Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

YABUSAME: Japanese horseback archery

BEFORE THE SWORD CAME THE BOW

Early samurai history, when a bow and arrow was a weapon of honor, discipline


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

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August 7, 2006 - Posted by | Archery, horses, japan, samurai, Shinto, Sport, Uncategorized, Yabusame

19 Comments »

  1. [...] Samurai Dave – The Roving Ronin Report has an interesting article on the history behind Japanese horseback archery. What makes the text relevant to Kurosawa is the following paragraph, which discusses one of the two archery schools: [...]

    Pingback by Akira Kurosawa News and Information » Blog Archive » Blogged: Samurai archery | August 7, 2006 | Reply

  2. [...] Roll on over to Samurai Dave’s, and drink in a beautiful post about the ancient art of Yabusame, or Japanese horseback archery: [...]

    Pingback by Bridlepath » Blog Archive » YABUSAME: Japanese horseback archery | August 14, 2006 | Reply

  3. Absolutely beautiful pictures. I’ll be there this year for my 60th birthday.

    Comment by Karl Bergerson | August 29, 2006 | Reply

  4. Hello. You have a very informative and interesting site. What would an authentic bow with case and arrows from the 19th century cost a collector today? Do you have any information as to who made these bows in the last fifty years? Do they still make them today? Thank you in advance.

    Comment by Frank J. Smith | December 10, 2006 | Reply

  5. [...] 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. … – More – [...]

    Pingback by Archery » Blog Archives » Archery Hunting Is A Gentleman s Sport | January 9, 2007 | Reply

  6. many action movies are available which prominately feature karate or sword bearing samauri, do you know of any movies which feature kyudo. thanks m.l.

    Comment by mike leake | October 18, 2007 | Reply

  7. nice story ! recurve bows are great!

    http://www.recurvebow.org

    Comment by manik | November 11, 2007 | Reply

  8. Please I interest in offer services for bowhunt on horseback (bufalo and wild boar) you can visit the home page and look the movies for this hunt

    Comment by guillermo carbini | May 16, 2008 | Reply

  9. Great article!
    I had a chance to see this in Osaka a few years ago and was just amazed by the precision and tension.

    It made me think of Palio di Siena, but in a more martial way.

    BTW – Tim Ferris is attempting to learn Yabusame in just one week in the Trial By Fire pilot

    http://is.gd/a0LG

    Comment by Tommi | December 3, 2008 | Reply

  10. Aside from the fact that this story is copied word for word from Wikipedia, I want to say this is a nice site.

    Regarding Yabusame, I would like to know more about the bows, why they are designed like they are and how they compare in pound strength to some of the modern hunting bows used today.

    Comment by Tim | January 15, 2009 | Reply

    • LOL! Uh, TIm perhaps the Yabusame Wiki was copied word for word from my article? I helped to edit that article ages ago based on an original article I published at OhMyNews. Two of the photos in the article come from photo archives.

      Comment by samuraidave | January 15, 2009 | Reply

  11. [...] YABUSAME: Japanese horseback archery « Samurai Dave: The RovingOne 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. [...]

    Pingback by Japanese archery | Bahiayachts | May 30, 2011 | Reply

  12. [...] archery ( jap. Yabusame ) is an old traditional japanese martial art. samuraidave.wordpress.com/2006/08/07/yabusame-japanese-horseback-archery/ I took this movie last weekend here in Tokyo as an experiment for shooting high speed movements [...]

    Pingback by Yabusame 流鏑馬 « Japon Passion de sylv1 | December 9, 2011 | Reply

  13. If I had know about this when I was younger I would have had a Japanese jaw long ago. I love archery my Matthews bow is the best I ever had.but this Japanese shooting keeps your head into your shot.very impressive

    Comment by John Petta | February 2, 2013 | Reply

  14. Everyone loves it when folks come together and share views.
    Great site, keep it up!

    Comment by big game hunting | April 27, 2013 | Reply


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