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The concept of kiai

Master Mitsusuke Harada presents his opinion on the concept of kiai and it’s relevance and use within karate.

The military origins of 'kiai'

Europeans tend to be rather keen on what they call rational explanations and complain that some Japanese concepts are obscure and not easy to understand. In that respect, one of the most frequently quoted is that of KIAI, and I am often asked to give my opinion on the matter. Well, I will indeed do my best, but you must remember that like the legendary Hydra of Greek mythology it has many faces if not heads.

Incidentally, before I go any further, it is interesting to note that looking back to my days at Waseda University or the Shotokan dojo I remember that no one ever mentioned the word, let alone discuss it, and it is much later that in the world of karate people have taken a fancy to it and given it such a mythical importance. As opposed to this, in Japan, a book sponsored by the Japanese Ministry of Education and whose subject is a study of 500 years of Kendo, did not even venture to explain such concepts as Distance, Kiai, and Zanshin (immovable spirit).

However, if we want to try and approach an understanding of the idea, we must distinguish between different notions linked to this concept of Kiai, and in an attempt to make myself clear, I will start with a simple story:

At the time of the war I happened to be at the Military Academy, and like many other institutions of its kind there was occasionally a roll call – officers calling out the names of each cadet who then was supposed to identify himself. Of course, some wouldn’t hear (or listen properly), or then would speak their answer too low. They would be duly reprimanded and asked to show more ‘spirit’, more force of character and shout their identity. They were told to show Kiai.

History of the Kiai

In fact this question of calling out, expressing or voicing one’s force of character, goes directly back to a more ancient habit called Kake-goe. And to understand what it means we must go back to the days when samurais were still land-owners, farmers tilling the land. It was the time of Takeda Shingen, the Lord of the province of Kai, a sengoku-daimyo who died in 1572 and was replaced by a Kagemusha (a shadow . It was not yet the time of the feudal system later installed by the Shogunate, and the Bushido did not exist. Even if a hierarchy did exist, people within it were not bound by a contract system such as appeared later and to which we will come back.

Later (towards the end of the 16th century), at the time of Oda Nobunaga, the Lord of the province of Owari who became the first great unifier of Japan, the samurais became professional fighters, soldiers who no longer tilled the land. The commander himself had bodyguards but participated personally in the fight. In fact it was Nobunaga who initiated the move bringing the samurais into the castle/cities he built around the country, this way making a separate social caste of them. But at heart it was for him a way to control better what was going on in the provinces, thus not leaving a class of samurai farmers to decide for themselves which allies they would favour. Consequently, the farmers were asked to concentrate on working the land while they were promised protection – for which they would pay taxes – from these professional soldiers. By then the code of the warrior had indeed developed, and a complicated hierarchy had appeared, from the Shogun down to the Damyo and the samurai, all bound by this contract – a psychological and emotional bond – a code which gave birth to the system or idea of Giri which is a feeling of duty, responsibility or debt owed to one’s clan, commander, or line. But as much as a sense of duty it does create a privileged link, a more intense communication between people, be they allies or opponents. Incidentally, it is the sort of feeling which has been encouraged by modern companies in an attempt to bring cohesion to their workforce.

So, the unification of Japan continued with the talented Toyotomi Hideyoshi who eventually ruled over the whole country; and later with Ieyatsu Tokugawa, Lord of the province of Mikawa, began the period known as the Shogunate. But we know too that by then the samurais had become more modern, using modern technology such as guns, and that when they fought there was certainly no need for them to shout their presence. Yet, the bond or link we described was there, hence the strong feeling of sharing a destiny, communicating intensely in life and in battle as much as in individual encounters.

Kiai in martial arts

If we go back to Kendo and watch today’s practices, particularly through competition and the use of shinais and armours, we can see that then we enter the world of games and screams, and that in this case we are closer to the concept of Kake-goe than to the form of communication between partners or opponents – we have just described.

But once again still in kendo, if we look to the old masters, past and present, we find that there never was or is mention of shouting of any kind – a kendo encounter can be a silent meeting of two powerful energies and concentrations (together with total physical and psychological involvement) with each opponent apparently reacting naturally to any move or sudden change in concentration. Think for a minute about the celebrated image of the simultaneity of the appearance of the moon and its reflection in the water of the lake, used to illustrate the concept of timing. Such is the bond or link we are talking about.

I remember too, for instance, that when I saw Ueshiba himself, the great Aikido Master never emitted anything that resembled a shout, and hardly a small vocalization or voicing of his breathing when his energy exploded – which it did exactly in perfect harmony with his opponent’s action (hence the latter’s breathing). After all, bear in mind that ‘Ki’ means breath and ‘Ai’ means harmony. This is definitely different from kake-goe as we described it. 

Likewise, Okuyama, who was a former partner of Yoshitaka (O Sensei’s son), never shouted or screamed in any way; and I can tell you that his power was sufficiently and directly demonstrated to me; there is no doubt about it. Which is more, when I last met him recently and we exchanged ideas about the concept of additional power, he did not mention that such a thing as a scream could be of any value.

Indeed, at this point a question comes to my mind as it often does: How come that karatekas never ask themselves why in Judo they never use or teach the need to scream when fighting? It seems to me that for karate the confusion came – and still does come today – from public demonstrations during which, since the rule is that attacks should be controlled, their real efficiency – as seen by the audience – remains doubtful. Screaming then brings conviction and makes them more impressive, particularly when to prove their point karatekas have recourse to breaking wood and other demonstrations meant to convince everyone of how lethal they can be.
To me this is the sort of attitude I associate with the ‘Ous’ salutation which is no more than a low class yakuza way of greeting people which no self-respecting educated Japanese would think of using. It is supposed to give the person who utters such greeting a more awesome presence. It is all a question of appearance.

However, it is true that in kendo they did (and still do) use the kake-goei approach, but it is only in practice: one partner remains silent, stable, and concentrated (mentally immovable), while the opponent builds up his or her own confidence by calling out. It is also a way to bring psychological pressure on the adversary, challenging him or her. Yamaoka Teshu had his own kake-goe or voice, as indeed there are many. For instance, in the book I mentioned early on about kendo, they identify seven such different voices.

But it seems that as far as karate is concerned Funakoshi Sensei, I am afraid – and with all due respect to his memory and all he gave us – remained at this superficial or should we say primary level. He failed to understand the value of this point. He was a primary school teacher whose concept of the art was definitely in terms of a physical education – valuable no doubt but limited. We know that he was not interested in kumite, in what we can call the more martial side of karate, and he only concentrated his teaching on the practice of kata. But there lies his mistake, for misunderstanding the nature of what he considered to be kiai, he introduced at different points in the kata this need to shout (Incidentally some of the points he chose are rather puzzling, to say the least). The sound of his own voice, the often mentioned ‘Hoi’, certainly did not contribute much in terms of added power to his techniques, and certainly did not mean much in terms of intercommunication with a partner.

As opposed to this, his own son, Yoshitaka, definitely went beyond this and aimed for this kiai of another type, that is controlled breathing – voiced or not – and simultaneity or harmony of action which, if performed perfectly, can even stop or unbalance an attacker. At this point the feeling is something quite different and particular, and in any case, certainly difficult to explain to someone who has never experienced it. It is something which does vary with the persons performing the action in question. For instance, in my personal experience, Egami’s own action (or kiai) implied indeed perfect harmony with his opponent’s attack which he could then control physically, sweeping aside an attack, etc. But Okuyama went one step beyond that (even further than Yoshitaka according to Egami himself) and his own explosion of energy was of a superior force delivered with perfect timing, and it really threw you down.

As you can see, we are far from the screams and shouts used by karatekas in competition and elsewhere. But to me there is great danger for them in keeping up this military and somewhat hysterical type of screaming – like soldiers rushing wildly on the battlefield. The Japanese themselves mistook the notorious German warlike screams of the third Reich – these ‘Heil Hitler’ bellowed by hundreds of thousands at gigantic meetings at Nuremberg stadium and elsewhere – for the real thing. They were impressed, and it may indeed have been an impressive display in victory but it proved to be of no value in defeat, for then the spirit was lost and all that remained was chaos.

It was definitely not the true Kiai then, and I think that making the same mistake again today could have most damaging consequences.

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