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The Concept of Kiai

by Master Mitsusuke Harada

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 Universty 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’.

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.

In case of danger, all the members of the group or area, would all get together under the banner of a leader, a man who had shown distinct strategic capabilities, as was the case for Shingen, and all for the simple purpose of defence. And as they did gather for battle they would announce their presence through a rallying cry of the Kake-goe category.

At that time the commander would not join the fray personally but organized his troops and gave directions, supervising as it were. If you look at the battle scene depicted in Kurozawa’s famous film Kagemusha which tells the story of Shingen’s shadow, you will see that the commander sitting on the hill is silent. He is looking down upon his troops on the battlefield. Yet there is a distinct communication with his officers and soldiers. There is definitely a special feeling which passes on to them through his corporal – and mental - attitude, and it brings definite cohesion to the whole battle action. There is obviously a natural response from the people who surround him and, yes, we can say that this is a form of Kiai. It has nothing to do with screaming, and the fact that the commander displays the right attitude at the crucial moment goes a long way towards explaining the outcome.

We can then consider that the kake-goe rallying cry we spoke of at first was indeed a sort of binding factor too, stirring up their energies, and it worked reasonably well in victory. Unfortunately, if they failed and lost, all they did was run away and escape, as brilliantly illustrated at the end of the film. It led only to chaos.

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.


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