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Kyudo - Way of the Bow | The Art of Shooting | Kyudo in the West | FAQ's | History | Purpose and Goals | Art
The Archer | Equipment of the Archer | The dojo | Practice | Traditions | Techniques | Miscellaneous


Kyudo - The Way of the Bow


The bow has always had a deep historical and cultural significance for the Japanese. Since earliest times the Japanese bow has served both the sacred and the functional. Its practical development has never diminished respect for its beauty and the simple elegance of its form. Even throughout its long history as a weapon of war the bow was still seen as a symbolic and aesthetic object

This relationship between the spiritual and the practical still has a profound influence on the practice of modern Japanese archery. While competition and the sporting aspect is an essential part of training, at the higher levels of performance the act of shooting a bow and arrow is seen to express beauty and truth.

When the bow became obsolete as a weapon the spiritual aspect of archery was developed as a discipline for peace and self-cultivation. This was achieved by uniting the vigour of the warrior tradition with the dignity of the ceremonial. As a path for personal growth and development, the concept of Reisetsu - respect for the other, became the moral discipline which united these two aspects and formed the foundation for the practice of Kyudo - the Way of the Bow.

In meeting desire, negative thoughts, and physical difficulties the practice of Kyudo offers the individual the opportunity to meet their limitations, and to enjoy the challenge of this confrontation. One soon realises that the problems faced are not to be found in the bow, or the immovable target, but in oneself. If this is accepted and the practice is carried out sincerely then the energy of the shooting begins to enrich one's life.

The Art of Shooting

shooting Technique cannot be considered without an understanding of spiritual energy. Neither aspect can function without the other. The acquisition of technique grows with the increase in body-mind awareness to form a harmonious working together of the bow, body and spirit.

Balance is taken physically and emotionally from the centre of the body. Unlike a Western bow where the focus is primarily around the shoulders and arms, with the Japanese bow the centre of attention is placed in the region below the navel known as the Tanden (or one point). The vitality and energy of the body-mind is generated from this point, creating a sense of centredness and well being.

Each movement of the shooting is coordinated with the breath to flow in a continuity of action which forms an inseparable whole. All the movements for shooting culminate in the full draw when the archer is in every sense, physically and mentally, centered within the arc of the bow. In this condition of the full draw, all the physical and mental balances must be fulfilled to effect a correct release.

At the higher levels of practice the archer attempts a release where the expansion of energy reach its highest point and the string is ripped from the glove hand in a spontaneous and natural action. The full draw and the release is the moment where the stability of the archer's physical, mental and spiritual state is most vulnerable. At this moment the target becomes the mirror of the archer's soul.

Kyudo in the West.

From the later part of the nineteenth century, an interest in things Japanese and Oriental grew in the West. Between Europe and Japan this evolved beyond the stage of simple curiosity and exotic fascination to become a basis for solid scholastic interest and a growing exchange of information and ideas. In the 1930's the German philosopher, Eugene Herrigel, wrote his small classic "Zen in the Art of Archery" in which he related his own experience of studying Kyudo in Japan. This book was to be the first introduction of Kyudo into the West.

Herrigel's involvement in Kyudo was singular for the time, and it was only in the post-war period, when a greater contact with Japan took place, that slowly individual Europeans came into contact with Kyudo and brought their direct experience back with them to their own countries. Since these introductions in the late 1960's there has been a slow but gradual growth of interest, with now 13 European nations forming a European Kyudo federation. In Japan too, the period after the war saw the emergence of a fast growing modern state. Reflecting the new social changes, in 1953, a national Kyudo federation was formed to promote a develop and understanding of Kyudo within a modern context.

While its focus as a discipline on altruistic and aesthetic values was seen as having meaning to deepen and enrich people's, it was also recognised that in emphasising its sporting aspect, it could gain popular involvement. Kyudo became part of the school curriculum, and is practised at club level in high schools and universities. The All Nippon Kyudo Federation, which has over half a million members in Japan, has supported the growth of Kyudo in the West. Kyudo masters from Japan visit Europe on a regular basis and, through their teaching, an authentic understanding of the practice is maintained.

As a part of the mutually enriching cultural interchange between East and West, Kyudo has much to offer. Not only does it represent many threads of culture and tradition but it focuses on the fundamental aspects of the human condition. With a sporting aspect but not a sport, with a spiritual aspect but not a religion, as a physical discipline but with a powerful psychological and emotional power, Kyudo is hard to frame within normal categories. But this diversity provides a means for balancing these very different dimensions of human life within a single activity. Especially in the West, where the mental, physical and spiritual aspects have become so dislocated, Kyudo has a very special role to play.

The Frequently Asked Question's about Kyudo

What is Kyudo?
Viewpointsof an Art will give you a better picture but, quite simply, Kyudo is a form of Japanese archery that is heavily influenced by zen.

What is a Makiwara?
A makiwara is a practice target, usually made of straw bound in a kind of tube, that is used by beginners and masters alike to perfect the most basic to the most advanced forms.

What are the different Traditions of Kyudo?
Kyudo is thought by some to be a kind of self-improvement hobby, by others a philosophical art, others practice it as a way of life, and yet others employ it as a religious ceremony. Most agree, however, that it is always a little more than what you make of it.

How can I check out Kyudo?
Check the list of Dojos (schools) to find the one nearest to you. Give the contact number a ring and arrange an appointment to see for yourself what Kyudo is like.


Modern Kyudo is descended from the Heki school of Kyujutsu, the art of killing by the bow, combined with a branch of ceremonial archery, the Ogasawara school. The branch of Kyujutsu, as all martial arts in Japan, embraced Zen as its spirit, possibly because of its lack of moralizing and its value in training the spirit of a warrior to actually be able to KILL.

Ceremonial archery on the other hand emphasized the value of archery as an art form and a Shinto tool (as is evidenced by the usage of the bow at Sumo tournaments, Shinto rites and holidays, when a child is born, and specific events like coming-of-age-day). The sound of the string being plucked is supposed to strike fear in evil spirits' hearts, and the sound of a master-archer shooting is supposed to bring spiritual enlightenment. The combination of both forms is beautiful and appealing to the spirit.

Kyudo, the Way of the Bow, is the oldest of Japan's traditional martial arts. The bow has been used in Japan since prehistoric times. From the fourth to the ninth century, close contacts between China and Japan had a great influence on Japanese archery, especially the Confucian belief that through a person's archery their true characters could be determined. Over hundreds of years archery was influenced by the Shinto and Zen Buddhist religions along with the pressing practical requirements of warriors. Court nobles concentrated on ceremonial archery while the warrior class emphasized kyujutsu, the martial technique of using the bow in actual warfare.

With the introduction of firearms the bow as a weapon was neglected and almost died out all together until Honda Toshizane, a kyudo instructor at Tokyo Imperial University, combined elements of the warrior style and the court ceremonial style into a hybrid style which ultimately became known as the Honda Ryu (Honda martial school). This style found great favour with the general public and he is generally credited with saving Japanese Archery from oblivion. With the American occupation banning all martial art instruction, Kyudo, as opposed to kyujutsu, became widely practiced and the Zen Nihon Kyudo Federation (All Japan Kyudo Federation) was established in 1953, publishing the standard kyudo textbook called the Kyohon, and overseeing Kyudo development both in Japan and internationally up to the present time. There now exists a European Kyudo Federation which has annual seminars and promotion tests and in 1993 the first such seminar and promotion test was held in America in San Jose, California.

Purpose and Goals

Kyudo is a spiritual art. By learning it, you should be learning about yourself. By improving in Kyudo, you should be improving yourself. This is a main purpose in modern Kyudo.

Kyudo is a highly meditative martial art whose ultimate goals are Shin (Truth i.e. the ultimate reality), Zen (Goodness) and Bi (Beauty). When asked the question "What is Truth?" a master archer would pick up a bow and arrow and shoot it, without saying a word, allowing the level of mastery of the bow to serve as the gauge of the archer's progress along the "way" thereby showing the archer's knowledge of reality i.e. "Truth" itself.

Whoever sees a demonstration of kyudo ('the way of the bow') for the first time understands right away that it is not a sport. Neither is it a martial art that you would practice in order to obtain degrees or black belt ranks. "In kyudo you don't try to hit the target," explains Japanese Master Kanjuro Shibata. "It's a matter of precision and discipline: the relationship you have with the bow, the arrow, your body, and your mind. Kyudo is like zazen, but it is standing meditation. When you shoot, you can see the reflection of your mind, as in a mirror. The target is the mirror. When you release, you cut ego. You can see your own mind."


More than half of Kyudo is learning different ceremonies done in tandem with a number of other archers. This is perhaps a leftover from working together in armies. In a normal tournament, groups of six shoot together in perfect coordination, step by step, each archer a half step behind the archer in front of him. Shooting from horseback is still an active practice and is shown at certain public events like festivals at shrines. When archers turn twenty-one they travel to Kyoto and shoot at the great Buddhist temple Sanjusangendo, in a huge coming of age ceremony. The girls who participate wear incredibly beautiful, brightly coloured, ornate formal dresses called kimono, and the boys wear simple yet elegant traditional clothes that bring tuxedos to mind. In 1992 there were fifteen thousand participants. Kyudo is never used to hunt with.

By diligent practice Confucian theory teaches that the archer will become morally good (Zen), and this sincerity of personality will excite the aesthetic sense of anyone watching at an intuitive, emotional level giving the performance a beauty derived not only from the technical skill of the archer but also from the archer's emotional maturity and spiritual sincerity.


The Archer

Kyudo archers search for truth. This is their main characteristic. Secondary traits of the beginning successful archer are: sincerity, courage, patience, alertness, and commitment. If a beginner does not search for truth, he does not study Kyudo. If a beginner does search for truth but lacks one of the other characteristics, he has a good chance of gaining it.

The Equipment of an Archer...

the bow... the arrow... the target... the glove...

The Bow:
The bows used are some of the largest in the world, and they are the only ones that actually fly in a circle when released - the bow-string has no chance of hitting the inner flesh of the forearm, but when done properly it could hit the outer flesh! They are asymmetrical, one third of the length being below the grip, and two thirds above; even the small ones are over two meters long; they curve in opposite ways when strung and unstrung; they are made of a composite of materials, glued strips of wood and bamboo placed perpendicular to one another, laminated and sometimes even lacquered to keep out the weather. To become a true archer you must know your bow intimately, its pressure points, the places to massage it back into shape after a humid day, the parts that need care when stringing or unstringing it. . . the list goes on. This complexity, and their high prices, is why beginners use bows made of artificial fibres, carbon etc.

The length of the bow varies with the height of the archer and the length of his arms - the taller the archer and the longer his arms, the larger the bow required for him. The draw weight of bows. . . This is dependent upon the archer entirely. The masters say only that it should not be too heavy nor too light! From history I would have to say that the average draw has become much less than it used to be. During the war of the Heike (the middle ages) one master archer sunk two boats with one shot of his massive bow.

image In those days bows were measured by how many men were required to string it, the average being a three man bow, this monster that sunk two boats being a seven man bow! The old Kyujutsu training was much more rigorous than the modern, with several hundred arrows being shot each day. A good day at the dojo now would be forty arrows, with most students quitting at around twenty or thirty. The most powerful bow I have heard of being used with any regularity in the modern age is a 42 kilogram bow. My master uses several different bows, but his regular practice bow is 18 kg, it is thought.

All students, no matter which instructor or school, will shoot the same design of Japanese bow which is little changed from the twelfth century. Traditionally made of hardwoods laminated front and back with bamboo the Japanese bow is one of the longest in the world, usually over seven feet in length. It is a natural double recurve bow with the arrow nocked one third of the way from the bottom and the bow actually rotating in the hand at release approx. 270 degrees.

The unique design of the bow requires that the bow actually be torqued or twisted in full draw to make the arrow fly straight.

The Arrow.

The arrows are quite a bit longer than ordinary arrows, BECAUSE when the arrow is fully drawn the string is actually BEHIND the archer's ear! A little dangerous for beginners (losing an ear is a very bloody process!), but accidents rarely happen because the teachers are so very careful.

The size of the bow and the length of the arrow depend entirely upon the size of the archer. There are different lengths for different archers. I'm not entirely sure how the bows' lengths are decided upon, but the arrows are made with an eye toward "yazuka," the length from the centre of the throat out to the tip of the index finger, following an out-stretched arm.

image Take this length and add 3-7 centimeters for safety and you have the ideal length for a particular archer's arrow. Arrows are made with different materials and different heads, with different diameters and slightly different lengths, all for different purposes. There is one arrow head that looks like a "U" that was used in the past to cut ropes or strings.

Another looks like a huge bulb and screams when shot, air passes through carefully placed holes in order to produce either a signal or a fright-- they are now used in some religious ceremonies. Distance arrows are longer, narrower of shaft and tip, and lighter of substance (often with carbon fibre shafts); practice arrows are usually stronger, wider, bamboo or aluminium, and possessed of a bullet-like tip; fletching is always made of real feathers, with raptors' being the most highly prized for their ability to cut the wind--sea-eagle is sometimes used, as are hawks, falcons, etc.

The Target

Called "mato" these things come in all sizes and patterns. The standard practice target is thirty-six centimetres in diameter and is placed twenty-eight meters from the archer, set nine centimetres up on a moist earth embankment. It has six alternating black and white concentric circles, including the bull's eye. During the new year ceremony, colourful targets of nine and eighteen centimetres in diameter are used instead, some hand painted with scenes from the distant past, and others covered with gold foil. In this ceremony, if you shoot it, you keep it!

The Glove

The hand that grips the string is covered with a soft leather glove with raised, stiff, strongly reinforced sections that grip the string when the hand is slightly twisted. This means that when drawing the arrow, the string is bent at the nock. The glove is very important to Kyudo's style, as without it a whole new method of drawing the bow would have to be invented.

The Dojo


When you step into the dojo you step into another world. A quiet world composed of just archery. It is a place conducive to peace. The dojo is usually set off from the bustle of people, perhaps in a park, a shrine, or a temple. It is enclosed by walls, and usually girdled round by plants: plum trees, cherry trees, flowering shrubs. One end has a large wooden floor, highly polished and clean, on which the archers stand, or kneel, and shoot. The other end has an embankment of moist dirt wherein the targets are mounted. Both sides are en-roofed, and the courtyard between is open to the sky and covered with grass. The seasons are a true part of Kyudo. If it is cold, the archer is cold, if it is hot, the archer is hot. To the side of the wooden floor is a raised dais on which the masters rest.

Practice Students

typically begin by practicing visualization: performing the shooting motions with no equipment and then perhaps using the gomuyumi (rubber bow), a short stick with a length of rubber tube attached, to acquire the feel of real bow resistance. The first actual shots are fired into a straw bundle, called a makiwara, from a short distance of about three feet. The student then progresses to target shooting at a fixed regulation distance of 28 meters basic practice, you shoot in a hay bale placed at a distance of roughly two meters. The target is not important. The beginner first learns a sequence of movements called the seven co-ordinations. They are precise and flowing gestures that synchronize body and mind in order for the archer to pull the bow and shoot in the proper manner.

Styles Technically, styles can be divided into two broad categories, shamen uchiokoshi and shomen uchiokoshi, the modern shomen uchiokoshi style having been developed by Honda Toshizane. Shamen archers predraw the bow at an angle to the body and fix their grip on the bow before raising it. Shomen archers raise the bow straight over the head and fix their final grip on the bow in a predraw above the head.


There were dozens of traditional schools before World War II and many of them survive today provoking endless debate as to the superiority of one over the other. In fact, some traditional schools still do not use the word kyudo preferring the word kyujutsu instead to describe their teachings. Some styles heavily emphasize the spiritual aspect of shooting and some proponents of Zen Archery view kyudo as a way to further their own spiritual development in Zen Buddhism.

Some of the more prominent traditions currently taught are:

1. Zen Nihon Kyudo Renmei (ZNKR)--All Japan Kyudo Federation; in which Kyudo is thought of chiefly as a hobby or method of self-improvement.

2. Heki Ryu Bishu Chikurin-ha--I believe this to be the tradition headed by Shiibata-sensei. The name suggests a very rich and ancient history as the Heki Ryu has been one of the most influential of Kyudo branches. From casual conversation, the practitioners seem to stress the spiritual and philosophical aspects of Kyudo more heavily than the ZNKR do.

3. Choozen-ji--Little is known of this Buddhist temple which practices Kyudo as one of many Zen exercises. Kyudo seems to be a means to an end for them, a method of practicing their religion; whereas for the other traditions, Kyudo's self-importance is more strongly emphasized (Kyudo for Kyudo's sake).


The draw is difficult to describe. Basically, it is asymmetrical in that the bow arm is extended first, and much of the draw takes place OVER the archer's head. It is a slow, graceful movement, that is measured by the archer's breath. The spirit of the archer is fully demonstrated by the poise and concentration exhibited during the draw, the release, and the aftermath. Legs firmly planted on the ground, chest relaxed and open, the head turns slowly toward the target. The long bamboo bow rises, bends and stretches. Suddenly the sound "Eh", and the arrow strikes the target. The archer remains still...


There is a contest several centuries old wherein seated archers fire as many arrows as they can through a corridor with a low ceiling at a target at the end. This also takes place at Sanjusangendo, the longest temple in Japan, and possibly the longest wooden structure in the world. The distance is 120 meters and the record is somewhere around 14000 arrows that were shot and 13000 hit the target, all in about 24 hours. This was done long ago and is considered superhuman today. The eaves of the temple are shot away by the thousands of arrows that have hit the overhanging beams of the corridor--thick massive cedar beams that have been replaced time and again!

Effective range? A practiced expert is effective at 120 meters, 60 meters is considered the regular long distance event, and 28 meters is the normal practice range. 5 feet (varies according to height of student) is the distance that people stand from the Makiwara - at this range even beginners are *very* effective!!! (Makiwara are targets for developing and maintaining proper style and form.) Effectiveness, however, in Kyudo is not measured in terms of deadliness. It is, rather, measured in terms of progress.