The Kiai and The Battle Cry
by Ed Hingston
Long ago, a slight and weary old man arrived at a village seeking repairs to some of his equipment. Although the only craftsman in this area seemed little older than a lad, he was burly, and, noting his calloused hands and robust arms as he approached, the old traveler was assured of the young man's skill in his trade.
No sooner had the craftsman spotted the old man, however, than he had forgotten all about his profession, immediately recognizing the prospective customer as the great Okinawan karate master, Matsumura Sōkon, a renowned bushi, or warrior, honored even by the king.
At once, the young man hopped about and pleaded with the bushi to teach him a lesson, rambling on about being a skilled karateka and wanting to train as the best. After Matsumura politely and repeatedly declined, he was eventually challenged to a fight.
By now Matsumura was amused at the conceit of this very young man and, at length, agreed to “teach him a lesson” after all. He accepted the challenge with a bow and the two men agreed to face each other at dawn.
The next day, when the craftsman arrived at the specified meeting place an hour early (hoping to lay some booby-traps in the terrain) he was a little put out to find himself already fixed in Matsumura's unsettling and piercing gaze. Evidently the old man, standing motionless, had anticipated his opponent's deceit.
Nevertheless, the lad, still confident in his own strength, took up position opposite the master and, after waiting in vain for something to happen, began a cautious advance toward him. Barely had he taken a few steps, however, before he doubled over and fell straight to the ground. As quick as he could, he somewhat ashamedly got back to his feet, brushed off the dust, and, with greater determination, made a second attempt to advance upon his opponent. Again, he fell to the ground with a whimper and lay there.
His massive ego bruised, the young man leapt to his feet again and this time ran at the master. Just as he drew close, Matsumura let loose a piercing cry, a wave of energy, that had the effect of bringing his opponent to a sudden and complete halt and toppling him once again, head first, to the ground.
Crestfallen, the craftsman returned to his workshop and carried out Matsumura's repairs free of charge.
Such tales of the Kiai or the so-called 'spirit shout' abound, and certainly whet the appetite of ambitious newcomers to the martial arts. Other stories have attributed to masters skilled in the use of the Kiai the ability to knock birds out of trees, send people flying, and even to kill their enemies. In popular culture too there exist echoes of this legendary technique, for example in the Thu'um of the Skyrim Dragonborn, the Lion's Roar of Kung Fu Hustle, the Sith Force Scream of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, and perhaps also the Hadouken power of the Street Fighter series – albeit in this case visually represented by a projectile pulse of energy.
Today in the real world, however, authentic surviving knowledge of Kiai-jutsu – the martial art specializing in the use of the Kiai – is unfortunately very limited. In the past, only the most senior students and warriors of Japan would be tutored in its secrets. Those claiming to possess such knowledge nowadays are invariably unmasked as frauds. For example, in 2006, when the self-styled Kiai Master Ryuken Yanagi wagered 1,000,000 Japanese Yen (around 10,000 USD) against anyone being able to end his purported 200-0 hands-free winning streak, he was famously, effortlessly, punched in the nose and overthrown by a relatively unknown amateur.
What many do not seem to realize is that the Kiai, which has been traced to early T'ai Chi, refers not to the shout itself but to the internal process behind it. Brought to Japan by a Buddhist monk in the ninth century, the concept of Kiai, like much else in Chinese philosophy, is best understood by contrast with its opposite: Aiki. In combat, Aiki – which refers to harmony, or the coming together (Ai) of energy or life force (Ki) – is the coordination of personal energies with an opponent's, that is, to pull when pushed and to push when pulled, as demonstrated by the relatively peaceful art of Aikido. Kiai, on the other hand, emphasizes individual energy. It is the process of reconciling and harmonizing the often conflicting aspects of an individual's mind and body, and projecting the sum unified energy out toward a target.
Modern sanseis teach the Kiai as a yell delivered from the diaphragm; hara (in Japanese) or xia dantian (in Chinese). Essential to this technique is the student's modulation of their breath, and whilst an audible shout is by no means necessary, extremely loud vocalizations are a good way to ensure the correct depth of breathing, and to overcome any barriers of inhibition. In competitions, an audible Kiai will also be used as one basis for scoring points.
It is particularly suited to Japanese 'straight-line' martial arts such as karate and judo, and can manifest either in a long, drawn out 'hay-yah' or else a more abrupt 'hai', 'hut' or 'hop' for quicker moves. Yelling the word 'kiai', as some beginners do, is no good because it tends to originate more in the throat than the diaphragm and can deplete the Kiai's energy, or even turn it back on the individual with dangerous consequences.
Different schools teach different vocalizations, often for different purposes – for instance, 'toh' for defense and 'hai' for attack – but generally speaking, soft vowel sounds are preferred. To perform a Kiai, students are taught to stand in a strong, upright posture and inhale deeply through the nose, feeling their belly, rather than their lungs, expanding. When the in-breath is complete it should be forced, by a contraction of the abdomen, up through the body and out through the mouth. The process is likened to an archer firing an arrow: first by drawing it back on his bow to build up tension, and then directing it toward his target and letting go, with the release making a swift 'yah' sound common to Kiai vocalizations.
When strategically executed, a powerful Kiai can indeed cause an opponent to falter momentarily, lose their confidence, or even freeze to the spot in the manner of Matsumura's young craftsman. However, the primary function of the technique is to harmonize and direct individual energy throughout combat, via effective management of the breath and life force, or Ki.
Out of this balance arises a master's great strength, resolution, power, and resilience, and often the display of some extraordinary feats: the Kiai can supercharge reflexes, transform the muscles into a shock-absorbent suit of armor at the point of impact, and, when directed at certain pressure points, it can even be used for healing or resuscitation. It is the harnessing and projection of an individual's intent, and when the will is strong enough, when it consumes the whole of an individual's unified being, it can also be felt by those around them.
All living things, it is said, when intending to kill, project their intention in this way. In the animal kingdom, there can be no more impressive a manifestation of this principle than the lion's roar, which, with enough force to send dust clouds into the air, rattle trees, and travel up to eight kilometers, can easily shock prey at close-range into temporary paralysis. This is what martial artists refer to as the Sakki, the killer force. Once an individual has harmonized their energies and directed their whole being toward an intention, in this case to kill, others are likely to feel it projected outward through the Kiai.
Needless to say, the lion didn't learn this skill by studying ancient Chinese philosophy and reading the Yijin Jing any more than humans did; its roar is instinctive, and the same can be said for us.
It is widely supposed that human language developed from simple, rhythmic imitations of sounds heard in nature. Among other things, this may have allowed early hominids to make use of natural echoes to communicate basic information across distances, such as an individual's location. This was the original function of yodeling between herders in the Swiss Alps, and many primates communicate using calls in the same way.
Crucially though, our ancestors probably used singing and chanting as a basis for inducing the battle trance. The purpose of this was to harmonize each individual consciousness with that of the 'hive mind', in much the same way that the Kiai practitioner aims to unify individual energies within himself toward a singular intention. In the collective state of the battle trance, individual members of the tribe or clan were attuned to the needs and objectives of the whole, and lost all fear for personal safety when out hunting or defending the group against predators. Later, as our ancestors began to mimic the more complex structure of birdsong, chants were adapted to accommodate different meanings, and the needs of the group could be more eloquently expressed.
Such was the birth of the battle cry, which, with its capacity to suppress individualism and promote solidarity, we can think of as a collective form of the Kiai, the principle in macrocosm, harmonizing and projecting the Sakki of a whole army rather than an individual. Like the Kiai, a powerful battle cry also serves to pump up the offensive and defensive capabilities of a military force.
An example of this process in action (common to many historic battle cries) is to literally shout out the name of a shared home town, nation, or patronage – whatever forms the basis for an army's collective identity. The Japanese “Banzai!”, for example, the slogan famously yelled out by troops in World War Two as they suicidally charged the enemy, is an abbreviation of “Tennouheika Banzai!” and means “Long Live His Majesty the Heavenly Sovereign!” By collectively reminding themselves of their loyalty to their Emperor, Japanese soldiers acted not out of self-interest, but out of patriotic duty. In this state of consciousness, even their own lives were expendable to the will of Japan as a whole. The Nazi salute – “Heil Hitler!” – although not necessarily used in battle, had a similar the effect of uniting rally crowds under fascism.
Recalling past defeats is another way of attaining a shared sense of purpose and fired-up morale within an army. For instance, Texan fighters against the Mexicans, following their crushing defeat in the Battle of Alamo, 1836, were said to shout “Remember the Alamo!” as a way of uniting in their hunger for revenge.
In South America, the Aztec Jaguar and Eagle Warriors got into a battle trance by dressing like their respective totemic animals and making the appropriate cry. This, they believed, would protect them from the enemy, and no doubt strengthened their resolve.
Similarly, Islamic warriors throughout history have shouted or chanted “Allahu Akbar!” meaning “God is Great!” as a way of reminding themselves of their loyalty, as well as securing the protection of their deity and overcoming individual fear. Their historic enemies, the Spanish Reconquistadors, on the other hand, found their faith in their weapons, and yelled the invocation “Desperta ferro!” or “Wake up iron!” before clashing with their foes.
The Turkic “Ur ah!” from Mongol, Baltic and Slavic origins, roughly translates as “Come on, smash!” and has persisted throughout history to find expression today in the Russian and US battle cry of “Urah!”. This vocalization is delivered from the diaphragm, similar to the Kiai, and repetition and amplification within a group would certainly help to steel soldiers' nerves. “Aoi!” the Norse landing cry and the root of “Ahoy!” would have had a similar effect.
The Rebel Yell, the high-pitched shriek of the Confederate troops in the American Civil War, was another way of overcoming individual fear and entering the collective battle trance. Talking about his experiences, a young Confederate soldier spoke of the contagiousness of this cry and its ability to dissipate his fear. The effect on the enemy was to send 'a corkscrew sensation' up the spine, and according to one Unionist soldier: if you think you heard it and you weren't frightened, you never heard it. The Rebel Yell was probably inspired by the war whoops of the Native Americans, some of whom enlisted as Confederate troops, and it may also have been influenced by Confederate soldiers of Scottish origin.
In the Highlands, each clan had its own battle cry. Most frightening of these, perhaps, was that of Clan Cameron: “Chlanna nan con thigibh a so's gheibh sibh feoil!” A Gaelic motto, it is pronounced 'kwonnah-nahn-kun-heegeev ahn-shoh-iss-yayv sheev-fee-yohl', and is roughly translated as “Sons of dogs, come here and get flesh!”
In Polearmball, points are given for a player's effective use of the Kiai but, as we can see, its usefulness is far broader. Beyond its ability to stun or intimidate opponents, not only does it harmonize the internal energies of the individual, but it can also unify those of an entire team. When used to enter a battle trance, the Kiai can also be a vehicle for the expression of intent, and, if this is strong enough and not divided between, say, sounding fierce and looking cool, victory might well be assured before the game has even begun.
When you use Kiai in Polearmball, you are sending out a strong and singular intention, the killer force of Sakki; you are releasing a self-assured, wilful message toward the opponent. Like Matsumura multiplied and confident in your internal harmony, that message will be: “We are going to win!”