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Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu
Reflecting Pool

The Concept of Kiai and Its Application in Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu

One question that is inevitably asked by Deshi (students) of Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu is: "Why do we not use a vocalized Kiai in our practice of Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu?" To answer this question, we first need to define what Kiai is and then bring that definition to bear on our study of Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu and see whether it has any significance and practical application.

To begin with, let us examine the two Kanji (Chinese characters) that combine to form the word Kiai. The first character is 気 (KI) which is comprised of two distinct elements. According to some scholars, the lower portion of the character, メ, was originally written as 米 (the character for rice), while the upper and right side of the character represent vapors, giving us the image of "vapors rising from (cooked) rice, eventually coming to mean invisible movement/unseen force/spirit." (Henshall, A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters, Charles E. Tuttle Co. 1988 p.4) The second character, 合 (AI) is also made up of two parts: the lower half of the Kanji, 口, is said to represent a container and the top half a lid, yielding the meaning of fit, join or meet in a broad sense. With this analysis in mind, let us now examine some definitions of Kiai and see how the characters reading spirit and meet apply.

The following definition of Kiai is found in the Dojo Desk Reference (Densho Publications, Honolulu, Hawaii, 2006):

"Kiai (kee-ah-ee) Lit: spirit convergence. The dynamic expression of the meeting of the spirit. Harmonized energy. A contracted nominal form of the verb phrase,ki ga au, referring to the channeling of one's energy and harmonizing or blending that energy with the opponent's intentions, to maximize the effectiveness of one's technique." (p.187)

In addition, author Donn Draeger in his book Japanese Swordsmanship (Weatherhill, Inc., New York & Tokyo 1990) interprets the concept of Kiai in the following manner:

"Kiai cannot be explained briefly and meaningfully in English terms, but for the purpose of this book it describes a unity of mind and body as is regulated by breath control. By means of the kiai the swordsman indicates his conviction that the action he takes is decisive. This unity of mind and body is manifest in a tonal configuration, the precise sounds being emitted varying with each of the different Ryu. Thus the sound produced may also be understood as a psychological ploy used to disturb the foe's mental balance, as well as a physiological operation by which to unify and focus the strength of the entire body at one particular instant. In overall terms kiai acts much like punctuation in a sentence to indicate the cadence and strength climaxes of word delivery or movement in a combative action." (pp. 61-62)

There are two components in these definitions that I believe can assist us with getting closer to understanding the use of Kiai in Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu. At the end of the first definition, Kiai is referred to as "the channeling of one's energy and harmonizing or blending that energy with the opponent's intentions, to maximize the effectiveness of one's technique." In Draeger's discussion of the meaning of Kiai, he states that: "By means of the kiai the swordsman indicates his conviction that the action he takes is decisive."

If we take these two elements and combine them we are now coming very close to understanding the application of Kiai in Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu. The idea of using Kiai "to maximize the effectiveness of one's technique" and to indicate the practitioner's "conviction that the action he takes is decisive" are two of our primary goals when we perform the Kata of Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu. In point of fact, Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu 15th Soke, Tsumaki Kazuo Genwa Sensei, makes seven specific references to the use of Kiai in his text Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu: One Point Lesson, the majority of which are closely linked to another word: the Hara. However, before we list these references, let us first delineate why the Hara is of such importance with regard to Kiai.

The Hara (or Seikatanden) is located approximately two inches below the navel and functions as the repository for the Ki energy created by proper abdominal breathing. When we perform Kata, we utilize the Ki energy accumulated in the Hara through proper breathing to "maximize the effectiveness of our technique" during our movements and we express this idea with the phrase "no movement without proper breathing." When we exhale during a technique such as the downward cut (Kiri Oroshi) we expel the breath by contracting the Hara to invest the cut with the proper Ki energy, controlling the exhale in such a way that the final "push" of breath/Ki energy has the same effect and quality as a vocalized Kiai. This control of the breath during the performance of technique further allows us to align the three key elements of Spirit, Sword and Body (Ki-Ken-Tai) to "maximize the effectiveness of our technique" and finish that technique in a decisive manner. With this in mind, let us now examine several of the references to Kiai in Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu: One Point Lesson.

  1. Seiza (p.15): "Extend the hips ... at that time, the center of gravity is located between the knees and the eyes are half open. Without putting power into the shoulders, put fighting spirit (Kiai) into the abdomen and extend the hips."
  2. Kiri Oroshi (p.24): "Be conscious of stopping the cut and pay attention to the hips, showing silent fighting spirit (Kiai) in the abdomen."
  3. Noto (p.33): "The right hand moves quickly, but remains soft and flexible. As much as possible, do not use the arms, but put fighting spirit (Kiai) into the abdomen." Also, "Does the right hand have flexibility when cleaning the sword? Is the right forearm being used and is fighting spirit (Kiai) put into the abdomen?" (p,42)
  4. Inazuma (p.68): Lower the hips sufficiently, draw with the feeling of 'cutting upward', put fighting spirit (Kiai) into the abdomen and cut fiercely in a large manner."

In every reference, the words Kiai and Hara are used in conjunction with one another, further reinforcing the concept that these two elements are interconnected and virtually inseparable from one another. Thus, proper abdominal breathing creates Ki energy, which accumulates in the Hara and becomes both the foundation and prime mover for the execution of technique, culminating in a final burst of Ki energy (or Kiai) for a decisive finish.

One of the best summaries of this train of thought can be found in the book Sword and Psyche (Double Dragon Publishing, Markham, Ontario, Canada 2001). In Chapter 1, the author states that:

"In Japanese Budo, the breath is the primary vehicle of ki. The strength of a human body is limited, the power of ki is limitless. Learning to use ki instead of strength is vital. Whether it is thought of as physical or mental, simple or complex, ki is central to Modern Budo just as it was to old Budo. The use of ki cannot be taught, but it can be learned. It is learned by those who fight the battle within, through correct breathing, through stillness, and through relaxation in movement." (p. 21)

Two final questions remain. First, was there ever a point in the history of Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu when a vocalized Kiai was employed and second, are there any examples of "distracting" techniques similar to a vocalized Kiai in the way that Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu is practiced today?

In 1998, Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu 14th Soke, Tsumaki Seirin Genshin, accompanied by his son (now 15th Soke of Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu), traveled to Michigan to present a formal demonstration (Enbu) and conduct training and testing for members of the United States Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu organization. During his demonstration, Soke Sensei employed a vocalized Kiai at the completion of his drawing and cutting techniques... something I had not seen or heard before in my training with Tsumaki Sensei. When I asked Tsumaki Sensei about this, his response was: "This is very, very old style Tamiya Ryu that my father is demonstrating and in this older style vocalized Kiai was still used."

Furthermore, in the art of Kenshibu (traditional Japanese dance with sword and fan) which is practiced by practitioners of Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu as part of their curriculum of study, a vocalized Kiai is sometimes used for dramatic effect when performing movements with the sword. So, while a vocalized Kiai is no longer used during the performance of Kata, vestiges of it remain in other art forms that are part of the Tamiya Ryu course of study, harkening back to times past when the use of a vocalized Kiai was more the rule than the exception.

Finally, given the fact that the use of Kiai in Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu (as it is practiced today) has evolved into a "silent Kiai", are there any techniques that exist within the Kata of this Ryu that can be considered as "distracting" maneuvers in lieu of a vocalized Kiai? Three examples immediately come to mind when considering this question. In the First Volume of Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu Kata (Omote no Maki) there are three Kata where a sound is created to distract the opponent and gain the advantage. In Kata # 2 (Oshinuki) the knee forcibly strikes the floor when performing the opening technique known as Uchikomi. In Kata # 3 (Yokemi), the right foot stamps the floor hard at the same time the Kiritsuke technique is executed and in Kata #8 (Shiranami) a loud stomp of the right foot is performed at the same time as the thrust (Tsuki) to the left opponent. In all three of these instances, the sound created by knee or foot accompanies the final "push" of Ki energy from the Hara, thereby throwing off the opponent's concentration and allowing the defender to present a strong, energized technique.

In an effort to practice correct/proper Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu, I firmly believe that it is necessary for us to have a clear understanding of the proper use of Ki energy during the performance of Kata and how that understanding can help us grasp the meaning of the concept of Kiai in the form it is currently used in Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu. My hope is that the above discussion will have contributed to that understanding in some small way...