History of Kyudo

The Kyudo | What is Kyudo | History of Kyudo | Kyudo Description | Development of Kyudo | Techniques and Equipment | Kyudo Way Of The Bow | Yumi Care Guide | The Essence and Practice of Japanese Archery | The Evil Destroying Yumi | The Spirit of Kyudo

The history of kyudo remains rather obscure in the West with a very few sources. Onuma (1993) presented one of the first histories, albeit somewhat abbreviated. Hurst (1998) has one of the first (if not the first) comprehensive histories in English, but it is highly biased by his overly simplified thesis that these activities must evolve from bujutsu (martial science) to budo (martial way) to martial sport.

The long bow is present with the legendary first emperor of Japan, Jimmu, (c. 660 B.C.). In reality, this is about a millennium too soon for the historical evidence for the rise of a Japanese state.

In the first half-millennium of this state (4th through the 9th century), the Chinese culture, including ceremonial archery, was actively imported into Japan, and formed the basis of Japanese culture. However, the Chinese ceremonial bow is a small, symmetric recurved bow.

By the Heian period (794-1185), the long bow as a combat weapon, especially as used by upper-class warriors on horseback, was firmly established – long before the katana (the so-called “samurai sword,” which is technically a saber) became the “soul of the samurai,” the weapon associated with the ruling warrior class was the yumi.

During the Kamakura period (1185-1333), archery equipment experienced several technological advances in materials, which included lacquered, laminated bamboo bows, shooting gloves, reliable bowstrings and heavier arrows to support a variety of iron arrowheads.

The long bow remained popular as both a ceremonial instrument and a battlefield weapon, and this trend continued into the Muromachi period (1336-1573). During this time, the Ogasawara, Takeda, and Ise families came to prominence as the premiere ceremonial archers, and they recorded the practices of their arts in several treatises.

During the Sengoku Jidai (1477-1603), a period of continuous civil war with various daimyo (war lords) jockeying for position as shogun (chief war lord), saw the end of kyujutsu due to the introduction of firearms into warfare by Oda Nobunaga in 1575 in the battle of Nagashino (immortalized in the 1980 film “Kagemusha” [Shadow Warrior] by the late Akira Kurosawa, and marked the demise of the Takeda family as a political power and the loss of their influence in archery), which led directly to the genesis of kyudo as a way to preserve the practice while developing character. As such kyudo is an amalgam of kyujutsu and ceremonial archery.

During this time, kyujutsu briefly came into its own due to the genius of Heki Danjo Masatsugu (1443-1502). When he was almost forty years old, he realized a new and devastating method of combat archery (prior to this, there was very little formalized teaching), which eventually became the Heki Ryu; all combat-based styles can be traced to Heki Ryu Kyujutsu.

All of the daimyo of the latter part of the Sengoku Jidai, including Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, were schooled in the Heki Ryu. The effective use of Heki Ryu Kyujutsu lasted less than a century. A number of styles were derived from Heki Ryu and a number of branches continued on including the Chikurin-ha, Insai-ha (Hoff, 2002) and Sekka-ha (Onuma, 1993, and DeProspero & DeProspero, 1996). Much of this early history is somewhat suspect in part, being derived from documents whose purpose was to present a long and exalted lineage rather than being historically accurate.

Heki Danjo was directly succeeded by Yoshida Izuma no kami Shigekata (1463-1543). The branches of the Heki Ryu are traced to offshoots from the Yoshida family. Shigekata taught his son and heir Sukezaemon Shigemasa (?-1569) who, in turn taught his first son and heir, Sukezaemon Shigetaka (1509-1585), forming the main line of succession for the Izumo-ha, which is derived from the title of the founder, “Izuma no kami.”

Shigemasa’s fourth son, Shigekatsu (1514-1590), is better known by his nom-de-plume, Sekka (“snow bearing”). He also studied Ogasawara Ryu under Ogasawara Hidekiyo. He passed the Sekka-ha on to his son and heir, Rokuzo Motohisa.

Katsuramaki Gempachiro (1562-1638), later known as Yoshida Issuiken Insai, married the daughter of Shigetaka’s son and heir, Shigetsuna, whom he initially studied with. He later studied with Shigetaka’s third son, Masashige (who also established a branch to be carried on by his first two sons, and whose third son established another branch), before establishing his own branch, the Insai-ha. Insai served both the ill-fated regent Toyotomi Hidetsugu and the first Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and taught archery to the second and third Tokugawa Shoguns.

Ishido Chikurin (?-1605) was a Shingon Buddhist priest at the Yoshida family temple. He studied Izuma-ha with Shigemasa as well as the main line Heki Ryu with Yuge Yarokuro. Having left the priesthood and married, his son and heir continued the Chikurin-ha in what is now present-day Nagoya.

The founding of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868) brought profound changes to the samurai and their practices. The practice of kyujutsu was the first to change; it became Kyudo, “the way of the bow,” and it was unique in that it was available to men and women. Modern historians have placed unnecessary weight on the toshiya competitions at Sanjusangendo, a hall in the Rengeoin Jingu in Kyoto. The hall is 396 ft (120.7 m) long but only has a 16 ft (4.9 m) clearance in height; there were endurance events of twelve and twenty-four hours as well as limited events using one hundred and one thousand ya. Shooting for toshiya requires different technique (seated, rapid-fire shooting) and equipment (shorter and more powerful yumi, stronger ya and four-fingered kake) than used for kyudo, and only a very small fraction of kyudo-ka, trained for these contests. Wasa Daihachiro, who trained in the Chikurin-ha, holds the record at Sanjusangendo, having made 8,133 hits (out of 13,053 or 62.3%) in the twenty-four hour, full-hall distance shooting event in 1686 (that is an incredible average rate of one arrow every 6.6 seconds sustained over a 24-hour period!).

During the Meiji period (1868-1912), kyudo, like so many of the other kobudo that came into being during the Tokugawa era, declined precipitously as Japan leaped from an nearly isolated feudal state to modern world power on the global stage, and Western ways were adopted while the old cultural ways were discarded as antiquated. The Dai Nippon Butoku Kai (Greater Japan Martial Virtues Association), founded in 1895, resurrected many budo practices through standardization and by lobbying the newly formed Ministry of Education. Arts like judo, kendo, naginata-do (“the way of reaping sword”), and kyudo became part of the physical education programs in the Japanese schools; later karate-do was added. In the 1930’s, many budo practices, with kyudo being an exception, became part of the quasi-military training given to youth of the Imperial Japanese Empire, which continued throughout World War II.

During the occupation (1945-1952) that followed Japan’s defeat in World War II, General Douglas MacArthur banned the practice of all budo, which was viewed as a tool of the vanquished Japanese militarists. Kyudo was one of the first to emerge from that ban in 1949. Under American influence, many Budo, such as kendo, judo and karate, emerged with a strong sports-like component; this also included kyudo. The ANKF emerged as the governing body for standardized kyudo; however, several ryuha, including the Chikurin-ha, remained independent of this unification effort. Ceremonial styles such as the Ogasawara Ryu, and synthetic styles like the Honda Ryu (a Chikurin-ha and Ogasawara Ryu amalgam developed at the end of the 19th century as part of Honda Toshizane’s effort to keep kyudo viable during its decline in the Meiji era) continued on as well.