A Shot At Understanding Kyudo

Martial arts have many variants across the world. Though many of them may have the same variables in terms of what equipment is used and how it is performed, there are forms that have been adapted around the world that are very like each other. For instance; the world has had archery since the stone age, used by the Egyptians. Other countries and cultures have adopted their own forms of archery. In Japan, their form of archery is called “Kyudo”.

The History Behind the Japanese Martial Art of Archery; Kyudo

The Egyptians weren’t the only ones to take up archery; Japan has been known to practice during prehistoric times; from 500 B.C. to 300 A.D. This was proven by the images that were discovered, showing people handling the unique Japanese longbow were dated back to those years; which also known as the Yayoi period.

After the first thousand years, Japan’s ruling system was taken over by the military. Because the military was in power, there was a strong need for education in different martial arts. By the 1100’s, the first style of “Kyujutsu” (the practice of kyudo) being taught. This style was called “ryuha”. Kyujutsu would later develop to have many more archery styles and schools. The Genpei war that occurred between 1180 -1185 A.D. also called for archers to fight, thus increasing the demand for more education and archery techniques.

The Bow and Civil Wars

During Japan’s medieval period, many battles took place between provinces and states over land domination and power. The art of using a bow and arrow developed even more, with archery masters such as Heki Danjo Masatsugu, who founded one of the best archery schools known even until the present day; Heki-ryu. His archery discipline is known as “hi, kan, chu”, which directly translates to “fly, pierce, center”. This style was so effective that its usage spread across different battalions.

The Arrival of the Matchlock

The Portuguese were known for their close relations with Japan from the 16th – 17th centuries. They exchanged with them many different concepts, cultures, and items; one item being a matchlock. Because this mechanism was more efficient and precise than the bow (“Yumi”, in Japanese) and arrow (“Ya”) of Kyudo. Soon enough, the Tanegashima; a matchlock with a Japanese twist, was invented.

The usage of the tanegashima picked up in popularity compared to the Yumi because just about anyone could use it. The yumi, however, required extensive training to be properly used. For a while, both the tanegashima and the traditional yumi were used at the same time. When formally trained archers were hard to procure amidst times of war, Oda Nobunaga (a powerful feudal warlord, also known as “daimyo”), assembled an army out of farmers, equipped with the tanegashima. In 1575, those farmers won the battle versus a cavalry of trained samurai archers.

Kyudo Versus Kyujutsu

“The way of the bow” is the direct translation of the word “Kyudo”. While it may have had roots in a violent history and purpose, Kyudo takes on a more spiritual path than its root sport, kyujutsu. “Kyujutsu”, when translated into English, is the “art of archery”; more concerned with the accurate and direct results of using the yumi and ya compared to Kyudo, which is more holistic and is concerned about what one learns from practicing the discipline intently.

For instance; the yumi and ya were used both in defeating enemies or invaders and in hunting animals – and this kind of usage of the yumi and ya is known as kyujutsu. However, by the Edo period, this form of archery was being practiced as a sport, as well to understand oneself, which is now known as kyudo.

The Story Behind Kyudo

Due to its decline in usage over the years, and the onset of more favorable weapons – particularly spears, kyujutsu saw a downfall, albeit not entirely. The original concept of kyujutsu; which what was once an actual battle skill, was turned by Zen Buddhist monks who were practicing it into a voluntary martial art (kyudo) that teaches discipline and self-control. Kyujutsu was then slowly integrated into traditional ceremonies and friendly competitions.

It is said that the man responsible for introducing it as something that one uses for sport instead of actual slaying was Master Morikawa Kozan. He established platforms for Kyodo as well as schools that taught it, and he also was one of the first people on-record to have called it Kyudo instead of Kyujutsu.

The Meiji Period and Its Effects on Kyudo

Once Japan opened its doors to the rest of the world during the Meiji period, more advanced forms of arms and attacks trumped the use of many different forms of martial arts. Also, the Imperial system took hold of the rest of Japan, taking back the power that was once bestowed upon daimyo (feudal warlords) and samurai. Ideas and cultures were quickly being exchanged with other countries, and kyudo, among many other traditional aspects of Japanese culture, was fading away.

The decline in the popularity of Kyudo created a call to those passionate about it to save this dying war skill-turned-artform by 1896. Several kyudo masters came together to promote and perpetuate the sport. One kyudo teacher, Honda Toshizane, created a kyudo style that would be learned throughout the next century. His style was called “Honda-ryu” and consisted of archery techniques that rooted from both kyujutsu and kyudo.

The Emergence of the Japanese Kyudo Federation

Before the second world war, there were movements to encourage teaching Kyudo to make sure it would not be forgotten due to globalization and the ever-quickening pace of cultural development in Japan. It was agreed that it would entail standardization so that more people could learn, teach, and experience it.

After the second world war, however, occupational forces did not allow martial arts to be practiced. This changed four years later, in 1949, when a federation called the ANKF, which stands for “All Nippon Kyudo Federation” or in Japanese, “Zen Nihon Kyudo Renmei” was established. Another four years after, the federation came up four years later with guidelines on how to join several kyudo teams to shoot together for show/ceremonies/sport simultaneously.

Kyudo and its Place in Japanese Culture

Japan was a closed country for hundreds of years, so their cultures, practices, and traditions had been conceived and honed from their exclusive resources and minimal exposure to the outside world. When they stepped into the global spotlight during the Meiji period, there were large amounts of civilians and rulers who were not comfortable with opening their gates and taking in new ideas.

The sudden flux of global cultural exchange with Japan led to an almost xenophobic reaction from some Japanese citizens, especially who were used to local goods, traditions, and ways. The urge to preserve their own beliefs and customs led to the revival and upkeep of most “budo”, or Japanese martial arts, including Kyudo. Currently, thanks to the ANKF, the sport has been standardized and has lessons available in many different schools.

The Point of Kyudo

Depending on which school you going, you will be taught different ethics and techniques. There are schools that lean towards more of a militaristic and efficient way of handling the yumi and ya. An example of this would be following the discipline of seisha hitchu, which means “true shooting, certain hitting”, or seisha seichu, which means “correct shooting is correct hitting”. This mantra is used to remind students of what they should continuously meditate on to achieve properly hitting their targets.

Then again, other schools may emphasize more on the more zen, contemplative aspect of kyudo, where students try to attain “munen muso”, which translates to “no thoughts, no illusions.” To achieve munen muso, archers need to surrender themselves spiritually to the act itself, through both practice, proper form, and complete presence. Above all, the Kyudo Federation’s standard rubrics rule supreme. According to ANKF, the goal of learning Kyudo is achieving “shin-zen-bi”, which means truth, goodness, and beauty.

Kyudo; Learning and Embodying Truth, Goodness and Beauty

Unlike other sports or martial arts, it doesn’t take much physical exertion to master kyudo. Shin-zen-bi teaches that your spirit should be strong and truthful enough to be present in the moment. It is not about or worrying oneself about how the ya will fly and hit the target, or attempting to control the equipment too much. It takes a sense of faith and groundedness.

The Equipment You Will Need for Kyudo

Basically, there are two pieces of equipment used in Kyujutsu. There’s the “Yumi”, which is a Japanese bow, and the “Ya”, which is an arrow.

Picking Out the Best Japanese Bow or “Yumi” for Kyudo

Compared to other bows, the size of the yumi is much longer. It has little to no recurve. It measures a little over two meters, making taller than an average sized person. The length of the yumi can be tailored to adjust the length of the archer’s draw, which is also known as “yazuka”-. Traditionally, the yumi is created from a combination of leather, wood, and bamboo. Nowadays, yumi made from wood that is laminated and coated with carbon fiber is common.

Different Kinds of Arrows You Can Pick Out for Your Kyudo Set

The arrows, or ya, were also sourced from bamboo, and are laced with feathers that in the olden times, were from hawks or eagles. Because hawks and eagles are endangered, feathers of ya that are made today are from birds that are not endangered. There are two kinds of ya; “otoya”, which is the kind that spins counter clockwise, and “haya”, which is the clockwise-spinning arrow. The reason this is done is so that the trajectories of the arrows differ slightly, making it less likely that they collide mid-air.

To get an arrow that is perfectly measured to suit your body, you must measure how long your draw is, and add another 6 to 10 centimeters on top of that.

Extra Equipment

A “yazutsu” is what is called the special shaft that holds all the ya. If the ya are going to be used for a ceremony or tradition, then they are placed in a Yebira, which is another variant of a quiver bag.

A glove that is traditionally crafted from deerskin is worn on the right hand of the archer, known as a “yugake”. The yugake can have a hardened thumb area that helps draw the string of the yumi, while there is a softer variation that lets you alter the way the groove around the thumb area fits. A yugake can come in many finger styles; there’s the “ippongake”, or one-fingered glove, the “mitsugake” or three-fingered style, and the “yotsugake”, which is the style that makes room for four fingers. The heavier the bow (generally any bow that weighs more than 20 kilograms when it is drawn calls for a yotsugake) the more finger power you’ll need.

To enhance grip on the arrow, some archers use a powder called “fudeko”, which consists of rice husks that were torched. Archers sometimes also carry extra bowstrings in a bow string roll, or “tsurumaki” in case theirs snaps in the middle of usage.

Where to Find Japanese Kyudo Bows For Sale

In case you are interested in purchasing a bow just for the sake of having one, or actually using it yourself, there are many online shops that cater to this. One of them is Sambu Kyuguten, which lets you choose not only from a series of yumi and ya, but accessory choices for the yumi and ya, gloves, uniforms, and even equipment for your dojo. 3Rivers Archery is also a good site to purchase a kyudo bow. Note that a decent traditional yumi should set you back around $400 to $500.

The Performance Itself

Styles and techniques in each school vary, though the ANKF has its own style that is most popular. The ANKF style compiles the most accurate techniques out of the many variations that exist, and this is what is taught to most Kyudo practitioners. This was mainly done to unify those who partake in sharei, or ceremonial shootings.

There are many aspects to the each technique used in each shot fired in kyudo; from the placing of each foot, form of the body, and grip of the yumi and ya, and the order and discipline it takes to finally shoot from a yumi and join a competition.

The Best Places to Practice Kyudo

Because Kyudo is not as well-known as judo or jujutsu, Kyudo classes are a little difficult to come by, especially for foreigners. However, the International Kyudo Federation made sure that countries all over South America, western Europe, and Asia have dojos that teach kyudo. You may also find them in local groups on social media sites – it all just takes a quick search.