YABUSAME - JAPANESE MOUNTED ARCHERY
BEFORE THE SWORD CAME THE BOW
A yabusame archer wearing formal hunting clothes from the 13th century
It has often been said: The sword is the soul of the samurai. Much has been written in Japan and around the world about the Japanese samurai sword and its nigh-mystical aspects.
The sword was an indispensable weapon of the samurai warrior, even when guns began to steadily come into use during the 16th century. A sword was a mark of samurais status and honor. They were heirlooms to be passed down generation after generation. Swords of exceptional make were often given as gifts of great honor.
Yabusame depicted on a folding screen
And yet in the early history of the samurai, it was the bow, not the sword, that was praised. Early samurai warriors referred to their profession as the Way of the Horse and Bow.
Stories about a heros prowess with the bow abound in the folklore and military legends of this time period. Enemies both mortal and monstrous were often dispatched with a well-aimed bow rather than with a sword.
History of the Bow and Mounted Archery
Japanese bows date back to prehistoric times. The long, unique asymmetrical bow style with the grip below the center emerged under the Yayoi culture (300 B.C. - 300 AD) Bows became the symbol of authority and power. The legendary first emperor of Japan, Jimmu, is always depicted carrying a bow.
The use of the bow had been on foot until around the 4th century when elite soldiers took to fighting on horseback with bows and swords. In the 10th century, samurai would have archery duels on horseback. They would ride at each other and try to fire at least three arrows. These duels did not necessarily have to end in death, as long as honor was satisfied.
Procession carrying yabusame targets
One of the most famous and celebrated incidents of Japanese mounted archery occurred during the Gempei War (1180-1185), an epic struggle for power between the Heike and Genji clans that was to have a major impact on Japanese culture, society, and politics.
At the Battle of Yashima, the Heike, having been defeated in battle, fled to Yashima and took to their boats. They were fiercely pursued by the Genji on horseback, but the Genji were halted by the sea.
An archer readies his arrow as he speeds by the target.
As the Heike waited for the winds to be right, they presented a fan hung from a mast as a target for any Genji archer to shoot at in a gesture of chivalrous rivarly between enemies.
One of the Genji samurai, Nasu Yoichi, accepted the challenge. He rode his horse into the sea and shot the fan cleanly through. Nasu won much fame and his feat is still celebrated to this day.
During the Kamakura Period (1192-1334), mounted archery was used as a military training exercise to keep samurai prepared for war. Those archers who did poorly might find themselves commanded to commit seppuku, or ritualistic suicide.
One cruel style of mounted archery was inuoumono shooting at dogs. Buddhists priests were able to prevail upon the samurai to have the arrows padded so that the dogs were only annoyed and bruised rather than killed. This sport is no longer practiced, to the relief of dog-lovers and dogs everywhere, no doubt.
Yabusame Ritual Mounted Archery
As part of a Shinto rite, Japans indigenous spiritual belief, mounted archers wearing traditional hunting clothing of the Kamakura Period charge down a single narrow track to shoot at three wooden targets arranged at certain intervals. This rite is called yabusame. It is believed that the sound of an arrow striking the wooden target transfers the courage of the archer to the audience.
A perfect hit!
Yabusame was designed as a way to please and entertain the myriad of gods that watch over Japan, thus encouraging their blessings for the prosperity of the land, the people, and the harvest.
A yabusame archer gallops down a 208-meter-long track at high speed. The archer mainly controls his horse with his knees, as he needs both hands to draw and shoot his bow.
As he approaches a target, he brings his bow up and draws the arrow past his ear before letting the arrow fly with a deep shout. The arrow is blunt and round-shaped in order to make a louder sound when it strikes the board.
An archer speeds past after a successful hit.
Experienced archers are allowed to used arrows with a V-shaped prong. If the board is struck, it will splinter with a confetti-like material and fall to the ground. To hit all three targets is considered an admirable accomplishment.
Yabusame is characterized as a ritual rather than a sport because of its solemn style and religious aspects, and is often performed for special ceremonies or official events, such as entertaining foreign dignitaries and heads of state. Yabusame demonstrations have been given for the formal visits of US Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. A yabusame demonstration was given in the United Kingdom for Prince Charles, who reportedly was fascinated and pleased with the performance.
To be selected as a yabusame archer is a great honor. In the past, they were chosen from only the best warriors. The archer who performs the best is awarded a white cloth, signifying divine favor.
Famous Schools of Archery and the Impact of Zen
There are two famous schools of mounted archery that perform yabusame. One is the Ogasawara school. The founder, Ogasawara Nagakiyo, was instructed by the shogun Minamoto Yoritomo (1147-1199) to start a school for archery. Yoritomo wanted his warriors to be highly skilled and disciplined. Archery was seen as a good way for instilling the necessary principles for a samurai warrior.
Zen became a major element in both foot and mounted archery as it also became popular among the samurai in every aspect of their life during the Kamakura Period.
Yabusame as a martial art helped a samurai learn concentration, discipline, and refinement. Zen taught breathing techniques to stabilize the mind and body, giving clarity and focus. To be able to calmly draw ones bow, aim, and fire in the heat of battle, and then repeat, was the mark of a true samurai who had mastered his training and his fear.
The other archery school was begun earlier by Minamoto Yoshiari in the 9th century at the command of Emperor Uda. This school became known as the Takeda school of archery. The Takeda style has been featured in classic samurai films such as Akira Kurosawas Seven Samurai (1954) and Kagemusha (1980). The famed actor of many samurai films, Toshiro Mifune, was a noted student of the Takeda school.
The Decline and Revival of the Bow
With the arrival of the Portuguese and their guns in the mid-16th century, the bow began to lose its importance on the battlefield. At the Battle of Nagashino in 1575 well-placed groups of musket-men firing in volleys practically annihilated the cavalry charges of the Takeda clan.
An archer is awarded a white banner signifying divine favor of his skills.
Mounted archery was revived in the Edo Period (1600-1867) by Ogasawara Heibei Tsuneharu (1666-1747) under the command of the shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune (1684-1751). Given that the nation was at peace, archery as well as other military martial arts became more of a method of personal development rather than military training.
Today, Yabusame is held at various times of the year generally near shrines. It never ceases to amaze and thrill spectators. The excitement builds as a horse and an archer bear down the track toward a target. When a successful hit is made, the resulting sound is echoed by the cheers of the exuberant crowd.
A Second before Impact