Why kiai?

Why Kiai?

by Andy Watson Copyright October 2020

I was recently asked a question by a budo friend from the Czech Republic concerning the reason for kiai. As is my habit, I filled a few pages of text in responding. I thought it might be interesting to others so I reproduce it here for your pleasure (or pain)....

Please can you support me with this question "why use kiai in jodo"? I started "teaching" jodo to my padawan and he is ashamed to use kiai and asked me why we use it. He is clever and together we are working on our budo manual. I found a huge quantity of text for kendo about timing. But I can't find explanation why use kiai in jodo. Maybe there is some text about this. My idea is to scare an enemy and strengthen my position but my student asks why there isn't kiai in iaido. So please, can you share with us some explanation. Thanks for your time.

It's a really good questions. Let me start with the reason why there is no kiai in iaido as this is easiest to answer.

Actually there are several styles of iai which do use a kiai, those include Hoki Ryu, Suio Ryu, Katori Shinto Ryu and almost certainly many others. Some ryuha of iaido use kiai, others do not. Maybe the question should be, why is there no kiai in ZNKR iaido?

The answer to this is a sort of "survival of the fittest" problem. When ZNKR Seitei Iaido was being developed, about 40% of the iai done in Japan was Muso Shinden Ryu and 40% was Muso Jikiden Ryu. The other 20% consisted of the styles that I mentioned above as well as Mugai Ryu, Sekiguchi Ryu, Tatsumi Ryu, Shinkage Ryu, Tamiya Ryu etc etc. If you want a really good guide to these then I would recommend this link...


So when ZNKR Seitei was being developed, the main influences came from MSR and MJER teachers. Hoki Ryu had a little bit of influence as did Shinkage Ryu, but the majority of the kata in ZNKR are either close copies or mixed versions of MSR and MJER kata.

If you look at Seitei Mae for example, almost the whole kata looks like Shohatto, the name however comes from MJER. When we get to Ukenagashi, both the name and the kata itself are pretty close to MJER Ukenagashi.

So now the question might be, why doesn't the line of MSR and MJER have kiai?

Without doing deeper research this is difficult to answer. My instinctive answer is that nearly all kata in these two lines are based on the concept of "batto" or "nukiuchi" which means "sudden draw". We should really focus on these two individual words: "Sudden" indicates that the combative encounter happens suddenly, without warning. There is little time to prepare and most of the techniques are almost reflexive responses to a sudden attack. Secondly "draw" means that all kata begin with the sword still inside the saya. This isn't a pre-arranged battle, or a slow walk onto a battlefield. The scenarios within the kata are meant to demonstrate a sudden attack taking place in normal life. The critical point of "batto"-style budo is that 90% of the kata is of secondary importance to the 10% of the kata that happens at the very beginning. The nukitsuke or deflection or thrust to the face/solar plexus that commences a kata are of utmost importance. Fail to achieve an initial attack or defence and the rest of the kata doesn't matter - you are already dead. With that in mind there is a sense of urgency and desperation to win the moment - we need to be fast and we possibly need to be sneaky. There isn't the time or opportunity to build up the energy to deliver a powerful kiai - we want to cut the opponent while he is still considering whether to attack us. Performing a kiai might reveal our intention, destroy our advantage of surprise or even upset our timing.

This is a kind of "post-hoc" analysis of why we don't use kiai, it is possible that originally in these styles that kiai were used. It is also possible that at some point in time, the master (the soke) of the style just simply decided that he didn't like kiai and decided to eliminate it. We can only work with what we have now. Certainly if you look at other classical styles such as Katori Shinto Ryu, they do kiai on their initial draw - in the end we should probably suspect the soke's tendency to change the style more than any other reason.

I hope that answers the first question satisfactorily, now I will answer why we kiai in Jodo...

I will for efficiency copy and paste an article from Wikipedia about kiai which is a good starter....

"Students of Japanese martial arts such as aikido, karate, kobudo, kendo, or judo (or related arts such as taiko drumming) use kiai to startle an opponent, intimidate, express confidence, or express victory.[3] In kendo, for example, a point is only given by the Shinpan (referees) if the hit is accompanied by a strong, convincing kiai. A kiai can also be used in addition with tightening the core muscles to prevent damage to the stomach. The physical aspects of a kiai are often used to teach a student proper breathing technique when executing an attack which is a common trait adopted by many other foreign martial arts and combat sports."

Contrary to what you might expect, I now include an extract about kiai in the Japanese game of "Go" - I think the reasons given here are just as applicable in jodo and kendo etc...

"Kiai is a Japanese go term representing an attitude of aggressively parrying your opponent's plans and pushing ahead with your own. Often translated as fighting spirit, it has a positive sense, and can also be applied to individual moves demonstrating the kiai attitude.

If a player demonstrates kiai superior to his opponent, he is kiai-gachi (winning at kiai); if inferior, kiai-make."

To be very technical concerning Kiai in Jodo though I would say the following. Whether using a sword or a staff, the moment at which you deliver a strike has some criticality concerning the coordination of timing. We want to be certain that when we strike that we don't suffer from "ai-uchi" (mutual killing). This means that our optimal outcome if for us to beat our opponent without suffering any injuries ourselves. Our next most optimal outcome is to beat our opponent even if we are also killed (ai-uchi). Our least optimal outcome is to be killed without beating our opponent.

This means that at the point of impact we need everything to be optimised. Our body, our weapon and our spirit all need to be engaged and the energy from each should be released at the proper time. When striking with a jo for example, the impact should happen between the front foot and the back foot stopping; at that moment our weapon has to hit the opponent accurately and effectively using te-no-uchi and with the hands in the correct position; also at this moment we have to be mentally prepared for the impact but also ready to react if something doesn't work out properly. We therefore have to coordinate our mental/emotional self (ki), our weapon action (ken/jo) and our body and legs (tai) to make ki-ken-tai-no-icchi (mind, body, weapon coordinated together).

The way that we coordinate our mental/emotional state is to build up to the impact by generating a kiai at the exact moment we make impact. It is easier to program into students this mental preparation and execution if it is expressed as a shout. Furthermore, by shouting a kiai, we are achieving the other definition of "ki" which is breath. By doing a kiai we are also releasing our breath, not by gasping our breath out, but be focussing it from the tension in our lower abdomen and forcing it through our mouths vocally.

I recommend that as it can feel embarrassing or awkward for new students to make a kiai, in the first few months they are just encouraged to vocalise the two kiai we use in Jodo:

  • "Ei" for strikes and cuts (as well as thrusts with the sword)

  • "Ho" for thrusts with the jo

It is not necessary to force them to make loud kiai in the early stages, in fact this can be counter-productive if it goes too far. If left unchecked, the over-enthusiastic student will scream their kiai instead of focussing it and it is likely to cause their upper body and head to lean forwards. Vocalisation only for the first 6 months is fine.