon kumite.

  In those exercises the defenders are taught to step back while the opponents are stepping forward as they attack. It’s engrained in our head that we naturally step back when we engage with an attacking technique. Is this bad? No, it isn’t only if you are 8 kyu or 7 kyu. The beginners are not ready to learn the more advanced and more appropriate steps (i.e. shifting to the sides, switching feet or stepping in), so sanbon kumite and gohon kumite are very good introduction exercises for them. However, the problem is these exercises are continually used for the intermediate and advanced students. This is because they are “fun” and less challenging than ippon kumite (if done correctly).


So, in many of the dojo we witness sanbon kumite and gohon kumite are being used for kumite training even for the intermediate and advanced. This article is not on or about kumite so I will not expand the idea here on how kumite should be trained. I will just point out the fact that frequent sanbon kumite and gohon kumite exercise adds the impression that our training looks linear. We all know that in jiyu kumite and a street fight, complex and irregular shifting patterns emerge. I am not proposing sanbon and gohon kumite to be eliminated or banned. I am proposing that more ippon and jiyu ippon kumite be practiced by the intermediate and advanced with much emphasis on not shifting straight back. The students must be told that stepping straight back is the worst option to take in a fight (this needs to be explained but I will reserve this for a future article on kumite).


So, as a conclusion let me ask the original question: “Do we have to introduce more circular techniques to Shotokan?”

Hopefully your answer is “No”. By now you also know what we need to do. You will agree that we simply need to use more of those circular techniques we already have. In addition, we need to learn to relax more so that we can make our linear movements smoother and more flowing. If you look at the techniques of our kata closely provided it is done correctly, you will recognize and appreciate that many of the techniques we find are very circular and beautiful. If you claim you are practicing Budo karate then you need to be able to apply those techniques to your kumite. Once this is mastered, you will have a harmonious combination of linear and circular techniques that are surprisingly effective in real fighting.



Shihan Kousaku Yokota

Yokota Sensei has been practicing Shotokan karate over 46 years. He propagates Asai style Shotokan karate and holds the position of Technical Director of WJKA (

He published a book last year; “Shotokan Myths”, available now through Amazon US & UK as well as Kindle.

Yokota sensei’s email address is  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .  He welcomes to receive any kind of comments from the readers.


Check out our review of Shihan Yokota's virtual dojo, where you can get private live instructions from Shihan Yokota, no matter where you are located.



Last Updated on Saturday, 10 December 2011 09:37  

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