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Ultimate Guide to Japanese Archery

Guide to Japanese Archery

By Norie Matsumoto | December 20, 2021 

A special and unique form of Japanese martial arts that is not as well known as 空手・karate or 相撲・Sumo is Japanese archery, called 弓道・Kyūdō. This is different from what might come to mind when thinking of traditional archery. 弓道・Kyūdō is based on 弓術・kyūjutsu "art of archery". This sport is steeped in rich history and culture. This article will give you all the information you need on it such as the techniques, western differences, vocabulary, and how you can try it for yourself.

This article is a part of our extensive series of guides on living in Japan.

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    Japanese archery kyudo bow and arrow dojo japan

    What’s Japanese Archery?

    This sport has been declining in recent years due to the cost of equipment and, compared to traditional archery, Japanese archery needs a large area to practice in so as to give enough room for the arrows to fly. Yet, there are organizations and members of Kyudo working hard to keep this martial art alive and spread the knowledge of this unique sport. 

    History of the sport

    Kyudo means “the way of the bow.” Japan has a long history with bows and arrows. It is an ancient martial art that is unique with its own philosophy, traditions, methods, and tools. Though it already existed in other parts of Asia, it is estimated that it started around the Yayoi period in Japan. In art from the past, the hunting scenes were portrayed with longbows. 

    It is thought that Chinese influence created the Japanese archery we know today. Kyudo has been used both ceremonially and for combat for centuries. Even the Japanese Imperial court has practiced it. This form of archery is rooted in the Shinto religion which is one of the most practiced religions in Japan after Buddhism. It also implements Zen from Buddhism. However, you do not have to be of any specific religion to practice this form of meditation. 

    Samurai

    It originated mainly from the Samurai class of feudal Japan era, Kyudo was used during battles, and many schools to teach Japanese archery were developed. The combative way of Japanese archery comes from the warrior class, who were the only ones allowed to use weapons during that time. They were good with the bow during battles, wearing armor, and shooting on horseback. Kyudo has not changed much compared to other 武道・Budō ( modern Japanese martial arts), and has been well preserved throughout history, many of the practices have remained the same.

    Interested in traditional and historical Japanese elements? Our article Ultimate Guide to Shrines and Temples in Tokyo is a great place to get familiar with the Japanese past. 

    Japan japanese traditional culture nature kyoto

    How popular is Japanese archery in Japan?

    Nowadays, Japanese archery is a well-respected sport There are approximately 500,000 people who practice Japanese Archery and many of those are high school and university Japanese students who practice as part of 部活・Bukatsu (clubs or circles). However, it’s not just Japanese people who participate in this sport, though Kyudo is not as well known or practiced as western traditional archery, it is still practiced by thousands of people around the world. Typically, archers should be over 15 years of age due to the nature of the activity. 

    In 2005, the International Kyudo Federation, an organization promoting Japanese Archery had over 132,000 graded members. Of course, now the bow and arrow are used for sport and not as weapons. The purpose of modern Japanese archery is to enrich your life, train the body and the mind, and for some to practice spirituality.

    If you want to see more pictures and learn more about modern Japanese archery, What is Kyudo? 

    Japanese archery hakama kimono umbrella kyoto osaka culture

    The techniques of Japanese archery

    There are many different techniques used for Japanese archery that are unique to this country. 

    • All Kyudo archers draw the string with their right hand and hold the bow in their left.
    • When archers are in the position of 安土・Adzuchi (lower position) they face the 上座・ kamiza (higher position) when shooting.
    • Archers draw the bow all the way to behind their ear.
    • Posture is extremely important as it ensures steadiness, the archer must have a straight back and the head should not be lowered. 
    • Footing is key. 足踏み・Ashibumi is the placement of the footing. The feet should be put apart so the space between them is the same as their 矢束・Yatsuka (draw) which is about half his body height.
    • To create equal balance, the archer's feet are set apart at a 60-degree angle outwardly which forms a ‘V’ shape. 
    • The archer will put their feet to the line from where the arrows are shot and the left side of the archer's body will face the target by turning to face the Kamiza. 
    • When drawing the bow, the archer must have it lifted to the forehead and lowered to the mouth level.

    How Far Can A Kyudo Arrow Be Shot?

    The distance that a Japanese archery bow and arrow can shoot depends on how strongly the string is drawn and the type of arrow used, even the angle and weight of the bow can affect this. The average arrow can shoot anywhere between 150 to 200 meters which is 490 to 650 feet. However, it’s dependent on what kind of arrow you use, as well as your expertise with the bow itself as light arrows will only get close to 100 meters or 328 feet. On the other hand, the heavy type of arrows will shoot close to 200 meters or 656.2 feet.

    If you have more questions about the technical elements of Japanese archery, check out What is Kyudo? Everything you need to know

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    Spirituality of Japanese Archery

    Kyudo is a highly spiritual and mindful sport, the spirit of modern Japanese archery is said to be similar to the pursuit of 真・Shin (truth), 善・Zen (goodness), and 美・Bi (beauty). Meditation is a large part of this martial art form. 

    Truth・真・Shin

    This means to shoot right-minded and purely with no deception. A true shot is like “straight as an arrow” where it hits the middle of the target and the arrow is said to have existed in the target before it was shot. where the three elements of attitude, movement, and technique unite in a state of perfect harmony. It is thought that when shooting the arrows, you are seeking the truth, and every time you shoot you are getting closer to that truth. The sound made by the string, the bow, and the impact of the arrow on the target is considered the truth of the bow. 

    Goodness・善・Zen

    Goodness is the ethical feature of Japanese archery. This is about characteristics such as respect, empathy, ethics, and pacifism. In Japanese archery, goodness is displayed by showing genuine attitude and conduct in all circumstances. A model Japanese archer is someone who can keep their self-command and elegance even during instances of pressure or conflict. This entails that one must always remain composed and calm.

    Beauty・美・Bi 

    This can be seen as the visual and aesthetic aspect of Japanese archery but there is more to it. Kyudo is supposed to boost one’s life and invigorate the spirit. Beauty can be discovered in the gracefulness and art of the Japanese Kyudo bow and the style of the archer's garments. It can also mean the mannerisms and customs that are ingrained into Japanese archery etiquette. 

    Even the equipment is beautiful but what makes it more than just visually beautiful is the movement of it and the way it can produce zen and serene disposition. 

    To learn more about the spirituality of Japanese archery, see this article, Shin Zen Bi.

    target practice with bow and arrows field

    Western vs Japanese Archery differences

    Until now, most of you have probably only known about traditional western archery that you see most often in movies like Hunger Games or Robinhood. This form of archery is no doubt more well known and popular throughout the world than the Japanese archery form, even in Japan, the western form of archery is done in university or school clubs. The United States of America is the leading nation in archery. There are key differences in both that can be seen just from looking at the bow, however, there are many more aspects that are dissimilar and special in their own way.

    • Western archery is about hitting the target.
    • Japanese Kyudo is more focused on mindfulness and spirit while shooting.
    • Traditional Japanese archery maintains the ancient methods by utilizing only natural glue, feathers, and woods like bamboo for the bow and arrows. 
    • Western archery bows are symmetrical, while Japanese bows are asymmetrical and oversized.
    • Western archery often utilizes synthetic materials such as fiberglass and plastics with their equipment.
    • Japanese archery requires a specific uniform
    • Kyudo is more of a meditative Zen exercise
    • When drawing the bow, in Japanese archery one draws much farther than in western archery
    Japanese archery artwork dojo training hakama

    Equipment you need for Japanese Archery

    Bow 弓・Yumi

    Possibly the most important and distinct part of Kyudo. This is extremely tall and stands at a whopping two meters, or 6 feet 6 inches, usually towering the archer. The ideal height for the bow is dependant on the archer's 矢束・Yatsuka (draw) which is around half the archer's height and equal to the length of an arrow. The shaft of the bow has always been made of wood, leather, and bamboo. Yet, nowadays there are some who opt to forgo the bamboo in exchange for carbon fiber or other synthetic matter due to bamboo being weak to harsh climates. 

    Something called きり粉・giriko which is a kind of resin powder is put on the thumb and holding finger to aid with the grip during the draw. There is also powder called 筆子・fudeko which is created by burnt rice husks, this is added to the hand that holds the bow to soak up sweat, this allows the bow to smoothly rotate in the hand.

    Arrows 矢・Ya

    These arrows are customarily created with bamboo using feathers from turkeys. Eagles, swans, and hawks. The length of an arrow should be the archer's 矢束・yatsuka and 6 to 10 centimeters. 

    japan japanese nihon nippon nature spring

    Archer's glove  弽・Yugake 

    This is a glove that is worn on the right hand and there are many different types made. Generally, they are made from deerskin. The archer can pick between a hard glove that has a hardened thumb. The thumb part is not very flexible and comes with a pre-made indentation for pulling the string called 弦・Tsuru (bowstring), or a soft glove that doesn’t have a hardened thumb, the thumb part is flexible and does not have a pre-made indentation, which allows the archer to make their own, formed by their own shooting manner.

    These gloves are usually three or four finger types. The one-finger sort is a 一本がけ・Ippon-gake, which is used for novices and covers only the thumb, and three-finger sort is a 三つがけ・ mitsugake while the four-finger one is a 四つがけ・yotsugake. The reason one might pick a glove with more fingers is that it’s stronger due to the extra surface area accessible and can help with drawing heavier bows that are over 18 kilograms or 40 pounds. The three-finger glove is typically utilized with bows that have a draw weight under 20 kgs. There are other gloves that cover the whole hand as well. 

    Chest protector 胸当て・Muneate 

    Female archers wear this chest protector which is typically made of leather or plastic and is made to protect the breasts from being hit by the bowstring when shooting.

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    What should I wear for Japanese Archery?

    The attire is a very important feature of Kyudo as it is part of the practice. There are specific styles that archers must wear as a uniform. Typically 和服・Wafuku (Japanese style clothing/Kimono) or 弓道ぎ・Kyudogi (Clothing for practice) are worn in white. White 足袋靴下・Tabi kutsushita (Split toe socks) should be worn. Additionally, archers will wear a hakama that is usually a 襠高袴・Machidaka-hakama (trouser-type). There is also the 角帯・Kakuobi which acts as a belt and is usually black colored.

    Japanese archery target bullseye practice

    Japanese Archery Vocabulary You Need To Know

    Japanese

    Romaji

    English

    弓を引く 

    Yumiwohiku

    To draw a bow

    的に中る

    Matoniataru

    To hit the target

    姿勢

    Shisei

    Posture/stance

    射場 

    Shajō

    (Shooting) Range

    巻き藁

    Makiwara

    Strawbale (for arrow hits)

    射抜く

    Inuku

    Shoot through

    緩む

    Yurumu

    To loosen

    皆中

    Kaichū

    To hit all arrows on the target

    手の内

    Tenouchi

    Grip of the hand on the bow

    Tachi

    Group of archers shooting, typically five

    大前

    Ōmae

    The first archer to shoot in a group

    落ち

    Ochi

    The last archer to shoot in a group

    Looking for more phrases and words to pick up for Japanese archery? See the Kyudo Glossary.

    Japanese archery japan kyoto ryokan onsen

    Where can I try Japanese archery?

    It isn’t easy to find a chance to try Japanese archery as it is not as widely practiced as other martial arts but there are some opportunities that you can take advantage of. There are Kyudo dojos which are called 弓道場・Kyudojo a practice hall for Kyudo. There are two kinds, Kinteki-dojo which is close range, around 28 meters (91.9 feet), and Enteki-dojo, long-distance about 60 meters (196.9 feet). 

    The best way to try Japanese archery is to take lessons at a dojo. This way, you can just buy a whole package and have all the equipment and attire at hand with teachers to help you learn the sport. Some even offer the opportunity to have a free or discounted trial class. 

    Classes

    Kyudo Archery Experience in Tokyo - This is a one-time experience held at Kita City and perfect for international people as the 先生・Sensei explains thoroughly in English. The price starts from 12,430 yen and goes up depending on what day you reserve. This includes the instructor, facility usage fee, rental equipment, and uniform. The sessions are about 90 minutes long. 

    Yumiya-san - This is also a one-time experience at the Hankyū Dōjō in central Tokyo. They have three types of courses: 1 person beginner class (¥ 6,000), 2 people beginner class (¥ 12,000), and a beginner group class (¥ 15,000). They are all 45 minutes long and you do not need to wear the uniform. Reservations can be made on their website, which is unfortunately only in Japanese. Here, children can also try Japanese archery.

    Shiseikan - At Meiji Jingu, classes for adults wanting to learn Kyudo are available. This is good for those who want more than a one-time experience and actually want to master this martial art. The registration fee for adults is 6,000 yen and the monthly fee is 5,000 yen. You will train at Shiseikan and at the beginning and the end of each lesson pay respect to the 神・kami (god) which is an important part of this sport. 

    It’s good to know some Japanese to talk with your Sensei, our article might help, Useful Japanese Phrases.

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    A typical session of Japanese Archery

    If your wondering what your experience trying Japanese archery will be like, not all dojos follow the same protocol but the typical session of Japanese archery goes as follows:

    1. Arrive at the Dojo to meet with your Sensei and/or other members.
    2. Change into a traditional Japanese archery uniform.
    3. Pick out the right bow and arrows according to your height.
    4. Listen and watch a short explanation on the art of Japanese archery and learn the basic shooting form.
    5. Hear about the safety instructions.
    6. Start your practice session.
    7. The Sensei will rectify your form and stance while keeping an eye on your practice shooting a straw bale post. 
    8. Go to the actual shooting range, practice shooting targets, and get advice from the Sensei. 
    9. After your session, you’ll change back into your everyday clothes and return your uniform, folded. 
    10.  Clean the Dojo to show respect and manners. This is typical in Japanese martial arts. 

    There are a lot of customs in Japan to learn about, especially in martial arts, here’s our article on them Guide to Japanese Customs.

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    Where can I buy a bow and arrow?

    If you think you’re ready to get your hands on a bow and arrow for Japanese archery, it doesn’t come at a cheap price. Considering how large the bow itself is, it may be better to go in person to stores to measure against the equipment and get them custom-made if you're serious about the sport. However, there are some favorable online stores.

    Sambu Kyuguten - Other than the bow and arrows, they have all the necessary accessories to practice. They have an English website and can even take inquiries in English. They ship internationally as well. 

    Asahi Archery - They have a physical store in Minamiotsuka, Tokyo but also take online orders at affordable prices.

    Suizan - The store is located in Nagoya but has an online store with an English website with helpful size charts and guides to choosing your equipment. There is also an outlet section. 

    Japanese archery shrine temple osaka arrows

    Can I go watch Japanese Archery?

    If you’re more interested in watching a game of Kyudo over playing it yourself, going to your local dojo or gymnasium where they practice Japanese archery will be your best bet to view the sport but make sure to ask whoever is in charge if the public is allowed to watch. If you can’t find one, your next best bet to catch Japanese archery in the flesh is to go to tournaments and competitions. Many universities compete in Kyudo so look for your local university competitions.

    What is Japanese culture like? You can read about student testimonials in our article, Guide to Japanese Culture.

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    Is Japanese Archery physically challenging?

    It may be difficult at first but it is not such a physically exhausting sport compared to something like soccer or sumo. While carrying out the motions with the correct form can be demanding, Japanese archery can be done by almost all ages. However, it is not recommended for very young kids as the bow can still be a weapon and needs to be used with caution. Older people can do well as this sport does not require a lot of stamina or power unless using a heavy bow.

    Japanese archery temple shrine spiritual religion

    Conclusion

    Is this different from what you imagined Japanese archery to be? Hopefully, you will want to give it a try while you’re in Japan to experience an ancient martial arts form. It can be different and a unique sport to try and share with your friends! If you want to learn Japanese to communicate with your Sensei and friends better, go to Japan Switch for affordable in-person and online Japanese lessons. 

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