The Yumi bow and Japanese Kyudo archery

Kyudo Archery Bega

Archer wearing traditional Kyudo archery uniform. The bow is the Japanese Yumi, the arrows are brass tipped with water reed shafts fletched with turkey feathers.

Kyudo or Kyūdō 弓道 meaning “way of the bow” is a modern Japanese martial art (gendai budō); kyudo practitioners are referred to as kyudoka (弓道家). Kyudo is based on kyūjutsu (art of archery), which originated with the samurai class of feudal Japan.

Kyudo is practiced by thousands of people world wide, in Japan alone as of 2005, the International Kyudo Federation had 132,760 graded members,and kyudo is also taught at Japanese schools.

The beginning of archery in Japan is, as elsewhere, pre-historical. The first images picturing the distinct Japanese asymmetrical longbow are from the Yayoi period (ca. 500 BC–300 AD). The first written document describing Japanese archery is the Chinese chronicle Weishu (dated around 297 AD), which tells how in the Japanese isles people use “a wooden bow that is short from the bottom and long from the top.” During these times the bow began to be used in warfare, in addition to hunting. Later, the ceremonial use of a bow was adopted from China and continued in Japan after it had ended in China. The composite technique of bow manufacture, by gluing together horn, wood, and animal sinew, was also imported from China.

The changing of society and the military class (the samurai) taking power at the end of the first millennium created a requirement for education in archery. This led to the birth of the first kyudo ryūha (style), the Henmi-ryū, founded by Henmi Kiyomitsu in the 12th century.  The Takeda-ryū and the mounted archery school Ogasawara-ryū were later founded by his descendants. The need for archers grew dramatically during the Genpei War (1180–1185) and as a result the founder of the Ogasawara-ryū, Ogasawara Nagakiyo, began teaching yabusame (mounted archery).

From the 15th to the 16th century Japan was ravaged by civil war. In the latter part of the 15th century Heki Danjō Masatsugu revolutionised archery with his new and accurate approach called hi, kan, chū (fly, pierce, centre), and his footman’s archery spread rapidly. Many new schools were formed, some of which, such as Heki-ryū Chikurin-ha, Heki-ryū Sekka-ha and Heki-ryū Insai-ha, remain today.

The yumi (Japanese bow) as a weapon of war began its decline after the Portuguese arrived in Japan in 1543 bringing firearms with them in the form of the matchlock. The Japanese soon started to manufacture their own version of the matchlock called tanegashima and eventually the tanegashima and the yari (spear) became the weapons of choice over the yumi. The yumi as a weapon was used alongside the tanegashima for a period of time because of its longer reach, accuracy and especially because it had a rate of fire 30–40 times faster. The tanegashima however did not require the same amount of training as a yumi, allowing Oda Nobunga’s army consisting mainly of farmers armed with tanegashima to annihilate a traditional samurai archer cavalry in a single battle in 1575.

During the Tokugawa period (1603–1868) Japan was turned inward as a hierarchical caste society in which the samurai were at the top. There was an extended era of peace during which the samurai moved to administrative duty, although the traditional fighting skills were still esteemed. During this period archery became a “voluntary” skill, practiced partly in the court in ceremonial form, partly at various kinds of competition. Archery spread also outside the warrior class.

Yumi kyudo archery archer Bega

Ethnic Japanese warrior outfit, complete with Yumi bow, six arrow back quiver, Katana (long sword) and short sword

The samurai were affected by the straightforward philosophy and aim for self control in Zen Buddhism that was introduced by Chinese monks. Earlier archery had been called kyujutsu – the skill of bow – but monks acting as martial arts teachers developed a new concept: kyudo.

During the changes brought by Japan opening up to the outside world at the beginning of the Meiji era (1868–1912), the samurai lost their position. Therefore, all martial arts, including kyudo, saw a significant decrease in instruction and appreciation. In 1896, a group of kyudo-masters gathered to save traditional archery. Honda Toshizane, the kyudo-teacher for the Imperial University of Tokyo, merged the war and ceremonial shooting styles, creating a hybrid called Honda-ryu. However, it took until 1949 before the All Japanese kyudo Federation (ANKF, jap. Zen Nihon kyudo renmei) was formed. Guidelines published in the 1953 kyudo kyohon define how, in a competition or graduation, archers from different schools can shoot together in unified form.


All kyudo archers hold the bow in their left hand and draw the string with their right, so that all archers face the higher position (kamiza) while shooting.

Unlike occidental (western) archers who, with some exceptions, draw the bow never further than the cheek bone, kyudo archers draw the bow so that the drawing hand is held behind the ear. If done improperly, upon release the string may strike the archer’s ear or side of the face.

As a result of the shape of the bow and the unique technique employed to release the shot, the bow will (for a practiced archer) spin in the hand so that the string stops in front of the archer’s outer forearm. This action of “yugaeri” is unique to kyudo.

Kyudo technique is meticulously prescribed. The All Nippon Kyudo Federation (ANKF), the main governing body of kyudo in Japan, has codified the hassetsu (or “eight stages of shooting”) in the Kyudo Kyohon (Kyudo Manual). Different styles have their own variations from the steps, the most notable difference being between the vertical bow rising shomen and aslant bow rising shamen. The hassetsu of shomen-style consists of the following steps:

(1)  Ashibumi, placing the footing. The archer steps onto the line from where arrows are shot (known as the shai) and turns to face the kamiza, so that the left side of his body faces the target. He then sights from the target to his feet and sets his feet apart so that the distance between them is equal to his yazuka, approximately half his body height, and equal to the length of an arrow. A line drawn between the archer’s toes should pass through the target after the completion of the ashibumi. During competition, an archer may have a second set of arrows sitting on the ground at his or her feet. To be correct in ashibumi, these arrows must not extend in front of or behind the archer’s footing stance. The archer’s feet are then placed outward at a 60 degree angle from each other, forming a “V”, this ensures equal balance to both feet.

(2) Dozukuri, forming the body. The archer verifies his balance and that his pelvis and the line between his shoulders are parallel to the line set up during ashibumi. During dozukuri, the kyudoka will arch his or her back, straightening the back and causing the buttocks to stick out slightly behind. Practically this posture is to prevent the strings of the hakama from being clipped by the bowstring during shooting as well as ensuring the back of the archer is very straight, which, in turn, prevents the bowstring from striking the archer’s face when shooting.

(3)  Yugamae, readying the bow. Yugamae consists of three phases:

    1. Torikake, gripping of the bowstring with the right hand.
    2. Tenouchi, the left hand is positioned for shooting on the bow’s grip.
    3. Monomi, the archer turns the head to gaze at the target.

(4) Uchiokoshi, raising the bow. The archer raises the bow above the head to prepare for the draw.

(5)  Hikiwake, drawing apart. The archer starts bringing down the bow while spreading his arms, simultaneously pushing the bow with the left hand and drawing the string with the right, until the arrow is level with the eyebrows.

    1. Daisan, Big three. This forms the midway point in Hikiwake.

(6)  Kai, the full draw. The archer continues the movement started in the previous phase, until full draw is achieved with the arrow placed slightly below the cheekbone. The arrow points along the line set up during ashibumi.

    1. Tsumeai, constructing the vertical and horizontal lines of the body.
    2. Nobiai, uniting the expansions of the body.

(7) Hanare, the release. The technique results in the bowstring being released from the right hand.

(8)  Zanshin, “the remaining body or mind” or “the continuation of the shot”. The archer remains in the position reached after hanare while returning from the state of concentration associated with the shot.

    1. Yudaoshi, lowering of the bow.

While other schools’ shooting also conforms to the hassetsu outlined above, the naming of some steps and some details of the execution of the shot may differ.

Bega Valley Traditional Archers Inc. is grateful member James Murray’s interest and expertise an many forms of traditional and ethnic archery, for his continued support of archery in the Bega Valley and for these photographs.