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"Coaching The SKU Way!" Official SKU Coaching Resource

First Published February 2012   Issue 46    SKU Quarterly Magazine

KIAI; Spiritual Meeting / Battle Cry.

by Derick Kirkham

kiai kanji -

Kiai; what is it for? What is the point of it? How do I perform it properly? The first time that most people hear of kiai-ing is when they are startled by it. It is usually heard as a blood curdling shout at predetermined points in Kata or upon completion of the final technique of a Kihon combination. Blood curdling that is, if it is performed correctly. It does, and should come as rather a shock to ones system the first time one hears it, and that shock factor upon ones opponent, is but one of its various uses. There is so much more to kiai-ing than just merely shouting, as it should be a natural, emotionally conditioned reflex, a display of the spiritual meeting of the mental and physical commitment of the performer’s spirit, their internal strength. And it manifests itself through the delivery of their technique. This concept is often referred to; if not by name, when coaches talk about Shin-tai-waza, which is the triad of a focused mind, the quality execution of a comprehensively understood technique that is delivered by a fully controlled and momentarily tensed body. And they are the three factors that should be held in mind at all times; as they will contribute to the success of each and every technique that you will ever perform. Kiai is the audible realization of the meeting of one's physical and spiritual energies, and should be heard at the termination of ones technique. It is performed in an effort to transmit those combined energies from oneself, into the opponent's body in as destructive of a manner as is possible. The visible manifestation of this energy combination is seen at the termination point of ones technique and is referred to as Kime, which is one of the required and accepted demonstrations of proficiency and possessing the correct Martial spirit. Kiai refers to the projection of ones own energy, ones internal strength and as such it should not be confused with the separate concept of Aiki, which relates to the coordination of and the harmonization of one's energy with the energy from an external source, usually it is  associated with that of controlling the forward projection of an attacker's incoming technique.

Sadly, kiai has by some been reduced to a mere throat generated shout, which is accompanied by an aggressive action. The legitimate usages of kiai are wide and varied, but it does seem that nowadays, the list of usage has been extended to incorporate, the cajoling of Shinpan (referees) into awarding the shouting athlete a dubious point. This oiling of the squeaky wheel, is not because the technique that they have delivered was an effective one, nor that it had displayed great kime, but it’s merely because the athlete has expressed the desire to be awarded a point, for something that is in their own opinion , "worth a point". Unscrupulously they express their desire through a loud, elongated and bizarre sounding shout. It is something that they believe resembles a genuine kiai. Sometimes this cosmetic and exceedingly annoying warble comes in the form of a multi note high pitched screech. This unflattering imitation of a kiai is achieved by a strange vibrato action of the larynx.  This is more an over inflated display of self worth and it comes from a misplaced point of origin, and therefore, it sounds nothing like a genuine healthy kiai; however, it does sound remarkably much more like Clouseau’s side-kick, Kato, and it clearly says a lot more about the ego of the athlete, more than it does about their humility or the focused success of their delivered technique. Nevertheless, here are some other uses of kiai; (to startle, to momentarily break the concentration of an opponent, to intimidate, to express confidence, to express anticipated success, in creating an opening, to control the exhalation of breath, as an expression of the correct martial spirit).

                   "The Kato-esque kiai" is bad example to follow  

When used correctly, kiai is an effective way to deploy control over the rapid exhalation of ones breath at critical times and therefore, its point of origin should always be instigated from the hara, the stomach area, and one should always use the diaphragm as the controlling muscle; and under no circumstance should a kiai originate from the larynx or throat area. Be aware that some students are too self conscious to kiai confidently with commitment at first. While the more extrovert student seems to take to kiai-ing far too easily, and they have the tendency to over use kiai and over extemporise it. Also one should be aware of the modern predisposition of garbling complete and utter gobbledygook. This is a total embarrassment for the student and equally so for the coaches of those students; that is, if the nonsensical noise they produce is allowed to go unchecked. This unwanted by-product is most probably due in some large measure to the popularisation of the martial arts on the big screen and their inclination towards the over sensationlisation of the fact. There are so many ridiculous sounds emitted, way too many and all unworthy of listing. That is why this text will only look at the small repertoire of sensible and culturally non offensive noises to emulate. 

Some Karate texts, especially kata books use a symbol to denote the appropriate place in which to kiai, while others display a word that is phonetically produced to aid the reader in attaining the correct pronunciation. However, many of these books were written by people who speak English as a second language, and the copy that you may have read could well have been translated into English and other languages much later. Unfortunately, pronunciation therefore, may differ slightly dependant upon the mother tongue of the translator and this can create errors by giving the wrong impression of how to pronounce a kiai to a foreign reader whose first language is different than that of the author or the translator. 
This is a generic list, that is dependant upon where the performer places their emphasis during the initial or later stages of the kiai, and whether or not the performer makes a final abdominal squeeze during the production of the kiai; they will dramatically alter the tonal quality of the kiai; and often the performers intonation is heard as a slight deviation of the generic form; or as a the tapering off of the intensity of the blast of air from the lungs at the later stages of the kiai. It is often heard as an entirely different note. Nevertheless, they are accepted as being of the same generic root, and that is why they have been included in the examples below.

Hayyy! should be pronounced as an elongated version of the letter ‘a’ as heard in the word ‘take’. 

Male example 1

Female example 1

Male example 2

Female example 2

Female example 3 "variation of end note"

Eeeee! should be pronounced as a strangulated & elongated version of the letters ‘ee’ as heard in the word ‘meet’.

Example 1

Example 2

Hiiii! should be pronounced as an elongated version of the letters ‘hi’ as heard in the word ‘high’.

                   Male example 1
                   Female example 1
                   Female example 2
                   Female example 3  "variation of end note"
                   Female example 4 "variation of end note"

Arrrgh! should be pronounced as an elongated version of the letters ‘ar’ as heard in the word ‘arrow’

                                    Male example 1
                   Female example 1 

.Having read this article, don't feel too down hearted if your kiai doesn't match those of the quoted expert examples, or if by now, your kiai has started to sound rather feeble or silly. Because you can hear from the examples that, even the worlds most recognised experts do vary. But there is a common denominator, a constant that they share, and that is that they are all using the sounds that are based around the generic list, to generate their convincing and effective kiai. Another thing to consider is that even the same performer sometimes fluctuates from using one kiai in favour of another. This fluctuation can even be heard by certain performers during their performance within a single kata. The reason for this could be because, kiai is an emotionally stimulated conditioned reflex of a response, and as such, can differ in sound from time to time; dependant upon the performers emotional state and their level of focused commitment at that precise moment. 

Remember though, that no matter which kiai one uses, then one should always adopt a combination of a bellow and a growl in ones voice, while producing a low pitched reverberation of a vowel-like sound. It's a ruthless, an emotionally charged and fully committed roar, not a feeble, non-expressive startled scream. As mentioned earlier in this text, one should always instigate the kiai by using the diaphragm muscle and not the throat.

Good Luck and Good Practice.