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Kyudo (弓道) (The "Way of the Bow") is the Japanese art of archery. It is a Japanese martial art in which archers use a tall Japanese bow (the yumi) made of bamboo, wood, and leather using techniques which have not changed for centuries. As with other martial arts, Zen Buddhist philosophies and principles are applied in Kyudo in achieving a certain state of mind in the practice of the art. Thus, Kyudo remains as an important aspect of Japanese culture and roots itself deeply more as a tradition than a sport.

It is estimated that there are approximately half a million practitioners of kyudo today. In Japan, by most accounts, the number of female kyudo practitioners is at least equal to and probably greater than the number of male practitioners.

Zen in the Art of Archery

In its most pure form, kyudo is practiced as an art and as a means of moral and spiritual development. Many archers practice kyudo simply as a sport, with marksmanship being paramount. However, the highest ideal of kyudo is "seisha seichu," "correct shooting is correct hitting." Practitioners of kyudo strive for the unique action of expansion (nobiai) that results in a natural release. Shooting with correct spirit and balance results in the arrow hitting the target. It is a spiritual goal to give oneself completely to shooting the arrow. Some kyudo practitioners believe that competitions, examinations, and demonstrations are an important means of challenging the student to achieve perfection, while others avoid competitions or examinations of any kind.

Kyudo is conceived not only as a sport but as a “spiritual” practise embodying Zen teachings. It is not easy to grasp the meaning of “spiritual.” The eminent Zen Buddhist scholar Daisetzu T.Suzuki explained Zen Buddhism and the art of archery in this way: “During the Kamakura era (1192-1336 C.E.) in Japan, a famous Zen monk composed this poem: “The bow is broken, Arrows are all gone- in this critical moment: Cherish no fainting heart, Shoot without delay.” When a shaftless arrow is shot from a stringless bow, it will surely penetrate the rock, as once happened in the history of the Far Eastern people.”

From 1924-1929, Eugen Herrigel, a German professor of philosophy, came to Japan to teach in a Japanese university. In order to better understand the meaning of Japanese culture, especially Buddhism, he decided to learn archery and his wife decided to learn flower arranging(ikebana). Herrigel begged one of his fellow professors, Sozo Komachi, to introduce him to a Master of Archery, Kenzo Awa, who was a legendary archer. Master Awa refused at first, because he had once been misguided enough to instruct a foreigner and had regretted the experience ever since. Herrigel insisted that he wished to learn under the Master, not for pleasure, but for studying the the "Way of Archery." Finally, the Master accepted him as a student, and also his wife, because the Master’s own wife and two daughters were diligent practitioners of archery.

From the beginning, the Master’s teaching methods held many riddles for Herrigel. The first exercise was learning to breathe out, as slowly and steadily as possible, to the very end of the breath. The Master also taught his students to draw the bow ”spiritually.” As a foreigner with a puzzled mind, Herrigel asked the Master many questions, although traditionally Japanese students rarely dared to ask Master anything. Herrigel realized that “a Japanese pupil brings with him three things: a good education, passionate love for the chosen art, and uncritical veneration of his teacher. The teaching style is the same as that used for teaching painting and flower arranging. The teacher does not harass, and the pupil does not overtax himself.” The pupil grows daily through following the inspiration that comes to him by meticulous observation.

As a foreigner, Herrigel could not bear not to ask the Master the meaning of each process of learning. Each time the Master only said to him, “Continue to practice!” Several years passed, and Herrigel still could not grasp the essence of “Great Doctrine.” He almost abandoned archery practice. One day, when Herrigel was almost at the point of leaving, the Master said, “Come to see me this evening.” That night Herrigel seated himself on a cushion opposite the Master. The Master handed him tea, but did not speak a word. They sat for a long while. There was no sound but the singing of the kettle on the hot coals. At last, Master made Herrigel to follow him. The practice hall was very dark. The Master’s first arrow shot out of dazzling brightness into deep night. Herrigel knew it had hit the target because of its sound. The second arrow was a hit, too. When Herrigel switched on the light, he discovered to his amazement that the first arrow was lodged full in the middle of the black, while the second arrow had splintered the butt of the first and plowed through the shaft before embedding itself beside it.

The Master said to Herrigel, “..the second arrow which hit the first…. I at any rate know that it is not 'I' who must be given credit for this shot. 'It' made the hit...” Herrigel thought that the Master had evidently hit him, too, with both arrows. Herrigel no longer succumbed to the temptation of worrying about his arrows and what happened to them.

From that night, Herrigel progressed toward realization of the “Great Doctrine.” Finally, one day, the Master granted him full proficiency in the art of archery. “Now at last,” the Master broke in, “the bowstring has cut right through you.” Later Herrigel became a full master of the art of archery. After returning to Germany, he wrote Zen in the Art of Archery, one of the classic works on Eastern philosophy.

“The archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bulls-eye which confronts him. This state of unconsciousness is realized only when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill, though there is in it something of a quite different order which cannot be attained by any progressive study of the art.” (Zen in the Art of Archery, Introduction.)

Kyudo Equipment

The yumi (Japanese bow) is exceptionally tall (standing over two meters), surpassing the height of the archer (kyudoka). Yumi are traditionally made of bamboo, wood, and leather using techniques which have not changed for centuries, although some archers (particularly, those new to the art) may use synthetic (i.e. laminated wood coated with fiberglass or carbon fiber) yumi. Even advanced kyudoka may own non-bamboo yumi and ya due to the vulnerability of bamboo equipment to extreme climates.

Ya (arrow) shafts were traditionally made of bamboo, with either eagle or hawk feathers. Most ya shafts today are still made of bamboo (although some archers will use shafts made of aluminum or carbon fibers), and ya feathers are now obtained from non-endangered birds such as turkeys or swans. Every ya has a gender (male ya are called haya; female ya, otoya); being made from feathers from alternate sides of the bird, the haya spins clockwise upon release while the otoya spins counter-clockwise. Kyudo archers usually shoot two ya per round, with the haya being shot first.

The kyudo archer wears a glove on the right hand called a yugake. The yugake is typically made of deerskin with a hardened thumb containing a groove at the base used to pull the string (tsuru).

The kyudo archer will typically begin a practice session by shooting at a straw target (makiwara) at very close range (about seven feet, or the length of the archer's strung yumi when held horizontally from the centerline of his body). Because the target is so close and the shot most certainly will hit, the archer can concentrate on refining his technique rather than on worrying about where the arrow will go. After warming up, the archer may then move on to longer distances; shooting at a target called a mato. Mato sizes and shooting distances vary, but most matos typically measure 36 centimeters (or 12 sun, a traditional Japanese measurement equivalent to approximately 3.03cm) in diameter and are shot at from a distance of 28 meters.

Kyudo Technique

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 archers (who never draw the bow 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.

Immediately after the shot is released, the bow will (for a practised archer) spin in the hand so that the string stops in front of the archer's outer forearm. This action of "yugaeri" is a combination of technique and the natural working of the bow. It 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). The hassetsu consists of the following steps:

  1. Ashibumi, placing the footing. The archer steps on to the line from where arrows are fired (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 approximately half his body height. A line drawn between the archer's toes should pass through the target after the completion of the ashibumi.
  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.
  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 his head to gaze at the target.
  4. Uchiokoshi, raising the bow. The archer raises the bow above his 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 his left hand and drawing the string with the right, until the arrow is level with his eyebrows.
  6. Kai, the full draw. The archer continues the movement started in the previous phase, until he reaches full draw with the arrow placed slightly below his cheekbone. The arrow points along the line set up during ashibumi.
  7. Hanare, the release. The bowstring is 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.

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.

Kyudo Rankings

Using a system which is common to modern budo (martial art) practices, most Kyudo schools periodically hold examinations, which, if the archer passes, result in the conveying of a grade, which can be "kyu" or "dan" level. Traditional schools, however, often rank students by recognizing the attainment of instructor status using the older menkyo (license) system of "koryu budo" ("ancient syle martial arts").

While kyudo's kyu and dan levels are similar to those of other budo practices, colored belts or similar external symbols of one's level are not worn by kyudo practitioners.

Major Traditions

  • Chozen-ji
  • Heki Ryu Chikurin-ha
  • Heki Ryu Insai-ha
  • Heki Ryu Sekka-ha
  • Honda Ryu
  • Ogasawara Ryu

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Herrigel, Eugen, and R.F.C. Hull (trans.). Zen in the Art of Archery. Vintage Spiritual Classics, 1955.
  • Hoff, Feliks. Kyudo: The Way of the Bow. Shambhala Publications, 2002.
  • Kushner, Kenneth. One Arrow, One Life: Zen, Archery, Enlightenment. Tuttle Publishing; New Ed edition, 2000.
  • Onuma, Hideharu. Kyudo: The Essence and Practice of Japanese Archery (Bushido—The Way of the Warrior). Kodansha International (JPN); 1st ed edition, 1993.

External Links

All links retrieved October 5, 2022.


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