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Martial Arts: Japanese Archery

Kyudo: Way Of The Bow - Part 1

By Raymond A. Sosnowski, MS, MS, MA

Editor’s Note: This is a two part article on Japanese archery, or way of the bow, one of the oldest of Japan’s traditional martial arts. Kyudo is distinguished by the fact that it is not practiced as sport, or as a modern self-defense system that embodies a classical military tradition, but as a form of spiritual practice associated with Zen. This article series will provide the reader with an overview of this spiritual art. Part 1 of this series includes the Definition of the art, Principles & Concepts, Techniques & Training, Methods, Etiquette & Customs and Practice Clothing/Uniforms. Part 2 covers the related topics of Equipment, Equipment Care, Styles, Ranking, Training Facilities, History, and a Bibliography. A glossary of terms will appear separately.

(Courtesy Don Warrener)

Kyudo is written with the two kanji characters for “yumi” (bow) and “michi” (way/path), but it is pronounced “kyudo” when written together (it’s a quirk of the Japanese language), and, therefore, it quite literally means the “way of the bow.” Kyudo is derived from the Japanese military practice of kyujutsu (“art/science of the bow,” that is, combat-style archery), and it is a “moving meditation” like the Japanese cultural arts of shodo (“way of the brush”) and chado (“way of tea”). It is a complementary practice to zazen (seated meditation) as Kyudo is a form of ritsuzen (standing meditation) [e.g., Herrigel (1953), and a critical review in Yamada (2001)].

Kyudo is derived from the Japanese military practice of kyujutsu, or combat-style archery depicted in this historic woodblock print of a samurai using his bow while seated on a swimming hose. (Courtesy of Christopher Caile)

Next to iaido (the way of Japanese sword drawing), kyudo as an art of self-defense has no real practical uses. One is not very likely to use it for self-defense like karate-do, aikido (“way of harmony”) or judo (the “gentle way”), nor even use it for hunting. And yet, it is probably one of the most aesthetically pleasing of all Japanese budo (martial ways), and it is one of the most spiritual (Sosnowski, 2000); in this sense as well as visually, Kyudo could be considered to be the Japanese analogue to the Chinese art of T’ai Chi Ch’uan.

Principles & Concepts

(Courtesy Dan and Jackie DeProspero) (1)

A very basic principle in kyudo is “spirit, bow and body as one,” analogous to “ki ken tai ichi” (“spirit, sword and body as one”) in iaido and kendo (Japanese fencing). Instead of the uncoupled actions of separate elements, all elements must act together as one in a coordinated system in order to practice correctly. The ancient Chinese used ceremonial archery to determine the quality of a man’s character (Selby, 2000), and this idea was eventually incorporated into Japanese-style archery. The state of mind is reflected in the attitude, form and the shot itself.

Initially “hitting the target” is relatively unimportant. For those who practice kyudo solely as a meditation, this is always true at face value; otherwise, it is like a koan (an illogical problem in Zen). For all kyudo-ka (kyudo practitioners), it is a lesson in letting go of the idea of “hitting the target;” when the baggage of desire [“I WANT to hit the target”] is abandoned, then through right form, the target can be hit consistently with ease. After all, if the target really were unimportant, then there would be no purpose in having a target at all. The actual emphasis on “hitting the target” is specific to the individual ryuha (styles/schools and their branches), and also depends on the individual kyudo-ka’s developmental stage within the specific ryuha.

Many aspects for good budo practices are also present in kyudo including metsuke (gaze), kokyo (breath), ikiai (harmony of breath), kamae (posture) and hara (“belly” synonymous with centering and groundedness). The aspect of “ma” (distance/timing) is also present; for kyudo, ma is timing (considering that distance to the target is fixed), governing the execution of proper movement. Finally, there are the various balances: tenchi (heaven [and] earth) is the vertical balance along with the complementary characteristics of upper and lower (supple and firm, respectively), and migi-hidare (right-left) is the horizontal balance in line with the mato (target). The vertical balance takes into account gravity in the same way for a tree: the lower part, the roots and trunk, are stable and provide the base; the upper part, the branches, are flexible while maintaining their form and function. Both types of balance, horizontal and vertical, have both static and dynamic manifestations.


A historic woodblock print showing a student practicing before his teacher. (Courtesy Christopher Caile)

In kyudo, as in many other budo, there are three basic types of training: regular, individual (case-by-case), and gasshuku (intensive/seminar). “Regular training” sessions, usually meet once or perhaps twice a week at the same time and place; this is sometimes referred to as “formal” training, and includes instruction and practice (some schools will include a zen session as well). For those who practice outside of regular training, there is “individual training,” and practicing alone fits into this category; small groups may get together occasionally, and an instructor may or may not be present – this is also referred to as“informal” training. Finally, there is the “gasshuku,” a gathering of members from different kyudojo (dojo or “practice place” for kyudo), for concentrated practice and instruction; these events can be from one to ten days long. For groups affiliated with the All Nippon Kyudo Federation (ANKF), this is also a time for the taikai (tournaments) and shinsa (promotion examinations).

Techniques & Training Methods

The kihon (basic techniques) are practiced in a kind of kihon-no-kata (basic form); the ANKF refers to this kata as “hassetsu” (the eight stages of shooting), whereas some lineages of Heki Ryu [refer to STYLES below] retain the older term “shichido” (seven ways or coordinations). These waza (techniques), in order of execution, are:

1. ashi-bumi - stepping out to position the feet and establish a stable base.

2. do-zukuri - repositioning the body and the yumi, and then nocking the ya (arrow).

3. yumi-gamae – engaging the tsuru (bowstring) with the kake (shooting glove).

4. uchi-okoshi - raising the yumi.

5. hiki-wake in hassetsu; hiki-tori in shichido - drawing the yumi.

6. kai (literally “meeting”) – pause at full draw.

7. hanare - release.

8. zanshin - lingering mind and body.

Kanjuro Shibata (c. 1990) in Kai at the Ryuko Kyudojo in Boulder, CO. (Courtesy Zenko International)

In shichido, the final two waza are counted together (zanshin is considered a continuation of hanare) rather than separately. In essence, hassetsu and shichido refer to the same set of kihon.

Although beginners can be trained individually, it is common to have group training for beginners. Beginners concentrate on the kihon (basics). Initially the beginner is without a kake (also referred to as a yugake), just a yumi and ya, getting the feel of them. The ya is dropped off before the drawing step; you go through the motion of drawing without drawing, and through the motion of release without an actual release [one should NEVER draw and release a real yumi without a ya - the yumi could be damaged]. Surgical tubing attached to a wooden handle (affectionately referred to as “baby yumi” in some circles) is used to simulate the stresses of drawing and releasing on the hands; the wooden handle is held in the left hand, and the right hand pulls the tubing back in a drawing motion. Then one puts on the kake and runs through the basic sequence again, this time integrating the feel of using the kake into the kihon. When the instructor determines that the beginner has got the kihon down well enough, then a full draw and release are allowed at the makiwara (short-distance target); this practice of short-distance shooting is explained below.

Group instruction can be used for experienced students, but only to instruct the overall form of the kata. Individual mentoring of experienced students is required; corrections and fine-tuning are highly individualized for the most part. Another aspect is visual learning or “stealing with the eyes,” which is Japanese custom; Westerners tend to be overly verbal, and, as such, are prone to asking too many questions and demanding answers that they are usually not ready to hear. Given the nature of kyudo, visual learning is not very difficult after a little practice.

To train for form, especially in confined spaces, there is short-distance shooting at the makiwara; traditionally round straw butts are used in Japan, while hay or straw bales (sometimes wrapped in a sheet) are common in the West (other materials such as styrofoam and rolls of corrugated cardboard have been used as satisfactory substitutes). The makiwara is on a stand at head height for standing shots. The kyudo-ka stands one yumi-length away relative to the centerline of the body. The kihon-no-kata, and any forms with a standing shooting position are practiced at the makiwara; kneeling forms can be practiced at a makiwara on an appropriately low stand.

Shooting is general done in a group setting, although the timing of the sequence is individual. For even-numbered groups, there are also various types of group shooting, including synchronized (all together), sequential (singly or in synchronized pairs), and alternating synchronized (people in odd-numbered positions are synchronized, as are the people in the even-numbered positions; the two subgroups shoot sequentially); the lead person in the first position sets the pace for the entire group. Group shooting helps to bring one’s skill level up.

Etiquette & Customs

A pair of female Kyudo-ka, doing alternate shooting in Hitote from the shooting platform at Seiko Kyudojo, Karme-Choling, Barnet, VT, in June 2000. The standing Kyudo-ka is in Kai. (Courtesy of the author)

The one word most often identified with kyudo is “dignified” - every aspect is done with dignity. Another closely associated term is “courtesy.” So it is not too surprising that the two types of rei (bows), tachi-rei (standing bow) and za-rei (seated bow), are part of the initial lessons in kyudo. Similarly, there is special consideration given to the instruction of ashi-sabaki (foot work) in order to maintain dignified movement.

For practical reasons, there is a set of customs for shooting while wearing a kimono because the left sleeve will get in the way of shooting if not taken care of. The method for handling this problem is gender-specific. Men perform hadanaugi-dosa, removing the left arm from the sleeve in order to shoot with a bare left arm and shoulder; when finished, men perform hadaire-dosa, replacing the left arm into the sleeve. Women, on the other hand, perform tasuki-sabaki (cord motion); the kimono sleeves are tied up with a cord or sash (O’Brian and Hartman, 1998).

Apart from the kihon, there is an additional set of kata that is practiced; these are the koryu (classical style) forms. The ANKF has created a series of “standardized” forms based on koryu kata, referring to them collectively as “ceremonial shooting” (O’Brien, 1994). We can classify the koryu kata as standard, formal and special.

Kanjuro Shibata in his 20s in his Kyudojo
in Kyoto; the posture is Sumashi
(addressing the target) in the form
called Hitote.
(Courtesy Zenko International)

There are three types of “standard forms” based on kneeling or standing during the preparation work (getting to the point of having the ya nocked) and on kneeling or standing during the actual shooting (aligning the body, and then raising, drawing and releasing): (1) standing during both the preparation and shooting, (2) kneeling during the preparation and standing during shooting, and (3) kneeling during both the preparation and shooting. The details vary among the various groups. “Formal shooting,” usually referred to as reisha or sharei, is a variation of the type-2 standard form, and has either one or two kaizoe (attendants); again details vary among the various groups. Finally, there are the “special forms,” which vary considerably among the different groups in terms of number and use. For example, some ryuha have one or more funeral forms, which are performed after the death of a headmaster, senior instructor, an influential kyudo-ka (for example, see Sosnowski, 1999a), or a close family member. Heki Ryu Chikurin-ha Kyudo also retains several special forms from its kyujutsu origins, including a kneeling form referred to as “castle shooting” in which the archer shoots up in a near vertical trajectory, which comes from a medieval Japanese siege technique of lobbing arrows over a castle wall, in order to land in a designated circular area on the ground.

Practice Clothing/Uniforms

The author, almost in Kai, at the DC Sakura Matsuri (Cherry Blossom Festival) Kyudo demonstration by Miyako Kyudojo of Silver Spring, MD, on 30 March 2002. This was part of a three-person sequential-shooting ceremonial form called San-nin Reisha. (Courtesy Ramona Matthews)

The level of practice/training determines what is worn. For informal practice and beginner training, regular street clothes, provided that they are clean and comfortable, but neither too loose nor too tight, are worn. For regular practice, one generally wears a keiko-gi (a white, short-sleeved top), an obi (a wide, thin belt, more like an iaido belt rather than a karate belt, which is narrow and thick), a dark blue or black hakama (wide-legged pleated trousers; women traditionally wear a skirt that is an undivided hakama), and white tabi (split-toed socks). Some groups specify that after a certain rank, senior practitioners wear a kimono instead of a keiko-gi; other groups specify wearing kimono (or equivalent) only for embu (formal demonstrations).

(Courtesy Kodansha International) (2)

For embu, kimono are worn, although men may instead wear montsuki (modified black “kimono,” which extend down only to the mid-thigh level, with the mon or family crest on the front and back of the sleeves and the backs). The hakama can be a solid (but not loud) color; men generally wear formal hakama with a two- or three-tone stripe pattern. Recall that while shooting, women will have their kimono sleeves tied up (tasuki-sabaki), and men will bare their left arm by slipping it out of the sleeve (hadanaugi-dosa).

The most expensive purchase is the yumi, which is a recurved, asymmetric long bow of laminated construction. A yumi is “recurved” because, when unstrung, its shape is the reverse of that when strung. It is “asymmetric” because the nigiri (grip) separates the lower third from the upper two-thirds (see Koppedrayer, 1995), and there is also a slight right-left asymmetry as well. It is a “long bow” because its length exceeds the height of the archer. A traditional yumi has a laminated cross section - the facings are madake (Japanese timber bamboo) while the core and side strips along with the sekiita (end-plates onto which the end loops of the tsuru are attached) are hardwood; functional yumi “replica” are made of synthetic materials like fiberglass and carbon-fiber.

In modern Kyudo three types of bows (yumi) are used: the standard bamboo yumi, lacquered bamboo yumi, and synthetic yumi (fiberglass or carbon) that are most often used by Kyudo schools or clubs because of their durability. Generally, however, most traditional practitioners prefer the non-synthetic yumi which is esthetically parallels the essence of the practice. (Courtesy Kodansha International) (3)

The size and draw strength of the yumi are fit to the individual. The standard length of a yumi is 221 cm (87 in) based on the average Japanese height of 150-165 cm (59-65 in). To accommodate taller practitioners, there are four additional lengths (6 cm [2.4 in] increments in length for each additional 15 cm [5.9 in] in height). The draw strength varies by gender, age, and experience. For beginners, an adult female typically has an 8 to 14 Kg (17.6 to 30.8 lb) draw strength, while a male is between 10 and 15 Kg (22 and 33 lb). Within a year, with regular practice, practitioners will need a stronger yumi - it is a good idea to use class yumi for the first year for this reason. Females will average between 14 and 16 Kg (30.8 and 35.2 lb), and males between 18 and 20 Kg (39.6 and 44 lb). Depending on the individual, several changes in strength may be needed over the course of many years. Yumi are typically made up to about 30 Kg (66 lb); it is the rare individual who needs one stronger. As one ages, there comes a time when the yumi becomes too strong and one cuts back on the draw strength. The draw strength should be sufficient to be on the edge of a challenge (the “Goldilocks” principle - not too much and not too little, but just right).

The size and draw strength of the yumi are fit to the individual. The standard length of a yumi is 221 cm (87 in) based on the average Japanese height of 150-165 cm (59-65 in). To accommodate taller practitioners, there are four additional lengths (6 cm [2.4 in] increments in length for each additional 15 cm [5.9 in] in height). The draw strength varies by gender, age, and experience. For beginners, an adult female typically has an 8 to 14 Kg (17.6 to 30.8 lb) draw strength, while a male is between 10 and 15 Kg (22 and 33 lb). Within a year, with regular practice, practitioners will need a stronger yumi - it is a good idea to use class yumi for the first year for this reason. Females will average between 14 and 16 Kg (30.8 and 35.2 lb), and males between 18 and 20 Kg (39.6 and 44 lb). Depending on the individual, several changes in strength may be needed over the course of many years. Yumi are typically made up to about 30 Kg (66 lb); it is the rare individual who needs one stronger. As one ages, there comes a time when the yumi becomes too strong and one cuts back on the draw strength. The draw strength should be sufficient to be on the edge of a challenge (the “Goldilocks” principle - not too much and not too little, but just right).

Along with the yumi, there is the tsuru (bowstring). Just as yumi are made in prescribed lengths, there are associated length tsuru. Traditionally, tsuru are made of hemp; these days there are also Kevlar and hemp-Kevlar tsuru. Hemp tsuru are generally used by experienced kyudo-ka; they require a lot of preparation work, and are not very durable. The hemp-Kevlar tsuru is a welcome compromise between traditional material, and ease of handling along with good durability. One unavoidable fact is that tsuru break, generally while shooting - the yumi should be closely inspected after this to be sure that there is no damage, and generally there is none; one should always carry at least one spare tsuru for this reason.

There are several ways to protect yumi in transit. Simplest is a slipcover, a very long narrow cloth bag that the yumi fits into. There is also a wrapper, a length of cloth in a strip, usually with a design, print, or even calligraphy on it, having a pocket at one end that is placed over the upper sekiita; this strip is lag-wrapped around the yumi and secured at the lower end by tying it with the attached himo. In order to keep yumi dry in inclement weather, there is a rain cover - a plastic slipcover that will hold several yumi. For airline, bus or train travel, there are no carriers that I know of. Many people use very thin plywood strips to cover the faces of the yumi, add a layer of bubble wrap, and secure it with duct tape. Although it is possible to use PVC pipe or PVC fishing rod carriers, the rise height of unstrung yumi are usually too high for the available carriers, and require the use of wide diameter pipes that are unwieldy to handle. One should not try to force a yumi into a container that is not wide enough to handle it; it is not good for the yumi to be forced out of shape because shape is everything for the yumi to operate properly.

Yumi, being made of organic material under stress, have a finite lifetime. Every yumi has a life cycle, which can be seen in the rise height, the distance between the grip and a line between the two sekiita on an unstrung yumi; this can be readily seen by placing the unstrung yumi on the floor, and then rotating the yumi so that it is perpendicular to the floor with the sekiita still on the floor. New yumi have a rather high rise height of two to three fists. To tame a new yumi, it is generally left strung between four and twelve weeks as necessary to bring the rise height down a bit. In a mature yumi, the rise height is between one and two fists; it is only strung when in use, although for programs of three to ten days they can usually remain strung for the duration if it is used every day. An old yumi becomes “tired” through the loss of elasticity, and has a rise height of no more than one fist. An old yumi should be used seldom, and eventually it should be retired from use. Yumi can also break – excessive dryness is the usual cause; sometimes they can be repaired and other times they cannot.


At right in the background is a makiwara (target) using a hay bale: Kyudo demonstration at 2000 Cherry Blossom Festival in Brooklyn, NY. (Courtesy Christopher Caile)

A wooden barrel stuffed with straw is used as a makiwara as seen in this historic woodblock print from the 1870s. (Courtesy of Christopher Caile)

For short distance shooting at one bow-length away, a makiwara is used as a target. Traditionally, it is a drum of straw on a stand. It is common here to use straw or hay bales wrapped in a white sheet to make handling and transport a little neater. Generally, a kyudojo will have several on stands or holders set at varying heights to accommodate the various statures of different practitioners. It is not uncommon for individuals to set one up at home, either indoors or outdoors as space permits, for their own practice.

For distance shooting, a number of mato are set up; some groups use an odd number (resulting in more than one person per mato) while other groups use one per archer. For standard 28 m (91.9 ft) courses, a 36 cm (14.2 in) diameter mato is used. The mato is a cylindrical wood frame with a paper face, which is the target face; hoshi-mato have a single black center spot, while kasumi-mato have three concentric black rings about a white center (the outer ring goes to the rim of the target). Use varies by school - one for regular practice and the other for special occasions. A few individuals who have the space can set up outdoor, distance shooting ranges. Many special programs set up temporary shooting areas with a backstop of hay/straw bales [if possible and available, an arrow net is set up just behind the target(s)]; otherwise, one is shooting at a regular kyudojo (see TRAINING FACILITIES below).


(1) From their website:

(2) & (3) Illustrations from the book, “Kyudo – The Essence and Practice of Japanese Archery” by Hideharu Onuma with Dan and Jackie Deprospero.

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Kyudo: The Essence and Practice of Japanese Archery is available from the FightingArts Estore:

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About The Author:

Raymond Sosnowski began his martial arts training in 1973 at the Stevens [Tech] Karate Club in "Korean Karate," which was then a euphemism for Tae Kwon Do; he trained for over sixteen years in the ITF (International Taekwondo Federation) style, teaching for the majority of that time. He has practiced Kuang P'ing Yang style T'ai-Chi Ch'uan for twelve years beginning in 1987, and taught for several years, giving several local seminars. His first weapons were the T'ai-Chi [straight] sword and the Chinese iron fan. He came to the Japanese martial arts in 1991, initially training in Aikido, first Shodokan (Tomiki-Ryu) and then Aikikai style, and Aikido weapons (aiki-ken and aiki-jo). Training in Japanese weapons began in 1996 with Iaido, Jodo, Kendo and Naginata; Kyudo was added in 1997. He is a yudansha (or equivalent) in all these arts, as well as an assistant instructor of Kyudo, and an instructor of Iaido and Naginata. The study of Nakamura Ryu (along with Toyama Ryu) Batto-do was added in 2003. He is also a student of Zen and the Shakuhachi ("Zen flute"). Sosnowski was a co-founder (1998) and the first Secretary of the East Coast Naginata Federation as well as the principal author of their by-laws. He was a co-director of the Guelph [Ontario] School of Japanese Sword Arts (GSJSA) in 1998, 1999 and 2000, and made presentations at the panel discussions during the GSJSA in 1999 and 2000. In addition, he was a contributing author of articles, book reviews and seminar reports to the now-defunct publications "The Iaido Newsletter" (TIN), and "Journal of Japanese Sword Arts" (JJSA), in addition to "Ryubi -- The Dragon's Tail (the newsletter of Kashima Shinryu/North America)." Current and revised writings appear in "The Iaido Journal" section of EJMAS (Electronic Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences) at <>. He is an occasional contributor to Iaido-L, e-Budo, the Kendo World forums and Sword Forum International. In his professional career, Mr. Sosnowski is an Engineering Fellow and Technical Director of Maryland Technical Center for Sonetech Corporation (with headquarters in Bedford, NH), specializing in artificial intelligence methodologies and computer-based numerical analyses, as well as being an expert in all phases of software development including government documentation. He holds three masters degrees, [Physical] Oceanography from the University of Connecticut (Storrs, CT), [Applied] Mathematics from Rivier College (Nashua, NH), and Cognitive and Neural Systems from Boston University, as well as a Bachelors in Physics from the Stevens Institute of Technology (Hoboken, NJ). He lives with his wife Valerie in rural Maryland between Washington, DC, and Baltimore, MD, described by a friend as "a little piece of southern New Hampshire in Maryland."

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Japanese archery, kyudo, yumi, kyujutsu, ritsuzen

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