Kyūdō means The Way of the Bow and is the traditional Japanese art of archery. After the introduction of fire arms in Japan, and especially after the battle of Nagashino in 1575 where Nobunaga defeated an opposing force of archers by adding 3.000 riflemen to his own army, archery developed into a method of physical, moral and spiritual training with a strong influence of Shintō, The Way of the Gods, and Zen.

Battle of Nagashino 1575
Battle of Nagashino

Bow and arrows have been used in Shintō ceremonies for over two thousand years, and the kimono and hakama worn by today’s Kyūdō archers, as well as the ritual respect they shown for their equipment and shooting place, are derived from ancient Shintō costumes and practices. The influence of Zen dates from the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), when the warrior archers adopted Zen as their method of moral training. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Kyūdō itself became a method of philosophical training. From this period stem ideas like Issha Zetsumei (one shot, one life), that teach the archer to devote all of his physical, spiritual and mental energies to each shot, as if it were his last. The aim for a Kyūdō archer is Shin Zen Bi (truth, goodness, beauty), to be attained in one’s shooting and one’s life. To achieve this the mind is practiced to reach Munen Musō (no intention, no thought). Such an undisturbed mind has been purged from worries, attachments, fears and mundane thoughts, so that the natural intuitive mind can respond unhampered as the situation requires. A similar concept in Kyūdō is Fudōshin (immovable mind), where the archer has a mind that cannot be disturbed by confusion, doubt, or fear. Good Kyūdō training will give the archer the ability to remain calm in all situations, referred to as Heijōshin.

Kenzo Awa
Kyūdō Master Kenzo Awa

If you are a master of Kyūdō you can make a shot where the arrow can be said to exist in the target before its release. This found its way to the expression Seisha Hitchō (true shooting, certain hitting). This phrase expresses the belief that a correct shot will always hit the target. There is also something called Mōsha Guchū (blind shooting, accidental hitting) which is used to describe a shot that, although it hits the target, has not been done according to the Shahō Hassetsu or The Eight Stages Of The Law Of Shooting: 1. Ashibumi: taking the stance, 2. Dōzukuri: setting the torso, 3. Yugamae: bow at the ready posture, 4. Uchiokoshi: lifting up, 5. Hikiwake: drawing apart, 6. Kai: holding at full draw, 7. Hanare: the release, and 8. Zanshin: remaining body and mind. A Kyūdō friend of mine explained to me the mixed feelings she had when an opposing team was able to hit more targets than her own team. While admiring their accuracy she was appalled at their improper postures. These were not according to the shahō and hence not beautiful, as she put it.

The following poem illustrates one of the mystical aspects of Kyūdō: fusha no sha (to shoot without shooting):

    No target is erected
    No bow is drawn
    And the arrow leaves the string -
    It may not hit,
    But it does not miss.

(From Zen & Japanese Culture by D. T. Suzuki.)

And this one is about Kyūdō’s aim to find truth, goodness and beauty not just in shooting, but in one’s life:

    One must always aim beyond the target -
    One must aim a long way.
    Our whole life, our whole spirit
    Travels with the arrow.
    And when the arrow has been released,
    It is never the end.

(From Yumi no Kokoro, The Mind Born of Archery by Genshiro Inagaki.)

David van Ooijen

Some of the information on this page are taken from the Meishin Kyudojo homepage.

Back to Things Japanese