Thursday, February 11, 2010

Kyudo - Japanese Archery

Mounted samurai on display at the Phoenix Art Museum (photo by Soke Hausel, Arizona Hombu Dojo)

Many Japanese practice archery – but usually in a dojo (道場) specifically built for archery and generally they frown upon using their houses for a back stop. The Japanese take their art seriously - it has been part of their culture for hundreds of years and has philosophy as any true martial art. It is also associated with the feudal samurai education, giving this art a distinct lineage. The art is known as Kyūdō (弓道). Kyudo translates as the way of the bow. The bow used in this art is awkward to those in the West, but if Westerners were required to learn kyudo, we would see a significant change in our society for the better - because kyudo requires patience and respect - two things notably absent in our modern society today. Kyudo is a beautiful martial art, but finding a teacher of this art in the West is very difficult.

Yumi sho for close quarters
Instead of being neatly divided into two, the hand grip splits the bow into thirds – one third below the grip and two-thirds above. The bow's shape is unique and has been unchanged for two thousand years. It is the only bow whose handling point is not set in the center, this difference has created uniqueness in Japanese archery.

Like all martial arts, the history and evolution of Kyudo leads to many paths and myths. The Japanese bow was created centuries ago. In the Chinese chronicle Weishu (written before 297 AD) it described the Japanese bow, thus it existed nearly three centuries after the birth of Christ and who knows how much earlier.

Sketch of yabusame horses - colored pencil sketch by Hausel, Soke.
Today, there are various styles of kyudo, just as there are many styles in karate (空手) and jujutsu (柔術). Some writers suggest that the first style of kyudo (or kyujutsu) was Henmi-ryū founded by Henmi Kiyomitsu in the 12th century. Others disagree and suggest that the first ryuha was formed much earlier – such as Taishi-Ryu, believed to have been founded by Shotoku Taishi (574-622 AD).

Some other forms include Takeda-Ryu and Ogasawara-Ryu founded by the descendants of Henmi Kiyomitsu. These styles were created to satisfy a need for archers during the five-year war of 1180–1185 AD. During this war, Ogasawara Nagakiyo taught yabusame (mounted archery) that supplemented forms of unmounted archery. Yabusame-Ryu became so prominent that it is still practiced today, eight centuries later. In the modern form, archers ride at a full gallop shooting at three targets set up at intervals and the aarcher is considered to be skillful when all three targets are hit by an arrow.
Oriental bridge - colored pencil sketch by Hausel, Soke

In the latter part of the 15th century Heki Danjō Masatsugu (1443-1502) revolutionized Japanese unmounted archery with a new approach known as hi-kan-chū (fly, pierce, center) that in now standardized training in Japanese archery.

The use of a bow as an effective weapon of war ended some time after Europeans arrived in Japan in 1542 AD carrying muskets. Even armed with muskets, the bow was carried alongside warriors with muskets for many years because of its longer reach, accuracy and faster reloads. But the musket provided a different advantage - it did not require much training - just load, point and shoot. Thus in 1575 AD, an army of peasants armed with muskets annihilated traditional samurai archery cavalry in battle – this sealed the fate of archery in war.

During changes brought about by Japan to open to the outside world in the beginning of the Meiji era (1868–1912) the samurai lost status. All martial arts including kyudo, saw a significant decrease in appreciation. To preserve archery, a group of kyudo masters gathered in 1896 to save traditional archery. Honda Toshizane, a kyudo Sensei at Imperial University of Tokyo, created a hybrid style called Honda-Ryu. And it wasn’t until 1949 before the All Japanese Kyudo Federation (Zen Nihon Kyudo Renmei) formed and published guidelines of rules for competition and graduation. Today, many Kyudo schools emphasize aesthetics and training, while a few emphasize efficiency. Some teach archery as meditation while others focus on competition. It is the goal of many kyudo dojo to follow shin-zen-bi, roughly "truth-goodness-beauty".

Kyudo like all forms of budō includes the idea of moral and spiritual development. There are many schools that focus on kyudo as sport with marksmanship being paramount. To give oneself completely to shooting is a spiritual goal achieved by perfection of both the spirit and shooting technique. Many kyudo practitioners believe that competition, examination, and opportunities that place the archer in uncompromising situations are important. However, other schools feel that competition erodes the moral and spiritual values of the art and avoid all competitions to focus more on technique and building the individual character.

Traditional Karate Training in Mesa, Arizona
The kyudo dojo varies in style and design. Most have an entrance followed by a large training area. The training area typically has a wooden floor with high ceiling, practice targets, and a large open wall with sliding doors, such that when these are opened, the dojo overlooks a grassy area and a separate building known as the matoba which houses a dirt hillock and targets that are placed 89.6 feet from the dojo floor.

Starting out in kyudo, the new student first trains with a rubber practice bow. The purpose of this is to get the student to focus on movement and technique. Advanced beginners and advanced shooters practice shooting at a makiwara, a specially designed straw target that should not to be confused with makiwara used in karate. Archers shoot at the makiwara at a very close distance (about seven feet) so that the archer can focus on refining techniques.
The yumi (bow) is exceptionally tall (over 6.4 feet) surpassing the height of the archer. The bow is traditionally made of bamboo, wood and leather, although some archers (particularly, those new to the art) may use a synthetic bow (laminated wood coated with fiberglass or carbon fiber). The suitable height of the bow depends on the archer's draw (yatsuka) which is about half the archer's height. Ya (arrow) shafts were made of bamboo with either eagle or hawk feathers. Today some archers will use aluminum or carbon fiber shafts. Unlike western archers (who draw the bow to about the cheek bone), kyudo archers draw the bow bringing the drawing hand behind the ear. If done improperly the string may strike the archer's ear or side of the face.

Using a system which is common to modern martial arts, some (but not all) kyudo schools hold examinations. If the archer passes, he/she can be graded to kyū or dan. However, most traditional (non-competitive) schools use the old menkyo (license) system of koryū budō. Some may remember the menkyo system. Before our students became strictly a Seiyo Shorin-Ryu system, several members at the University received Menkyo Okuden, Menkyo Koshi and Menkyo Shihan in some Juko Kai arts.

In Japan, kyu ranks in kyudo are only tested in high schools and colleges, with adults skipping these to move straight to first dan. While kyudo’s kyu and dan levels are similar to those of other budō practices, colored belts or similar external symbols of one's level are not worn by kyudo practitioners.While kyudo is primarily viewed as an avenue toward self-improvement, there are kyudo competitions or tournaments whereby archers practice in a competitive style.

Competition is held with a great ceremony. The archer must also perform an elaborate entering procedure where the archer will join up to four other archers to enter the dojo, bow to the adjudicators, step up to the back line and then kneel in a form of seiza. The archers then bow to the targets in unison, stand, and take three steps forward to a firing line and kneel again. Each archer stands and fires one after another at the respective targets, kneeling in-between each shot, until they have exhausted their supply of arrows (generally four).

Unfortunately, we do not practice Kyudo at the Arizona School of Traditional Okinawan Martial Arts in Mesa, Arizona across the street from Gilbert and Chandler, Arizona. But we do have a large variety of other traditional martial arts that our members learn.
Yumi (Japanese bow) at the Phoenix Art Museum 


Our center is open to the public - we focus on Adults and Families. Learn the traditions of Okinawan Karate & Kobudo, where portions of the classes are conducted in Japanese and English to help students learn Japanese. Meditation, philosophy and martial arts history are also interjected in our classes. Click for our class schedule and fees.

Ya (arrows) on display at the Phoenix Art Museum