Kyudo, Japanese Archery Tradition

Updated on April 25, 2017

Kyudo and Japanese Archery: A History

The practice of Japanese Archery, called Kyudo, can be traced back to 2 different origins: ceremonial archery connected to Shinto and combatant archery associated with warfare and hunting.

Kyudo is thought to have been the earliest martial art of Japan, as warrior classes and the nobility made use of it as a recreational hunting activity. Kyudo was also regarded as one of the main arts of a warrior, and the Japanese were so attached to it along with swordsmanship that the country rejected the use of firearms in the 17th century preferring traditional martial arts forms, such as Kyudo.

The Beginnings of Kyudo

The history of Japanese archery and kyudo is believed to date back to the mythical Emperor Jimmu, around 660 B.C., whose image is always depicted holding a long-bow. Chinese import court rituals involved archery, and skill in kyudo, that is, ceremonial archery was held a requirement of a fine gentleman.

The First Kyudo school

In the ancient history of Japan, techniques of a Taishi-ryu of archery were found around A.D. 600., and approx. 500 years later, Henmi Kiyomitsi established the very first kyudo school practicing and teaching the Henmi-ryû (Henmi style). His followers established the Takeda- and Ogasawara-style in later years.

Kyudo, a Noble Art Form

The Genpei War (1180–1185) demanded an increased number of warriors skilled in traditional archery, kyudo. In Japan the noblility viewed the bow as a traditional warrior’s weapon as opposed to Western Europe where it was not considered an aristocratic weapon at all.

Kyudo practitioners in an Archery Dojo
Kyudo practitioners in an Archery Dojo

Kyudo or Japanese Archery

The First Professional Kyudo Archers

With Minamoto no Yoritomo winning the title of shogun in the feudal period, the emphasis placed on the use of the bow and the art of kyudo itself remained in place, if not increased. The shogun needed an effective army to support his military ambitions, so he standardized the training of his warriors and had Ogasawara Nagakiyo, the founder of the Ogasawara-style, teach yabusame, that is, mounted archery to them.

A New, Devastating Kyudo Archery Technique

During the 15th and 16th centuries, civil wars raging in the whole of Japan contributed to the refinement of shooting techniques and the appearance of new branches of kyudo. One such was developed by Heki Danjo and proved to be a devastatingly accurate approach to archery. Heki Danjo named it hi, kan, chû (fly, pierce, center), and it was almost immediately adopted by the warrior classes.

The Decline of Traditional Japanese Archery

The Heki school devided into many styles of kyudo, most of which lasted to this day. The peak of the bow culture was the 16th century, the time before the Portuguese new-comers brought their firearms into Japan. The bow's decline began when in 1575, Oda Nobunaga used firearms for the first time to claim a victory of paramount importance over his enemies still using traditional Japanese bows.

Japan’s policy of self-imposed isolation temporarily halted the decline of kyudo and Japanese Archery. From the Meiji period to the modern period, the art of kyudo developed into a discipline that was a complex combination of mental and physical elements.

Kyudo, a Mental, Physical, and Spiritual Discipline

By our time, the art of kyudo has evolved into a mental, physical, and spiritual discipline under the leadership of the Zen Nihon Kyûdô Renmei, or All Japan Archery Federation, and lost its significance as a competitive sport. Kids are now taught kyudo in high schools, a practice later followed up in universities and even later in life in private kyudojo, or archery halls.

The Japanese Archer's Traditional Attire
The Japanese Archer's Traditional Attire

The Japanese Bowman's Equipment

The Bow

The Japanese bow, or yumi, is a 7-feet-long instrument made of laminated bamboo. The grip is located 1/3 of the way up from the bottom of the bow, which would be seen as unusual on Western and Chinese bows. The grip's placement allows for archers to shoot from on top of the back of a horse, and at the same time retains the advantages of a longbow.

The Arrow

The arrows, or ya, are also unusually long compared to their Western counterparts, which is attributed to the Japanese technique of drawing the bow to the right shoulder instead of the chin or cheek.

Drawing the Japanese Bow

Similarly to other Eastern archery styles, the bow is drawn with the thumb, therefore the glove, or yugake, possesses a hardened inner thumb. Similarly to Chinese and Korean archery, thumb rings are not used. The modern style of glove with a reinforced thumb and wrist appeared after the Onin Wars during the course of which archers no more had a sword on them.

The Traditional Uniform

The uniform worn by archers is known as the obi, or sash, and hakama, or split skirt, with either a kyudo-gi, or jacket, or a kimono for the higher ranks.

Kyudo practitioners, men and women
Kyudo practitioners, men and women

The Japanese Archer's Training in Kyudo

Kyudo training starts by learning to draw the bow and shooting blunt, featherless projectiles into a round target, or mato. The novice practices the 8 phases of shooting like this until he satisfies his teacher and is allowed to to move on to regular practice.

The eight phases are:

  • ashibumi, or positioning,
  • dozukuri, or correcting the posture,
  • yugamae, or readying the bow,
  • uchiokoshi, or raising the bow,
  • hikiwake, or drawing the bow,
  • kai, or completing and holding the draw,
  • hanare, or releasing the arrow,
  • yudaoshi, or lowering the bow.

First, the novice has to learn proper technique of handling the bow without the distraction of an existing target. Flying in the face of the traditional Western longbow handling technique of push-pull movements, the Japanese archer readies the bow in a spreading movement as he lowers it.

The Marrow of Kyudo

You can be an archer with excellent aim and accuracy, it still doesn't mean you're not a bad one. Kyudo is mainly practiced as a way to personal development and mere technical skill and virtuosity is not prized. A humble approach and a sense of zanshin, which is the quiet period after the release of the arrow, are considered much more important.

There are 3 levels of skill in kyudo proficiency:

  • toteki, or arrow hits target,
  • kanteki, or arrow pierces target,
  • zaiteki, or arrow exists in target.

In the first, the practitioner rifle-shoots the arrow with the main concern of hitting the target. In the second, the archer aims to pierce the target with the arrow as though it were his enemy. The final level, is where the archer's mind, body, and the bow are one in unity, and shooting is instinctive in its nature. One who has attained this final level of skill, has completed the true objective of a kyudo practitioner.

Kyudo Training for High School Girls


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    • profile image

      zac ishiyama 

      9 years ago

      i like archery its cool

    • Fortadam profile image


      9 years ago from Friday Harbor

      What an awesome hub on this fascinating archery tradition. Thanks for all the good info! I love archery and its fun to read that others love it too!

    • Haunty profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Hungary

      Hi Mentalist! Thanks for sharing your opinion. I like that too, along with the whole fun side of the equation. :)

    • Mentalist acer profile image

      Mentalist acer 

      9 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

      What I found most intriquing about this is that Japan repelled against firearms just as did China,thanks for sharing Haunty.;)


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