Traditional Japanese archery is an ancient martial art that's been practised throughout Japan since prehistoric times. The art of Japanese archery has been romanticised throughout history due to its breath-taking movements and spiritual core. The practice of traditional Japanese archery can be traced back to two different origins: ritualistic archery linked to Shinto and militant archery allied with warfare and hunting. So, whether you're looking to get started in Japanese archery or just curious to learn more, we've got you covered – the following post will explore the ancient history and evolution of Japanese archery.
What is Japanese Archery Called?
Traditional Japanese archery was once described as kyujutsu ("technique of the bow"), while today Japanese archery is more commonly known as kyudo which translates to "the way of the bow". Kyudo is a traditional form of archery - considered to be the purest of all martial ways.
The History of Traditional Japanese Archery
Before we look at the different types of Japanese archery, it's important to understand the history of where it all started. The Japanese started using bows and arrows around the same time as other civilisations in prehistory times. Images date back to the Yayoi period (between 500 BC and 300 AD). Traditionally, the bow was the most important weapon of war, and skilful archers were the highest-ranking warriors. The bow reigned supreme until firearms started arriving from Portugal in 1453 – the introduction of firearms totally changed Japan's way of war.
Although firearms didn't bring the same skills and precision as the bow, they were much easier to use. Ultimately leading to the decline of the bow and arrow as a practical art of war.
Despite the plummet in popularity, Japanese archery continued to live on through samurai practice. Eventually, traditional Japanese archery transitioned into a modern-day form of sport and entertainment. However, the popularity of Japanese archery remained strong - due to sports being an integral part of Japanese culture. The Japanese are known for their love of sport - you can find the most popular Japanese sports,
including martial arts, on our blog!
The Different Types of Traditional Japanese Archery
- Kyudo (弓道)
Kyudo is a traditional Japanese martial art in which archers shoot an arrow with a Yumi (弓) (Japanese bow). Japanese martial arts are well known throughout the world, especially karate and judo, but Japan is home to many forms of martial arts. To discover a wide range of martial art styles, check out our blog post on the most popular forms of martial arts.
Kyudo has developed its own philosophy, culture and techniques over the years. In the Meiji era (1868 - 1912), kyudo was incorporated into the school curriculum; today, universities and high schools still include kyudo in their syllabus. It's estimated that around 500,000 people still practise kyudo today, with the majority being students. The main aim of kyudo is to discipline to mind and body by learning how to focus on firing the arrow with the right ma'ai or timing.
- Yabusame (流鏑馬)
Yabusame is a form of traditional Japanese archery. However, unlike kyudo, Yabusame is mounted. During the Heian period (794-1185), there was a significant increase in horse fighting, leading to the development of Japanese horseback archery. Like kyudo, the practice traditionally had value in battle. Additionally, it was also enjoyed as a ritual and as a form of entertainment to the gods. Yabusame its self may seem very simple, but don't let the simplicity of the sport fool you – it certainly takes great skill to shoot a bow and arrow at a target on the back of a galloping horse! It's a discipline that requires precise judgement, balance and concentration. The archers need to use both hands for shooting, so they solely rely on their knees to control the horses. Hitting one target out of three is a huge achievement – the sign of a supreme expert. Both the arrow and target are kept and treasured as a good luck charm.
The Japanese Archer's Method in Kyudo
Even the masters in kyudo started by learning how to draw the bow and shooting blunt first. All Japanese archers start by practising nine shooting phases until the master is satisfied and believes the learner is ready for regular practice.
Here are the nine stages of shooting all beginners must master:
- ASHIBUMI (footing)
- DOZUKURI (correcting the posture)
- YUGAMAE (readying the bow)
- UCHIOKOSHI (raising the bow)
- HIKIWAKE (drawing the bow)
- KAI (completing the draw)
- HANARE (the release)
- ZANSHIN (continuation)
- YUDAOSHI (lowering of the bow)
The Relationship Between Japanese Archery and Shinto
While kyudo itself isn't a form of religion, it has been closely linked to Shintoism, the indigenous faith of Japan. The way in which archers use the bow and arrow symbolises ritualistic aspects and has been done for over two thousand years. Shintoism is reflected in the kyudo ceremony, the attire, and the ritual respect shown for the equipment and the place of shooting all stem from ancient Shinto practice.
Traditional Japanese archery also makes appearances in Japanese myths – many Shinto shrines feature rituals related to them. One of the most popular forms of archery at Shinto rituals is yabusame. However, kyudo is also performed in many areas throughout Japan. For example, Japanese archery plays a significant role in the Odisha festival, where locals pray for a good harvest and healthy crops for the year ahead. If you'd like to learn more about Shinto, we have an interesting blog post that covers all the Shinto religion
As with kyudo, yabusame is a solemn activity and signifies more than just a sport. Traditional Japanese archery was intended to advance mental strength, religious values and battle skills. Today kyudo and yabusame are expected to follow the teachings of bushido (the way of the warrior) and so must respect God and his ancestors.
The practice of archery has been a significant part of Japanese culture. Today you will still find in any kyudojo (practise hall) people practising traditional kyujutsu, ritualistic court games, rituals with religious influences, and competitive events. To truly understand the teachings of kyudo, it's important to keep an open mind and understand that each style has its own history, techniques and philosophical teachings that make them all just as interesting.
We hope you now know what Japanese archery is called. But most of all, we hope you enjoyed learning about Traditional Japanese Archery with us! If you have any further questions, don't hesitate to contact
our friendly team. In the meantime, if you're looking for a gift, then why not check out our authentic samurai Japanese kokeshi doll
, the perfect gift for anyone passionate about traditional Japanese archery.