Kyudo, the Japanese art of archery | Sunday Observer

Kyudo, the Japanese art of archery

19 December, 2021

Kyudo, or the Way of the Bow, is the Japanese martial art of archery that puts more emphasis on art than martial. In Japan, Kyudo is a discipline and training in it is an exercise of the mind as well as the body. The sport has a rich history spanning centuries and has entrenched itself as part of Japanese tradition and culture. While originating solely within the borders of their island nation, Kyudo has since reached out to many parts of the world, becoming an international sport practiced by thousands of people globally.

While archery, the skill of using the bow to shoot arrows, dates back to prehistory and is pretty universal in all parts of the world, Japan’s unique kyujutsu, the precursor to Kyudo, can be traced as far back as its neolithic era, known as the Yayoi period. For a majority of its most developmental periods of history, Japan’s ruling system was governed by the military (Samurai), which increased the need for military education.

This gave rise to several schools of martial arts, including the first official Kyujutsu school, the Henmi Ryu in the 12th century. The Genpei Civil War, which directly led to the establishment of the first military dictator, the Shogun, also further expanded the need for archers and the development of yabusame, mounted archery.


Once the 15th century rolled around and the Portuguese first reached the shores of Japan, matchlock firearms were introduced, swiftly outclassing the bow and kyujutsu. While most were still skeptical at the cost of producing even one Japanese matchlock, or tanegashima, compared to the bow, the daimyo and future shogun Oda Nobunaga armed his forces with as many as he could and with it, unified all of Japan under his rule. Japan’s enthusiasm for guns that followed led to it being the world’s leading producer of firearms at the time.

Still, once the warring period passed, in the Edo Period, guns fell into relative disuse while archery became a popular ceremonial pastime. With the introduction of Buddhism and the rising spirituality of the period, Kyudo was developed and popularised among those even beyond the warrior class. Today, it is even taught as an extracurricular sport at high schools.

Kyudo differs most obviously in the equipment they use. Japanese bows, or yumi, are massive at a standard height of two metres tall, surpassing the height of the archer themselves. Yumi are also asymmetrical in shape with the grip, or Nigiri being placed at two-thirds its length from the top.

The traditional Yumi made of bamboo is relatively fragile and is prone to breaking even in the hands of an experienced Kyudoka, or Kyudo practitioner. So most modern Yumi are made of sturdier materials and lacquered to withstand most climates.

The arrows, or ya, are made into two types, both of which are shot in one demonstration of Kyudo. Haya, or the first arrow, spins clockwise and otoya, the second arrow spins counter clockwise. The alternate spin directions are to avoid collisions in mid air. The distinctive glove used by kyudoka to help draw the string, known as the yugake, alternates the number of fingers that are covered depending on the weight of the bow used.

Ultimately, however, the biggest difference between Kyudo and the general, more popular sport of archery is the purpose behind practicing it. While some schools do teach accuracy of the arrow hitting the target as the goal even in Kyudo, in most schools the ideology taught is “seisha seichū” or “correct shooting is correct hitting”.

Whereas most forms of archery allow for flexibility as long as the arrow hits its mark, every part of Kyudo is deliberate and of utmost importance. And while it may seem like it values form above accuracy, the true idea is that with perfect form, perfect accuracy will also follow.