Browse Categories

Japanese Swords

Shop By Forge

Kyudo – Secrets of the Bow


The Way of the Bow


Kyudo, which means “the way of the bow,” is a form of martial arts in Japan, and is based on kyujutsu, the study of archery. Kyudo is present in several forms in various schools of martial arts, and while it is practiced around the world, it remains most popular in Japan. Some schools emphasize the martial aspect of kyudo, with students engaging in competition and striving for physical expertise with the weapon. Other schools use kyudo as a more ceremonial art form, and differing levels of philosophy and spirituality are attributed to the art form depending on the school in which it is being taught.


The Nippon Kyudo Federation, currently the official organization for kyudo in Japan, states that the goal of the martial art is to achieve a state of truth, beauty, and goodness. As with many other Japanese martial arts, kyudo encourages practitioners to pursue both prowess and discipline of the body and mind.


The History of Kyudo


Kyudo's origins are in the samurai class of feudal Japan, though the art of archery itself predates written history. Kyudo as an idea formed during the twelfth century, with the style being created along with its first school by Henmi Kiyomitsu. His successors went on to create the Takeda-ryu school for mounted archery, and the mighty archer cavalry of the Takeda clan were largely responsible for its success during the Sengoku period of Japan.


The use of longbows (yumi) began to decline when trade with Portugal introduced the matchlock rifle in the sixteenth century. During the seventeenth century, a long period of peace began and samurai were relegated to the roles of diplomats, administrators, advisors, and so on. However, martial arts and physical prowess were still considered strong virtues, and archery became a voluntary skill practiced as a form of competition and ceremony.


It was during this era that what was previously known as kyujutsu, or “the way of the bow,” came to be referred to as kyudo. This is due partly to the prominence of monks practicing the art and the influence of Zen Buddhism, as religious scholars were known to use martial arts as a venue for improvement of the self. When the decline of the samurai caste occurred in the late nineteenth century, kyudo (along with most military martial arts styles) saw a drop in popularity, but the art form was saved by a master of kyudo, Honda Toshizane. Toshizane created a unique style that blended the martial prowess of war shooting with the grace and elegance of ceremonial archery and developed Honda-ryu, which is what most people know as kyudo today.


Kyudo Training Techniques


Kyudo is one of the less structured martial arts in that technique varies significantly depending on where it is being taught, by who, for whom, and for what reason. In an attempt to create a more centralized style, the All Nippon Kyudo Federation created a combination of the best aspects from each major kyudo style in order to form the core techniques, philosophies, and rules that are used in practice and competitions today. However, kyudo still sees a significant amount of variation between teachers and region.


Kyudo practice typically falls into one of three categories: mitori geiko, kufu geiko, and kazu geiko. Mitori geiko refers to observation, and is typically an exercise in which a student will watch an advanced practitioner perform a certain technique or method. Kufu geiko focuses on the memorization and familiarization with techniques through practice, and is designed to learn new methods through analysis and form. Kazu geiko is a hands-on exercise, which aims to improve hand-eye coordination, muscle memory, stance, and other physical components.


Many students, especially those who are younger or who do not possess a good deal of physical strength, may start with a rubber practice bow. A longbow is deceptively difficult to pull to a full draw, and can be quite dangerous for someone who is not used to the tension and resistance if used with a real bow and arrow. The rubber bow simulates the relative weight of the real weapon, and allows the student to practice form and movement without putting himself or herself at risk.


After practicing with a rubber bow, a student may begin to learn with karabiki, which teaches proper handling of the bow and safety precautions. Following the teacher's approval, practice begins using a glove and arrow. From there, teaching methods tend to vary from school to school, but target-shooting is an eventual goal for all students of kyudo.


Target shooting refers to aiming at makiwara, or straw targets. Makiwara are typically placed no more than ten feet from the student, and depending on age and strength, as little as six or seven feet. The goal of this is not to improve the student's aim, as the target is very close, but their technique using live arrows with a real bow. From there, students can begin to work with mato, which is a target of normal size at varying distances (typically between fifty and one hundred fifty feet). Mato are also signficantly smaller than makiwara, with an average size being between twelve and fifteen inches in diameter.


For long-distance shooting at ranges over one hundred fifty feet, omato targets are used, which are roughly sixty to sixty-three inches in diameter. The skill level of a student can fall into one of three categories: toteki, meaning that the arrow reliably hits the target, kanteki, meaning the arrow pierces the target, and zaiteki, which translates (metaphorically) to “the arrow exists within the target.”


The Equipment of Kyudo


The primary piece of equipment in kyudo, obviously, is the bow. The type of bow used in kyudo is the yumi, or longbow, which is unique in that it is very long and typically taller on the side held upwards than on the bottom. Traditional yumi are created using bamboo, leather, and wood, though synthetic versions have become more popular recently due to their greater durability. The height of a yumi is typically tailored to an archer's draw, and should be roughly half of the archer's height.


Kyudo archery requires a specialized glove known as a yugake to be worn on the drawing hand. These gloves are most often made from deerskin, and can be either hard or soft (the hardness refers only to the thumb of the glove, however). Hard gloves feature a non-flexible thumb, typically created with a groove into which the string fits during a draw.


Soft gloves have a flexible thumb, and lack the groove, which in turn allows the archer to shoot in a more free-form style. Soft gloves tend to be favored by experienced archers, though both types of gloves are used by amateurs and professionals alike. Yukage are also unique in that they typically feature either three or four fingers, with the four-fingered variant being used most often in heavy-draw bows (pull above roughly fifty pounds of pressure).


Unlike Western archery, the left hand (assuming a right-handed shooter) which holds the bow does not require protection from being snapped with the bowstring due to the shooting technique used in kyudo. The bowstring should, when the yumi is fired properly, travel around the outside of the left hand and come into light contact with the outside of the arm. If desired, the shooter may use a oshidegake, which helps protect the left thumb from coming into contact with the arrow. Female shooters will also typically wear chest protection called muneate, in order to prevent the bowstring from snapping the breasts after a shot.


The Anatomy of a Shot


There are eight steps that go into firing the yumi a single time. For right-handed shooters, the bow is held with the left hand, and the arrow and bowstring pulled back with the right.


  • First, the archer places their feet firmly and positions his body so that his left side faces the target.
  • Next, the archer checks his balance and posture to ensure proper shooting form.
  • He then takes hold of the bowstring and checks his target's position and distance.
  • The archer then raises the bow over his head in order to prepare the draw.
  • He then begins to lower the bow toward firing position, while spreading his arms apart to pull the string taut. This is considered the halfway point of a given shot.
  • During the full draw, the archer completes the previous movement until the arrow sits almost level with his cheekbone, or around the height of his mouth.
  • Upon releasing the arrow, the right hand should be extended backward behind the archer.
  • The archer then remains in this position until his concentration from the shot fades and the arrow connects.


Each style may have slight variations on each of these steps, but the central ideas of the phases of firing the yumi are largely similar. Great emphasis is placed on continued concentration through each phase of the firing process in order to maintain accuracy and stability.