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"Ideally, your self-defense will never get physical. Avoiding the situation and running or talking you way out - either of these is a higher order of strategy than winning a physical battle." - Wise Words of Rory Miller, Facing Violence: Chapter 7: after, subparagraph 7.1:medical

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Note: I will endevor to provide a bibliography and italicize any direct quotes from the materials I use for this blog. If there are mistakes, errors, and/or omissions, I take full responsibility for them as they are mine and mine alone. If you find any mistakes, errors, and/or omissions please comment and let me know along with the correct information and/or sources.

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What is Kiai 気合?

気合 means fighting spirit; yell; clamor; shout; cry; scream; bellow or roar, i.e. noun.

気 means air, atmosphere, spirit, mind, heart, will, intention, feelings, a mood, nature, a disposition, attention, care, a sign, and an indication.

合 means match, fit, suit, join, combine, unite, coincide, and agree.

A recent categorization of the "kiai" in martial arts says it didn't originate with karate but Kendo, i.e. Japanese influences. It states it was NOT a part of the Okinawan indigenous system of fighting hand-to-hand but was incorporated into karate practice beginning early 1900's. Is this all true?

It also states that normally in their system the kiai is not used except in cases where a demonstration of proper breathing techniques or timing or teaching the duration of exhalation and inhalation. Occasionally for kata competitions the kiai is used and we can surmise that the reason is it is expected by most participants and judges. It is a part of the grading of the kata performance. Is this true? The demo of breathing via kiai?

I also asked myself long ago if I felt I needed to have "kiai" in my practice. I found that I didn't need it yet I try to understand it and its practice as a form of understanding the history behind it and its applications in martial systems. I feel that it is true that Okinawan's did not utilize it and I find in my view that it is just another one of those "cool things" Americans added to make it more exotic to participants. Just me ... :-)

First question, not able to verify/validate the statement that it was not a part of the Okinawan karate circles pre-1800's, late. I have no clue as to its origins in Japan be it Kendo or not. After all kendo is a fairly new thing like karate anyway.

Second, as to kiai to demo breathing, timing, or how to control inhale/exhale, no clue and no way to verify or refute. I don't believe it is but then again I am not completely clear on its true purpose, only what is written in the last thirty years which is not clear.

Third, I have never tried to use kiai to demonstrate breathing ever. I use the Sanchin kata with Shime to demonstrate not just breathing but breathing is a strong and important part of it.

So, in general kiai is something you can take or leave depending on your goals in martial arts. It is worth the time and effort to learn as much as you can, within reason, to understand it simply as a historical part of Japanese/Okinawan martial arts.


  1. Charles, I've come to understand that the concept of kiai as merely a 'spirit shout' or a breathing exercise is merely to touch the surface of its meaning. In 'Living the Martial Way' by Forrest Morgan he writes a section on kiai and aiki (page 103). Essentially he describes kiai as meaning to 'literally concentrate or focus the life force'. Kiai is an integral part of the way you do martial arts. Over time kiai becomes a part of the fabric of your very being. It shows in the way you conduct yourself both in/out the dojo. Kiai is to be totally focussed and committed, in the moment....it can be silent. Did Okinawan masters possess kiai? In bucket loads no doubt. Did they shout during karate training? probably not!

  2. Sometimes I feel that too much meaning is given to such terms. I have tried to find a source that would be more accurate as to what some of these terms and characters mean in the context of martial arts but alas not any that are not influenced by American translations.

    I like what you say and have no real issues in its usage simply because it is being utilized in the most positive way and promotes looks into a better understanding of a system yet it is the original intent for posterity and traditions that have a meaning to me.

    I have extrapolated on its meaning and have put more into it than in all likelihood actually exists but then again what do we want to pass on to those who follow us on the path, that is my question for me.

    Once again, sincere thanks for providing your insight, knowledge, and perceptions to my postings!

    You ask, "Did Okinawan masters possess kiai?" Who really knows. If those who profess it was not a part of Ryukyu Ti are correct then how could they have possessed it.

    In another light, how can anyone possess it? It is not something that you hold on to or put in your pocket, it is more an ideal that you attach to its meaning what ever that may be for the individual.