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No Kiai

Last night I had the good fortune to practice in the dojo of my good friend and senior, Sensei Pat Nakata, who teaches Chibana Shorin-Ryu. Because a student was visiting from the mainland, the class practiced each of the kata in the style's curriculum. This was a great opportunity for me to get to see the kata and the way that they are performed.

Although I also practice Shorin-Ryu, I practice the Kishaba Juku form, which is based on some of the same and several different kata. But even our kata that are the same, are different.

So I followed along in the back of the dojo, like a little child you might see at a dance performance dancing away on the side to music of his own creation. All together, we practiced the various kata a total of 50 times overall. This took 2 1/2 hours, with a short break and periodic corrections.

Nakata Sensei is an excellent Sensei and has a very serious and organized approach to teaching. And he practices each kata with the students all the time. Not once did he stand on the side and command or simply watch the students. As one of his students mentioned to me, "Nakata Sensei leads from the front." That is good advice for all instructors.

What I would like to address in this post, is the issue of kiai. There were no kiai in any of the kata that Nakata Sensei lead. None. What I mean by this is that there were no designated places in the kata where the student is supposed to kiai (or yell, sort of).

Instead, Nakata Sensei and his students expel their breath with a hiss-like sound for each movement, and tighten their bodies. In essence, they kiai for each movement.

We do the same in Kishaba Juku, but we also kia for certain movements (for those movements, we kiai rather than hiss).

Practicing the kata a total of 50 times was quite a workout for my lungs!

I asked Nakata Sensei about the kiai issue and he told me that there are no kiai in their kata, except for the breath hissing (not his term, just my observation). I asked him whether Chibana Sensei taught any specific kiai points and he said "no." Then I asked if Itosu Sensei taught any specific kiai points, and he said that he did not believe so.

So where did the kiai come from? In my style, we practice the Pinan kata, for example, and there are kiai points. If Itosu Sensei created the Pinan, you would think that he would have been clear about the kiai. Chibana Sensei learned from Itosu Sensei directly, so I an confident that his version of the Pinan is authentic and unaltered, or at least less altered than other styles.

And when you compare different styles of Karate, the kiai in the same kata are often in different places.

One last observation. We always hear that in the really old days, Karate was practiced late at night at the Sensei's family hakka (tomb). At such a place and time, I am pretty sure that the students would not be yelling.

So where did the kiai come from?

My own theory is that specific kiai were added in modern times for performance purposes -- essentially to surprise and impress a crowd. If you think about it, if there are 30 movements in a kata, and the student is supposed to kiai only for two of those movements, what about the other 28? Of course, the answer is that in a real situation, the student will kiai when it is appropriate to do so.

But I do not think that a "loud" kiai is necessary, or even preferable. When you see students kiai with their mouths wide open, you might think that this is unsafe, and that their jaws could easily be broken if hit. They could also bite off their tongues and shatter their teeth.

I prefer the method of using a kiai (the hissing type) for each movement. This also ensures that the students will not hold their breath (on the 28 movements, for example, without a loud kiai).

If you practice kiai all the time, you will likely do so when attacked. If you only practice kiai for performance reasons, you will probably not do so.

These are just my observations and thoughts. If you feel attached to a specifically placed kiai, that is fine. Some people were taught by their instructors that the founder of their style had maintained the kata in unaltered form from ancient times. So the kiai is a special thing... since it must be ancient.

Then again, if all these founders did not change anything, why are there so many differences? Kiai are just the tip of the iceberg on this much larger issue.

I am very grateful to Nakata Sensei and his students for always making me feel at home in their dojo. They have helped me to appreciate and respect Karate even more.


Charles C. Goodin