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Sunday, January 13, 2013


Before the rise in popularity of the katana / wakizashi and Kendo in Japan, the favourite weapons of the Samurais and shoguns was bows and arrows. Archery was the original focus of the samurai class and they followed a warrior's code known as Bushido.

Within the Samurai's chosen preference for archery they also practiced mounted archery, which was highly effective in times of war. During the Kamakura period in order to promote excellence amongst his warriors the great Minamoto no Yoritomo organized a competitive sports called Yabusame.

Yabusame (流鏑馬) is a type of mounted archery using traditional Japanese archery equipment. The archer on a running horse shoots three special "turnip-headed" arrows successively at three wooden targets.

In modern times the best places to see yabusame performed are at the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū in Kamakura and Shimogamo Shrine in Kyoto (during Aoi Matsuri in early May). It is also performed in Samukawa and on the beach at Zushi, as well as several other locations in Japan.

Note: Japan is not the only country to practice mounted archers. It was also popular in Hungary, Mongolia, Iran, India, Turkey, Russia and in post-Columbus North and South America. The Comanches were particularly skilled at it.

Mounted Archery in Japan

In Japan archery dates back to prehistoric times and saw a sudden rise during the Jōmon Period. The long, unique asymmetrical bow style with the grip below the center emerged under the Yayoi culture (300 BC – 300 AD) during which time bows became the symbol of authority and power. The legendary first emperor of Japan, Emperor Jimmu, is always depicted in artwork carrying a bow.

Originally 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. By the 10th century, samurai would have archery duels on horseback. They would ride at each other and try to shoot at least three arrows. These duels did not have to end in death, as long as honor was satisfied by the rules of Bushido.

During the Genpei War (1180–1185), at the Battle of Yashima, one side having been defeated in battle, fled to Yashima and took to their boats. They were fiercely pursued by their enemies on horseback, but then were halted by the sea.

As they escaping army waited for the winds to be right, they presented a fan hung from a mast as a target for any enemy archer to shoot at in a gesture of chivalrous rivalry between enemies.

One of the enemy samurais, Nasu no 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 could find themselves commanded to commit seppuku (ritualistic suicide).

One style of mounted archery in Japan was inuoumono (shooting at dogs) in an effort to practice shooting at moving targets while mounted, but this was later abandoned when Buddhist priests were able to convince the samurai to have the arrows padded so that the dogs were only annoyed and bruised rather than killed. That particular sport is no longer practiced.

The Rise of Yabusame

It is said that Yabusame was designed as a way to please and entertain the myriad gods that watch over Japan, thus encouraging their blessings for the prosperity of the land, the people, and the harvest.

In the sport a yabusame archer gallops down a 255-meter-long track at high speed. The archer controls his horse with his knees, as he needs both hands to draw and shoot his bow. (In modern times women also practice Yabusame and the best Yabusame archer in the world is currently a female.)

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 of In-Yo-In-Yo (darkness and light). The arrowhead is blunt and shaped like a turnip in order to make a louder sound when it strikes the board.

Experienced archers are allowed to use 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 quite an accomplishment. Yabusame targets and their placement are designed to ritually replicate the optimum target for a lethal blow on an opponent wearing full traditional samurai armor (known as O-Yoroi) which left the space just beneath the helmet visor bare.

Yabusame in modern times is often characterized as a ritual rather than a sport because of its solemn style and religious aspects (its usually performed at Buddhist shrines), and thus is often performed for special Buddhist 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, and Prince Charles of Great Britain, who was fascinated by the sport.

Being selected as a yabusame archer is a great honor. In the past, they were chosen from only the best archers and horsemen, as you had to be both to qualify. The archer who performs the best during a competition is awarded a white cloth, signifying divine favor.

Famous Schools of Mounted Archery

There are two great schools for mounted archery in Japan. One is the Ogasawara school. The founder, Ogasawara Nagakiyo, was instructed by the shogun Minamoto Yoritomo (1147–1199) to start a school for mounted archery. Yoritomo wanted his warriors to be highly skilled and disciplined and at the time archery was seen as the best way for instilling the necessary principles for a Bushido-following samurai warrior. A samurai who worked outside the rules of Bushido was considered to be scum and untrustworthy.

The other mounted archery school was created earlier by Minamoto Yoshiari in the 9th century at the command of Emperor Uda. This school later became known as the Takeda school of archery. The Takeda style has been featured in classic samurai films such as Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" (1954) and "Kagemusha" (1980). The famed actor of many samurai films, Toshirō Mifune, was a noted student of the Takeda school.

Zen in Yabusame

Zen became a major element in both foot and mounted archery, indeed becoming popular among the samurai in every aspect of their life during the Kamakura Period. Zen and Bushido often went hand in hand.

Yabusame as a martial art helped a samurai learn concentration, discipline, and perfection. Zen taught breathing techniques to stabilize the mind and body, giving clarity and focus. Bushido taught warriors to be honourable in all their deeds, giving them the ability to remain calm under pressure. To be able to calmly draw one's bow, aim, and shoot in the heat of battle, and then repeat, was the mark of a true samurai who had mastered his training and his fear.

The Arrival of Firearms in Japan

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, a well-placed groups of musketeers serving Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa shot in volleys and practically annihilated the cavalry charges of the Takeda clan.

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). At the time the nation was at peace, so archery as well as other military martial arts became more of a method of personal development and entertainment rather than military training.

Modern Yabusame

Yabusame events are held at various times of the year, generally near Shinto shrines. In May, the Aoi Matsuri (Hollyhock festival) in Kyoto includes yabusame demonstrations. Other locations include Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū in Kamakura, together with Samukawa and on the beach at Zushi.


  1. Where can we buy Yabusame equipment such as , hat ?

    Alain Giroux

  2. Someone can provide me a way to contact Ogasawara School and/or Takeda School of archery


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