Kyūdō is a type of Japanese martial art that stems from kyūjutsu, or the art of archery. Also called, “the way of the bow,” the Japanese practice as a meditative pursuit of goodness, beauty, and truth. It helps to clear the mind and improve focus, connecting these with discipline and precision.
The practice of Kyūdō encompasses things like games, court ceremonies, skill contests, and hunting. But, it has a spiritual overtone and provides a basis for one to build a deep connection with the self and the mind. It takes great skill to do and an archer must devote him/herself to the practice.
The History of Kyūdō
Estimates place Kyūdō’s origins around 330 BC to 250 BC. But there are no written records to verify this. However, there are some molded metal images displaying a Japanese-style bow from this time.
There’s also a 3rd-century document from China. It tells the story of how the Japanese used a bow that was long on the top and short on the bottom.
This looks just like the Jōmon bow used by hunters and warriors during Japan’s prehistory. This makes Kyūdō one of the oldest martial arts in Japan.
A Samurai Art
Most historians agree that Kyūdō’s popularity stems from the samurai warriors during Japan’s feudal period.
With the rise of shogun clans vying for military power around the end of the 11th century AD, the need for skilled archers became a desirable profession. By the 15th century, it was the archer who revolutionized military might and advantage.
In fact, the Japanese believed that the bow and arrow are synonymous with power, particularly political.
Even the great Emperor Jimmu wielded a bow as a means of establishing authority. It was well into the 16th century, though, that the bow’s use in battle ended.
While this is often a sport, it is also an ethical and personal exploration into marksmanship. When fully into the practice of Kyūdō, the archer lets go of the troubles and strife of the outside world.
Kyūdō borrows from Zen in the way the mind and focus are as equally important to archery as achieving technique.
The mind and thoughts must be calm and remain free from distraction. Once the archer can achieve the perfect balance, the shooting will follow with precision.
An Archer’s Ultimate Goal
Archers strive to achieve the best form, posture, and release that exudes a style and quality of strength and art combined in a platform of discipline. This means the technique must be perfect through each of the eight phases of taking a shot.
Doing this guarantees the arrow will hit its intended target every single time without fail.
Therefore, a Kyūdō archer competes with him/herself to examine, critique, and evaluate their own skill amid difficult situations. The Japanese believe this brings about the concept of Zen or pure enlightenment.
In Kyūdō, most archers call themselves yumihiki (弓引き), or “bow puller.” That is of course unless they are high-level experts, then they might have the moniker kyūdōka (弓道家).
There is a deliberate method used to teach people Kyūdō.To understand the precise movements in preparation of the shot, or taihai, a practitioner must first learn how to walk, kneel and turn. Once mastered, these steps repeat but with a bow and arrow in hand.
In order to shoot with proper grace, stability, and power, one’s stance is of the utmost importance. Feet spread at the same distance as the arrow’s length while the big toes of both feet align with the center of the target. The Japanese call this yakuza.
There should be a 60-degree angle with the feet as the center of gravity evenly distributes and maintains between the feet.
The feet, hips, and shoulders line up with each other but are parallel to the floor and in direct position of the target. This provides the grounding necessary for an accurate and precise release.
The Eight Stages
According to the precepts of Kyūdō, there are eight stages of archery. These are footing, correct posture, preparing the bow, positioning the bow, drawing the bow back, securing the draw, releasing, and lowering the bow.
- Footing: Called ashibumi, this is where the archer steps onto the line, or shai, and faces the kamiza, or target. They position themselves in such a way so the left side of the body faces it. This is where the archer sets up their stance.
- Correct Posture: The archer finishes “forming the body,” known as dozukuri. They verify their balance and check that the pelvis and distance between the shoulders is parallel to the line set up during Ashibumi. Ideally, this will prevent the archer from hitting their own face with the bowstring.
- Preparing the Bow: There are three phases to preparing the bow, or yugamae: gripping the string with the right hand (torikake), positioning the left hand on the bow’s grip (tenouchi) and an archer’s gaze at the target (monomi).
- Positioning the Bow: Known as uchiokoshi, or raising the bow, the archer places the bow at forehead level in preparation of drawing it back.
- Drawing the Bow: This is when the archer brings the bow down and simultaneously spreads their arms while pushing the bow with the left hand and subsequent pulling of the bowstring with the right. The Japanese word for this is hikiwake.
- Securing the Draw: At this point, the archer continues the previous phase, called the “full draw,” or kai. When they achieve the full draw, the arrow will be right below the cheekbone or level to the mouth.
- Releasing: Called, hanare, this is when the archer lets go of the arrow with the right hand as the right arm remains extended behind the archer.
- Continuation of the Shot: There are two aspects to this final stage, zanshin (or remaining body/mind) and yudaoshi (lowering the bow). This is more important than hanare, it’s when the archer holds their position and sends their spirit forth long after the arrow has hit its target.
Bows are yumi (弓) and stand quite tall, usually surpassing the height of the archer. The shaft of the bow comprises various elements that include materials like wood, bamboo, and leather.
The Japanese call their arrows ya (矢). The shaft, or yagara (簳), also comprises bamboo with hawk or eagle feathers, called hane (羽), and an arrowhead, known as yajiri (鏃).
Modern bows and arrows will comprise more eco-friendly materials such as aluminum or carbon fiber with feathers from swans and turkeys.
Archers keep these in a cylinder-shaped quiver they call an “arrow barrel,” or yazutsu (矢筒). However, traditional and ceremonial archers use a yebira (箙), which translates literally to “quiver of arrows.”
Archers also wear a glove on the right hand called a yugake (弽) to assist with more accurate shooting and there are many different types.