For centuries, the martial arts have been practiced as both a method of self-defense and a meditative exercise to strengthen one’s harmony of mind and body. One noticeable aspect of martial arts that is often imitated and parodied ad nauseum in pop culture is the kiai. “Kiai” is a Japanese term referring to vocalizations made during or after the execution of an attack in martial arts; the “Hiyah!” often heard in cheesy fighting films. The word is comprised of the characters 気 (energy, spirit) and 合 (harmonize, blend); although it is a Japanese compound, the technique itself is used in martial arts from all over the world. “Ki” (気, also known as “chi” or “qi” elsewhere) is an important concept in Asian spirituality; it is considered a special life force that comes from within one’s soul, and reflects one’s inner spirit (Nagatomo 176). Kiai is commonly explained to the martial arts student as a projection of one’s warrior spirit onto the opponent as a tool of spiritual combat. It is understood by martial artists to be primarily a metaphysical concept integral to the practice of martial arts. In short, kiai is the harmony of one’s ki energy within the self and with the opponent, executed with the aim of perfecting the timing and strength of the attack.
The specific sound of these guttural syllables vary among schools and individuals, reflecting the practitioner’s own expression of their ki. Some schools distinguish between “kakegoe,” simple shouts from the throat made with an attack, and kiai, a projection of ki energy with diaphragmatic breathing. The frequency of use of kiai varies among disciplines; it is used sparingly every 5 or so strikes in Okinawan and Japanese martial arts, much more extensively in taekwondo and is required for every cut made in kendo, Japanese fencing. Martial artist Wendell Wilson warns students that “‘the yell’ is not a trivial, expendable, slightly silly bit of melodrama; rather, it is a core concept and an essential skill to be taken very seriously and to be practiced and refined at every opportunity.” (Wilson 1)
The proper execution of kiai also serves as a physical enhancement of the attack. By expelling the air in the lungs with the diaphragm, the practitioner tenses up their abdominal muscles to guard against a counterattack and prevent the wind being knocked out of them (Villari 56). Additionally, kiai serves to intimidate an opponent, allowing the attacker to follow up and press their advantage. This intimidation connects to the spiritual concept of the use of ki; by projecting strong ki at an opponent with weaker ki, the practitioner wins the spiritual component of the physical battle.
In additional to these physical and psychological effects, the use of kiai serves as a release of aggressive energy that accumulates during intense activities. A study by researchers in England confirmed that Kung Fu practitioners experience aggressive feelings before and during sparring matches. Some utilize martial arts as an explicit way of dealing with aggression in a healthy, controlled way (Fletcher & Milton). Famous kendo master Junzō Sasamori elaborates that kiai “expresses a natural need to exert the strength he [the user] has in his body.” (Sasamori 141)
My research will examine instructional literature and scientific and psychological studies of martial arts to examine the use of kiai as a method of harmonizing the mind and body, executing an attack with the whole of the practitioner’s being. Martial arts pedagogical works, such as Wilson’s essay and Villari’s book, often focus on the spiritual and philosophical purposes of kiai, while scientific studies examine the physical mechanisms and impacts of martial arts practice. A synthesis of both types of sources is necessary confirm the role of kiai in uniting the martial artist’s metaphysical and physical energy in the execution of a proper attack.
Fletcher, Roy, and Martin Milton. “Being Aggressive: An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis of Kung Fu Practitioners’ Experience of Aggression.” Existential Analysis. 20.1 (2009): 20-34.
Fletcher and Milton are both psychotherapists and lecturers affiliated with the University of Surrey. Their study analyzes phenomenological human aggression through interviews with Kung Fu practitioners. The study is an attempt to address a lack of literature other than that which frames aggression in generalized, psychological terms. The interview questions examine the practitioners’ response to external aggression, use of their own inner aggression and psychological tools they used to deal with aggression. Some of the channeling of aggression and forceful energy described is one of the purposes of the execution of kiai in martial arts.
Sasamori, Junzō, and Gordon Warner. This Is Kendo: The Art of Japanese Fencing. Rutland, VT: C.E. Tuttle, 1989.
Sasamori is an accomplished, venerable master and teacher of kendo, the art of Japanese fencing descended from samurai training techniques. The book is an introduction to the history and practice of kendo, in which kiai and kakegoe play a pivotal role. While Sasamori never uses the word “kiai,” he elaborates on the use of shouting while striking as both an expression of spiritual energy and a natural way to channel and release aggression.
Nagatomo, Shigenori. “Ki-Energy: invisible psychophysical energy.” Asian Philosophy. 12.3 (2002): 173-181.
Nagatomo is a faculty member in the Department of Religion at Temple University. His paper presents an explanation of the East Asian concept of ki energy for a Western audience. He defines it is a psychophysical force that has effects on both the body and mind, and does not fit a pattern of Cartesian dualism. Ki is illustrated as both a personal energy and one that connects people with others and with their environment. This concept is key to the understanding of kiai.
Villari, Fred. The Martial Arts And Real Life. New York: Quill, 1985. 56-57.
Fred Villari is a Karate grandmaster and founder of a martial arts style that combines Kung Fu and Karate. This book is intended as a guide to contemporary practitioners of martial arts, and focuses on a pragmatic approach to their use in daily life for self defense and meditation. In the pages above, Villari presents a brief overview of the practical use of kiai in modern martial arts, advising the frequency and technique of their use.
Wilson, Wendell E. “The Kiai.” Trans. Array Essays on the Martial Arts. 2010. 1-6. Web.
This source is one of a series of essays on martial arts written by Wilson, a prominent karate practitioner. In it, he explains the concept of kiai to the martial arts student. He discusses proper technique and both the spiritual and psychological effects produced by the use of kiai. He also enumerates breathing techniques for the refinement of kiai and martial arts technique in general.