Archery, Japanese (Martial Arts)

The practice of kyudo or Japanese Archery is traced to two roots: ceremonial archery associated with Shinto and combative archery developing from warfare and hunting. Kyudo has been called the earliest martial sport of Japan, as the warrior and noble classes used it for recreational hunting. Kyudo was also considered to be one of the primary arts of a warrior, and the Japanese attachment to it and swordsmanship was so great that Japan rejected the use of firearms in the seventeenth century in favor of traditional arms.

The history of kyudo is claimed to go back to the possibly mythical Emperor Jimmu (660 b.c.), who is always portrayed holding a longbow. Certain court rituals, probably imported from China, involved archery, and skill in ceremonial archery was considered a requirement of a refined man. During the ancient period, mentions of a Taishi-ryu of archery are found about a.d. 600. About 500 years later, Henmi Kiyomitsi founded what is generally accepted as the first kyudo ryuha (style), the Henmi-ryu. His descendants later founded the Takeda- and Ogasawara-ryu. The Genpei War (1180-1185) led to an increased demand for warriors to develop archery skills. Unlike in Western Europe, in Japan the aristocratic warrior class considered the bow a warrior’s weapon.

A young woman aims at a barrel of straw to practice the style of her archery, at the Tsurugaoka Hachiman Grand Shrine in Kamakura, Japan, 1986.

A young woman aims at a barrel of straw to practice the style of her archery, at the Tsurugaoka Hachiman Grand Shrine in Kamakura, Japan, 1986.

This emphasis increased in the feudal period, especially when Mi-namoto no Yoritomo gained the title of shogun. He standardized the training of his warriors and had the founder of the Ogasawara-ryu, Ogasawara Nagakiyo, teach yabusame (mounted archery). During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, civil wars raged throughout Japan, and the techniques of shooting were refined. Heki Danjo developed a new devastatingly accurate approach to archery he called hi, kan, chu (fly, pierce, center), which was quickly adopted. His school, the Heki-ryu, spread into many branches, and these “new schools” continue to this day. Use of the bow peaked in the sixteenth century, just before the Portuguese introduced the gun into Japan. By 1575, Oda Nobunaga used firearms to win a major battle, beginning the bow’s decline.

This decline was temporarily halted by Japan’s self-imposed period of isolation, and during this period as well as the following Meiji period and the modern period, the art of kyudo has developed as a mental and physical discipline. Today, kyudo is taught as a mental, physical, and spiritual discipline under the Zen Nihon Kyudo Renmei (All Japan Archery Federation) rather than as a competitive sport. It is now taught in the high schools and universities as well as extensively practiced in private kyudojo (archery halls).

The Japanese bow, or yumi, is about seven feet long and constructed of laminated bamboo. The grip is placed one-third of the way up from the bottom, unlike the grip on Western and Chinese bows. This placement of the grip allows the bow to be used on horseback while retaining the advantages of a longbow. The arrows, or ya, are also longer than Western arrows, due to the Japanese method of drawing the bow to the right shoulder instead of the chin or cheek. Because the bow is drawn with the thumb as in other styles of Eastern archery, the glove, or yugake, is different, with a reinforced inner thumb. No thumb ring is used, as was the case in Korea and China. Only after the Onin Wars, when an archer no longer had to use his sword, did the modern kind of glove with a hardened thumb and wrist develop. The uniform worn is normally the obi (sash) and hakama (split skirt) with either a kyudo-gi (jacket) or a kimono (for the higher ranks). White tabi (socks constructed with the big toe separated from the other toes) are also worn.

Training begins with learning to draw the bow and shooting blunt and unfletched (featherless) arrows into a mato (target). The beginner practices the eight stages of shooting until his teacher is satisfied that he is ready to move to regular practice. The eight stages are (1) ashibumi (positioning), (2) dozukuri (correcting the posture), (3) yugamae (readying the bow), (4) uchiokoshi (raising the bow), (5) hikiwake (drawing the bow), (6) kai (completing and holding the draw), (7) hanare (releasing the arrow, which also includes a step called yugaeri, or the turning of the bow in the hand), and (8) yudaoshi (lowering the bow). Each step is practiced until it is as perfect as possible. In this way, the beginner learns proper technique without the distraction of an actual target. Unlike Western longbows, the bow is not drawn in a push-pull movement but in a spreading movement as the bow is lowered. Since kyudo is practiced as a means of personal development, mere accuracy is not prized. The proper approach and a sense of zan-shin (the quiet period after the release of the arrow) are more important. Three levels of skill are described: toteki, or arrow hits target, kanteki, or arrow pierces target, and zaiteki, or arrow exists in target. The first is also called “rifle shooting” and is concerned only with hitting the center. In the second, the archer pierces the target as if it were an enemy. An intensity is seen that is absent in the first level. The final level, zaiteki, is where the archer has unified his mind, body, and bow into one, and shooting becomes natural and instinctive. This is the true goal of kyudo.

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