Ki-ai in katas: A shotoism?

The founders of Shotokan changed many techniques and katas purely to make karate contests more dramatic. Then they told us it was all "traditional" and we should never change it.
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Ki-ai in katas: A shotoism?

Postby HanshiClayton » Sun May 01, 2011 1:22 pm

I'm afraid this had been staring me in the face for years and I never picked up on it.

Kousaku Yokota, writing in Shotokan Myths, points out on page 81, that:

  • Historical Okinawan katas did not have kiais in them.
  • Shotokan didn't either, until the formalization of kata competition rules after WWII.

As evidence he points out that books about Shotokan before Nakayama's Best Karate series didn't mention kiais in katas. That's true. Funakoshi's writings didn't include kiai in katas. Ohshima felt compelled to add kiai comments as translator footnotes when he published Karate Do Kyohan in 1973.

And it is true that many Okinawan styles even today don't use kiais in katas. I've been poring over karate video clips from multiple styles for the last fifteen years and didn't notice that. I feel kind of foolish. In my own defense, the very early Shotokan films were silent. You really can't tell if they are shouting or not, but the recent films of Isshinryu and other styles might have been a clue.

Yokota says never mind the fact that some Okinawan styles have added kiais to their katas recently. He calls this "reverse importing from Japan." Basically, the JKA required kiais in katas for competition, and after a while everyone started doing it.

So, there is no great significance to the kiais in our katas. They were just stuck into the katas because it looked cool in a performance. There is no "why" beyond that.
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Re: Ki-ai in katas: A shotoism?

Postby Philip Sneyd » Mon May 09, 2011 8:24 am

No prescribed kiais in early kata makes a lot of sense to me.

As Dr Clayton points out in Shotokan's Secret, in ancient Japan there were 'kata' designed for everything. The tea ceremony ('Sa Do' - the Way of Tea) nowadays an artform, originated as the strict, 'correct' way to prepare and serve tea: one of the simplest everyday activities for us Westerners!

Basically, there was a prescribed 'right' way of doing everything, and any deviation or variation (unless it was the deliberate innovation of a master) was simply, well, 'wrong'.

Japan has changed a lot and modernized immeasurably - there are no samurai waiting to lop of your head if you do something 'wrong' - yet old habits die hard and Japanese culture is simply too deeply ingrained for them to toss aside in the name of 'progress'.

As a teacher in Japan I've noticed a strange phenomenon. If I ask a question directly to a student and they don't know the answer, they bow their heads and go into a deep, embarrassed silence. This is not some weird effect I have on them; I've noticed the exact same thing with other teachers and in TV dramas set in high schools.

It is almost as if they believe that if they don't know the correct answer, anything else, including 'I don't know', is not acceptable. I know it is unfair to rush someone gathering their thoughts, or dismiss them quickly to find a 'smarter' kid, but no matter how long I wait they continue staring at their shoes and growing more uncomfortable, as are the rest of the class in the deafening slience, until I give up and they sit down almost with a sigh of relief that the ordeal is over.

So in my English lessons I have fun with it. I teach them to shrug their shoulders, palms turned upwards in a comically exaggerated way, while saying "I dunno..." They seem to get a kick out of it because it's a foreign physical gesture, and also the teacher can move on quickly and get more topics covered. I always teach them that it's OK to say "I don't know". If you don't know then we will tell you - that's why it's called education, people!

But I digress (widely, as usual). About kiai, I can perfectly imagine why the JKA determined specific places to put them in kata. Basically, kiai are placed at kime-waza - decisive techniques. KO, or more likely killing strikes (todome). For a student to perform a kata perfectly, with correct timing, intent, and visualization of their opponents, it is vital that they understand the applications, where the todome moves are, etc.

Since there are so many interpretations of the applications of kata moves, and some old masters didn't teach any at all, the students weren't sure where in the kata they should kiai. Heaven forbid they let out a liberal and enthusiastic yell at some transitional point in the kata when their imaginary opponent is somewhere else or out of reach - oh, the embarrassment!

Hence, the JKA step in to take a load of their shoulders and say "shout freely and openly from the bottom of your being - but only here and here... Got it?"

Of course, I'm sure Matsumura and his peers didn't need to kiai loudly because they knew quite well where the kime waza were, but they might have yelled their head off in their mind as they visualised what they were doing. Besides, random fierce battle cries in the dead of night wouldn't exactly be conducive to keeping their midnight training secret from prying samurai overlords...
Philip is an Irishman based in Japan, where he has been living and training in Kyokushinkai Karate for almost 10 years. He holds a shodan 1st degree black belt and opened a small branch dojo in Tokyo in 2009. He is a big fan of the book Shotokan's Secret.
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Re: Ki-ai in katas: A shotoism?

Postby PeterKa » Fri Sep 16, 2011 1:34 am

I can really follow the thought, that the kiai might be a shotoism, but I'm not 100% convinced...

My Wing Chun teachers always told me to let my breath not be bound to my moves, to let it be independent. It was quite hard for me, NOT to do "strong techniques" chained to loud breathing and moving when doing Chi Sao. Back then I always thought that the breath, the focus and the power have to be chained together to have maximum impact. This has no meaning in WC anyway and is nearly impossible when you do one of these "chain punches".
This was a clear sign, that a yelling in any way is not necessary for fighting!

Though I still belive it is necessary for hard style (karate) techniques. Breathing chained to the moves IS ok for me. I also find myself "breathing loud" (it is not really a kiai, but close to it), when I e.g. do a Yoko Geri Kekomi and try to "push" (move, shift? I don't know the correct term but I hope you know) the "target" away/backwards. Also, I see e.g. these "strong men" on TV yelling, when they try to push/pull a Truck, or the "wheight lifters" to it too!
This, on the other hand, is a sign to me, that a "loud breathing", a "kai" could also "support" the person to be focussed and could support crucial techniques.

Why I'm writing this?
When I read the first edition of Shotokan's Secret, I can remember one chapter explained that the kiai has been a "mark" for the comrades. IIRC it explained, that e.g. in the heian katas the kiai is placed on special steps, before turning 180°, etc., so that the comrades who are responsible for the king's life, know, when the disorientation of the aggressors has reached it's peak, or when the fighter comes back to them.
I really found this - a sound louder than the combat noise - to "inform" the comrads logically in it's own way. But would it also be "practically" at "combat noise", when dozens of men scream and shout? I guess not...
So, this was another explanation on kiais and also a "pro" for me, rather than a contra.

So my question is:
Is this thesis completely thrown away now and the kiai is marked as a shotoism, or are there still some paths of information to follow?
I do not have experience with weapons fighting (sword, bo, ...) but I could imagine to "yell" when I have to use a heavy sword. Are there kiais in Iaido/kendo or similar martial arts?


Sorry, if this all sounds a little foolish, but these pros and contras are just in my mind, when it comes to Kiais.
Cheers,

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Re: Ki-ai in katas: A shotoism?

Postby HanshiClayton » Sun Sep 18, 2011 1:09 pm

I have been living with this revelation for some time now, and one of my observations relates to this comment by Philip:
Basically, kiai are placed at kime-waza - decisive techniques. KO, or more likely killing strikes (todome). For a student to perform a kata perfectly, with correct timing, intent, and visualization of their opponents, it is vital that they understand the applications, where the todome moves are, etc.

This is the legend they tell us when we are learning Heian Shodan, and it seems very convincing at that point. If you look at the other heian katas, however, you'll be hard-pressed to believe that the kiais are placed on powerful killing strikes. They just stuck the heian kiais on the move before the major turns, except in a couple of places where there wasn't a shred of a justification for it. The second kiai in Heian Nidan, for instance, would have been attached to a reinforced block. After looking around for another move to stick the kiai on, they gave up and stuck it on the last move of the kata, an upblock. If you don't know about the swords in that kata, a "kiling technique" is kind of hard to find.

Yes a few of the kiai moves are killing techniques, but many/most are not. They are just yells to make the kata more dramatic.

And then Peter:
When I read the first edition of Shotokan's Secret, I can remember one chapter explained that the kiai has been a "mark" for the comrades... so that the comrades who are responsible for the king's life, know, when the disorientation of the aggressors has reached it's peak, or when the fighter comes back to them...

So my question is:
Is this thesis completely thrown away now and the kiai is marked as a shotoism, or are there still some paths of information to follow?
I do not have experience with weapons fighting (sword, bo, ...) but I could imagine to "yell" when I have to use a heavy sword. Are there kiais in Iaido/kendo or similar martial arts?


Well, first, the theory of the kiai being a signal among the bodyguards fell flat when it turned out that they didn't use kiai in their katas. As we all realized, kiai isn't very stealthy, so that makes good sense.

Second, Shotokan kumite is patterened on kendo, and in that sport the contestants do indeed kiai as they attack. I imagine that is how kiai entered karate, and eventually crept into our katas.

Third, it is important to understand that kiai has various benefits, both spiritual and biomechanical, and we could talk a long time about what those benefits might me. However, the point being made here is that kiais were added to the Shotokan kata at arbitrary points to increase drama. Some of those arbitrary points were killing techniques, but a lot were not.

So don't lie awake at night trying to figure out how the jump in Heian Godan could be a killing technique. Neither the kiai nor the jump were part of the original kata. Both are shotoisms.
Bruce D. Clayton, Ph.D.
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Re: Ki-ai in katas: A shotoism?

Postby PeterKa » Mon Sep 19, 2011 12:12 am

However, the point being made here is that kiais were added to the Shotokan kata at arbitrary points to increase drama. Some of those arbitrary points were killing techniques, but a lot were not.

Thank you for your explanation. I forgot that a huge part of Shotokan's Secret is the journey for the "original" intents of the Kata.
Cheers,

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Re: Ki-ai in katas: A shotoism?

Postby colinwee » Mon Feb 04, 2013 12:54 am

gilliancompo wrote:“Yokota says never mind the fact that some Okinawan styles have added kiais to their katas recently. He calls this "reverse importing from Japan." Basically, the JKA required kiais in katas for competition, and after a while everyone started doing it.”

If in harmony with ones opponent can one take the initiative, or in other words, sen-no-sen (preemptive) DEFENSE…taking the attacker’s timing and turning it into your timing and thus advantage?

Gillian


We use kiai very effectively with sen sen no sen or preemptive striking.

For instance, against a sportive practitioner bouncing up and down, the kiai freezes the muscles. So as we launch ourselves forward, the opponent is frozen in place and it makes it much easier for us to hit him with something like an oizuke.

I remember once, I was sparring with a relative beginner who was a gifted athlete. I am 5'7" and this guy was about 6'6", fast and very agile. After several minutes of not being able to engage, I eventually got under his guard, dragged him down by his hair and put him in a rear chokehold. I held it for a little longer than I should have because I was waiting for him to tap out. Unfortunately, I didn't realise that my legs were wrapped around his arms. To make a long story long ... the next day I saw him, he had his shoulder length blond hair buzzed cut, and the very next time we both sparred, his mental composure was shot to hell. As we were circling each other, I thought to test out my kiai against whatever attack he was going to launch at me. So he skipped forward and shot a front kick at me. Whilst it was in the air, I performed a kiai - to my surprise, he almost collapsed on himself. His kick faltered in mid air and he had the biggest flinch reaction I've ever seen. Fortunately for him there wasn't a large body of spectators.

Thought I'd share that.

Colin
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Re: Ki-ai in katas: A shotoism?

Postby HanshiClayton » Thu Feb 07, 2013 1:00 am

Whilst it was in the air, I performed a kiai - to my surprise, he almost collapsed on himself. His kick faltered in mid air and he had the biggest flinch reaction I've ever seen. Fortunately for him there wasn't a large body of spectators.


The kiai may be a shotoism, added to the katas purely for showmanship, but it is also true that a fierce battlecry just make some people spoil their pantaloons and collapse in a quivering mass.

I wish it were always that easy.
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