By Russ Ebert
August 8th, 2010
This article is about the elusive and much expounded upon idea of the kiai. There is a lot of good reading on the subject, granted some of it is far better than others, but very little of it touches on what I have experienced within the realm of my personal training. This doesn't make me unique, special or even alone on the topic. I'm just going to spatchcock it onto the flames in my own way. First, it's important to define what this word means and how it is used in terms of colloquialism. Next, I'll then put the martial spin on it and how it applies to budo. Finally, I'll dig into its spiritual roots which are really where many budo ideas come from. Just a warning, this is going to get a bit weird when it comes to religion and so it's good to remember we are dealing with the beliefs of another culture originating in a bygone era in an attempt to understand the concept in the modern era.
First things first:
Kiai is made up of two Japanese characters, which are 気"Ki" 合 "ai".
Ki means "air, gas, steam, vapor or breath; also spirit. Ai means "Combine, unite, fit, join" or "gather".
Regardless of the other meanings given above, I'm going to focus on "breath"; "spirit" and "gather" because they are the most common interpretation of the two characters and furthermore the term actually still has a catholic use in modern Japanese. That's right- it's actually used as a modern expression. It means "prepare yourself" in the sense of "get ready for what is coming". While I am hesitant to rely on a modern interpretation of a term, this is fairly accurate.
Types of Kiai:
There are a myriad of kiai found in different schools, many having different sounds to them. Additionally not all schools use kiai the same way or some may not use it at all. In general there are two types of kiai used in budo, which can be summed up as both shout (vocal) and breathe (non-vocal). Within the cultural use of the word, it conveys the meanings atmosphere, personality and feelings. Admittedly, these are not perfect, neatly fit and generic categories for kiai types.
Furthermore, kiai was often used to signal the command to head out for war or for a military campaign. For example, if a general or high ranking bushi (soldier) were rallying his men, he would declare something like "ei" or "ya" to which the soldiers would respond "o". Interpreted, this call out is "ready?" and the response in the affirmative "Let's go". So this modern inflection does in fact mean the same as in days of old. In the martial arts, it usually starts at the beginning of kata, again hearkening to the call out "ready" and "let's go" and given in terms of uke/teki (attacker) and tori/ware (defender). The uke is usually the senior practitioner in many schools and calls out to attack. The defender is the student- signaling ready. This somewhat reflects upon the general and the soldiers giving call to begin where the higher rank calls out, the lower rank answers. This is a formal way of starting kata, where positions are taken, stances are put in place, and the mind is settled in for what is to come.
The type of kiai most of us are familiar with in the martial arts is a shout given during and offense or defense. As a technique is performed a vocalization is released, focusing attention and intent. These types of kiai can be very simple and uniform, or complex and varied. For example, a strike may be vocalized as "ei" and a thrust may be vocalized as "o". It may be the case that the kiai is short and abrupt, or long and extended. It may be also be delivered during a pin, lock, restraint or throw. A kiai can also be a distraction, designed to throw attention off and "shock". From silent and compliant moving quickly to loud and aggressive is a jolt that pushes uke/teki off kilter. In one sense this is intention released from our "essence" upon our enemy as a part of the whole attack. It attempts to stagger the attacker back, pushing them into a state of fumbling about in order to regain their balance and poise. Used alone, it can disrupt so much that it seems that it knocks another back, leading others to see a mystical and magical power. Yet, it has a basis in simple human behavior utilized to the advantage of a skilled practitioner.
A good example of the kiai is the summertime tradition of the Japanese cicada (called a semi). These insects are extremely ugly and large, but more importantly masters of kiai -jutsu. They use air forced out of their abdomen to make a shrill noise that can drown out the sounds of chainsaws and Harley Davidson motorcycles. It comes up to mate once a year during the summer, spending most of its time hibernating underground near the roots of trees. It goes from larvae to pupa under the earth then crawls up the tree and "sheds" its skin to become an imago- a large, freaky, flying insect. It hangs from trees and buildings, chirping away to find a mate. If one is silent and you approach it, it makes a shrill bursting sound that startles the daylights out of you. To add insult to injury they usually fly straight for you making you rock back a step or duck. They are experts of the mystical kiai as the legendary masters of old were, launching out and sounding off when they are threatened. Additionally, they also pee when startled into action, so this may also be true of the really, really old masters still living who are having continence problems. The semi is a fabulous example of the power of the kiai in its entire splendor. Crows are rather fond of semi as snacks, so they frequently harass and chase them around trying to eat them. The semi, however, is easier to catch in mid-flight than from a resting position for the crow. Young 'crow-lings' will bounce up to one perched on a tree, thinking that it will be an easy catch for the day, all to be disappointed and humiliated as the semi springs to life, fluttering and chirping away straight at their heads, spraying them with pee. This in turn makes the crow do what is natural when something presents itself as a threat. It reels back and flies away. The on-looking murder of crows the crow-ling belongs to caws merrily at its antics, forcing it into the position of the murder's entertainment for the day. That is until the crow-ling learns to startle the semi and pluck it out of the air or chase the semi and snatch it when it tires.
Silent kiai which usually comes in the form of a breath is also very prevalent in the martial arts. Most of the time it is just seen as "proper breathing" during a technique, however given the context of the martial arts, it would seem that this is just an expression of a silent kiai which also takes on the "breath" form. Breathing out as a technique is executed is the kiai without the use of the vocal chords; the mechanics of the breath, how it is released and when is identical to the shout. I would also assert this type of kiai probably rises from a polite, high society setting where manners take precedent over utility, or where quiet is preferred. This is seen in many iai schools, whose practitioners stoically cut into the air releasing great whooshes of breath whilst usually putting their audience to sleep, awakening them occasionally with a loud scream. At any rate, the kiai is here too in a silent form of the breath, relying on an identical function as its noisy counterpart.
The silent kiai is also a way to prepare mentally. This is also the silent kiai that is referred to when one uses the term colloquially in Japanese, where it means "prepare yourself." It serves as a type of mental preparation or mind set. This can be done before a vocal kiai, or during the practice of a technique, perhaps used as punctuations throughout a kata as techniques end or begin. It's a way to empty out previous thoughts or events, then absorb what is to come like a sponge, fully involving the practitioners in the moment. This is a combination of knowing the order of the kata, or expecting what is to come next, fully understanding what is important and what should be ignored. If I were to put it in Western terms, it's the "cool-head" one experiences when the important is split from the unimportant. It happens in competitions when things merge together seamlessly. When counters or attacks are blended together, a moment where the mind is reset without worry about what is next, the breathing is even, and steady techniques are performed as a whole. This is how a silent kiai is utilized fully. It's the "oomph" in a technique that hides itself nicely into the scenery.
Kiai and spirituality
At the beginning I mentioned that I was going to jump into the weird… here I go.
In the West, in terms of culture, we used to refer to the seat of our being as the "heart". We relied on this literally as an expression of the vessel which contained our spirit/soul for a very long time. Nowadays, we use the head as a reference to where our entity is housed with the heart reserved for love and other mushy feelings. Effectively our two sides (logical and emotional) are divided up into the head and chest. Also this is seen as figurative and not literal.
In contrast to the heart housing the soul/spirit, in Japan it was believed to be in the abdomen. It was the tanden, or hara, that was the seat of our "inner deity" where it resides like a mysterious, unseen organ. Furthermore, it was stimulated into life through religious practices and could be brought into the physical realm in terms of kiai. There are numerous examples of this belief in the native, folk-religion practices of Shinto and Shugendo. These are community run shrines, many times with a hereditary kannushi (Shinto priest). Many of them have ties into kokka-shinto (state Shinto) because of their place in the community and need of religious status and funding. Needless to say one will come up empty looking for orthodox shrine Shinto texts on the subject in the library or on the internet, this is largely in part because of the politics behind a unified body of Shinto and the orthodox practices thereof and of the basic nature of these rites.
As an interesting side note to what I am about to go into: In the past few years, since I have been in Japan, the Kokugakuin Daigaku (a university specializing in Shinto, religious studies and classics) has had hard and soft views on the subject, which I found fluctuated greatly. I realized this really depended on who I was speaking to and most importantly when and why I was speaking to them. In general, though, they take a hard stance in declaring there is only one type of orthodox Shinto, one that correspond with the belief system of the university and supports it. Despite the fact that their brand of Shinto is only 40-50 years old and reformed after WWII, they make sure their research supports them and their point of view and historicity; after all it's their business to award certificates to Kannushi and offer orthodox credentials. Unfortunately, for many of the mouthpieces, that shows. In other words, in terms of folk Shinto which is still existent in Japan, there are some things you have to go digging for. Sometimes this takes you into the strange and bizarre, but in the end a picture starts to form out of the haze.
One example that seems to nuzzle itself under the leaves of shrine Shinto but remain true to its roots is the technique known as tama-furi (spirit shaking). This is designed to charge the spirit and awaken the kami (which resided in the belly). The hands are clasped by interlocking the thumbs, palms together with the fingers unwoven (as if you've captured a cricket). Then, starting at the level of the navel, the hands are shaken in a loop, outward from body and up to the chest, back to the body and down to the navel. The entire body is shaken during this action, which in theory incites the spirit and empowers it. Along with this, a special prayer is chanted "from the belly"- a form of kiai. Not only was the belly viewed as a source of energy, was also a place that would trap and keep unclean or evil spirits, which needed to be flushed out and rejuvenated. This purification takes many forms, for example one school holds a length of hemp rope in the mouth while words are chanted "from the belly" and the rope is then tied and burned. The idea is that the kiai expressed as harae-kotoba (purifying words) releases all the evil spirits the belly has been keeping through the breath and transmits them into the rope, which is tied into knots to secure them.
Another example of charging up the belly, which is also still sneaking around, is called tori-fune (bird rowing). Generally performed during religious purification ceremonies called misogi this resembles a callisthenic routine usually to prepare one for lustration. As the name hints at, it involves a rowing type action with the arms towards and away from the abdomen with one foot in front of the other. A chant is given, spoken while the rowing is done, again a type of kiai spoken from the belly and pushed out within the rhythm of the rowing stroke. This is done on two sides, in two directions; all aimed at charging up the spirit. This all includes various spoken and unspoken kiai. For example, before entering into a waterfall for prayer and meditation, a kiai is given with a hand gesture (sword) at the waterfall, charging up your spirit and scaring away evil spirits.
While these methods and belief systems are probably new to a lot of people, the concept of power rising from the belly is not. In the West it is actually transmitted early on in the martial arts without any spiritual reference. It was in terms of the physical- the now well known concept of power extending from the abdomen. Early wanders to Japan who studied the martial arts such as Captain Allan Corstorphin Smith were no stranger to this idea. Smith wrote about the shita-hara (lower belly) in the early 20th century, which he anglicized to "sta-hara" (stamina-hara) in his book series The Secrets of Jujitsu, a Complete Course in Self Defense. Risher Thornberry gave out certificates in "Tenshin Ryu Harajutsu" during the 30's as photographed and presented in S.R. Linck's book Combat Jiu Jitsu for Offense and Defense. Japanese Judoka spread the idea of power generated from the abdomen in early Judo schools then later Aikido found its way into the West, where it presented an older view of the idea in terms of the Omotokyo Shinto sect that Ueshiba had been a member of. In recent films of Ueshiba, he is seen doing both tama-furi and tori-fune as it relates to his martial practices. It's not surprising that the concept has been exposed in glimpses over the years by various people, and it's very assuring to know that there is a great deal of foundation to what they were talking about even in the formative years of Japanese martial arts in the West.
In summary, I hope this article was a little helpful or at least interesting. As I stated in the beginning, this is not wholly unknown knowledge, it's just my writing on the subject. I tried to give a well rounded definition of the term and the concept and put it into a little historical perspective as it relates to the modern world. The idea found in the martial arts and the transmission from Japanese culture and spirituality seems to overlap in places, however some of the original details may be lost in terms of a better, more "rational" view of the world. In fact, I believe that a rational view is actually better in some ways as it shows that while the old beliefs hinged on superstition and religion, there was some merit to what they were saying. The old ideas were simply without the means to express the idea in terms of what we would call a rational approach, where form and function have a little more meaning that simply magical energy emerging out of the cosmos. While I don't intend to try to disprove other people's beliefs, or even tread onto their toes regarding their concepts of the kiai (or the generation of ki for that matter) I hope this serves as part of a springboard for a greater topic at large!