Journal of Combative Sport December 1999
Archery as practised in Japan today may well be described as the leading national sport. Some students of history state that there was a game played by archers of an earlier day which, while antedating golf by several centuries, was very similar to it. It was known as the "pursuit of the arrows," archers competing against each other in seeing who could cover the distance between certain places with the least number of shots. [FN1]
The discovery of the bow is said to have been the result of the observations of a mountaineer, who watched an ant struggling to draw a morsel of food away from a stem of grass. The little ant pulled at the blade of grass, the bit of food being thrown a considerable distance when the blade snapped loose from its grip. Applying this principle of elasticity to the wooden bow the countryman made weapons adapted to hardy struggles for food or warfare. [FN2]
When Jinmu Tenno, the first Emperor and founder of the present Imperial family, came to the throne in 660 B.C., he was an exceptionally strong warrior and an unequalled archer. It is said that an eagle perched on the tip of his great bow while he was resting during the hunt. He seized the tail feathers of the bird and bound them to his arrows, thus setting a style that has continued to the present day. Taking the presence of the bird as an omen of victory he pressed on to complete the consolidation of the provinces into one empire. [FN3]
As in England, in the early days of archery in Japan the bow was made of a single piece of wood carefully selected and cured. In England yew trees furnished the most desirable material for bows and in America during the era of the Indian, hickory wood was used because of its straight grain and great elasticity. In this country [Japan] it was a difficult problem owing to the lack of suitable trees but native ingenuity came into play and a combination of hard wood center with thin strips of bamboo bound on sides of this core resulted, giving the archer a bow of great resistance, carrying-power and lightness. [FN4] In this way developed the unusual shape of the Japanese bow which, instead of being straight when unstrung, is decidedly crooked. In following the Japanese custom the arrow is placed across the bow at about one third of its length from the bottom, the lower the better in the most cases, while in the English and American way it is placed in the exact center.
Japanese mythology abounds with references to feats of skill with the bow and arrow, it being one of the accomplishments required of every Samurai and Daimyo. From references to the fascinating tales which parallel the ancient creation sagas of the Norse, [FN5] it is said that Dano Masatsugu, founder of the Hioki school of archery which remains to this day, handled a bow over 15 feet in length as easily as we might a toy. [FN6] There are many tales of phenomenal skill in archery in the annals of the country much as the Bible story of David and Goliath. The tale of Nasuno-Yoichi which is a corresponding tale of the English yeomen in the days of Robin Hood, is recounted to boys and girls as they take up the art. [FN7]
Like golf, skill in archery requires tremendous patience and endurance. Concentration is absolutely essential and accession to the secret of success compels attention to the shot from the first withdrawal until the arrow is well on its flight, for accurate follow-through of the eye and wrist secures the desired direction.
Fairly commonly one sees a party setting out for an archery contest jamming into the trains or trams with enormous bows and a goodly quiverful of arrows. Scattered about the towns and villages, near the amusement quarter, one may encounter archery booths where ten or fifteen sen entitles one to loose a whole sheaf of arrows toward a target butt. Any visitor to Japan happening on such a stall is advised to step in and try his luck. Perhaps an arrow through the roof will be the reward but, through actual manipulation of the sturdy weapon, one gains a greater respect for the warriors who could snuff out candles at 200 feet. [FN8]
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FN1. The seventeenth century Koreans also played archery games, and during the mid-seventeenth century a shipwrecked Dutch merchant named Hendrik Hamel noted that the only employment of many aristocratic Korean youths was shooting the bow. Details of one of these Korean games can be found in Stewart Culin, Korean Games, with Notes on the Corresponding Games of China and Japan (New York: The Brooklyn Museum in association with Dover Publications, 1991), 63-65.
FN2. This story is clearly legendary, as the oldest surviving self-bow -- e.g., a bow made from a single piece of wood -- is at least 8,000 years old.
FN3. Although today most people believe that Emperor Jinmu and all stories associated with him are legendary, before World War II the Japanese government insisted that they were indisputable fact. For the historiography, see John S. Brownlee, Japanese Historians and the National Myths, 1600-1945: The Age of the Gods and Emperor Jinmu(Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press, 1997).
FN4. Laminated bows first appeared in Central Asia sometime before the sixth century BCE.
FN5. Norse sagas are not ancient, but medieval.
FN6. The standard Japanese bow is about eight feet long. The shaft is about three feet long, and is tipped with the feathers of hawks or eagles.
FN7. Around 1260, English minstrels created stories about a landless outlaw of the Sherwood Forest called Robin Hood, and about 1377 vernacular stories began expanding Robin's legend. These latter stories are responsible for introducing Robin to Friar Tuck around 1417 and Little John about 1432. Maid Marian joins the gang between 1450 and 1500, after the English begin using actors dressed as Robin and his Merry Men to collect money for charitable purposes. (Robin and Marion were the May King and Queen at Reading in 1502, at Kingston-on-Thames in 1506, in London in 1559, and Abingdon in 1566.) Robin's arrow-splitting feats appear to combine folklore – heroes are always supermen – and gambling games with old men's memories of days gone by. (In real life, a truly exceptional archer would be lucky to split his shafts more than once every few dozen shots.) Probably the Japanese stories have similar roots.
FN8. "Without attempting to enter into a technical description of how the bow is used in Japan," E.J. Harrison wrote in The Fighting Spirit of Japan (Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1982), 25-26, "I am safe in saying that there is a right way and a wrong way of holding it, fitting the arrow, drawing and releasing it. And in this context I can still remember the real distress experienced by the burly proprietor [of the archery range in Yokohama's entertainment district] on those occasions, not infrequent, when some of my foreign companions and I fitted the arrow on the wrong side of the bow and held the bow in the incorrect position. One of these companions, a fellow-journalist on a local foreign paper, now, alas, now no more, was an incorrigible offender in this respect. What added to the enormity of his offences was that in spite of these -- so to speak -- arch heresies, he always got nearer to the bull's-eye than the Japanese habitués who never drew a bow without having conscientiously indulged in a number of preliminary flourishes such as baring their good right arms by throwing back their ample sleeves over their shoulders, raising the bow with a spasmodic gesture, and so forth. It was really heartrending to note the persistency with which they missed after all this elaborate ceremonial; but I think I am right in saying that they themselves would far rather have missed, and the proprietor would far rather have had them miss in proper form than score by such irregular practices as those indulged in by my friend who, with a cigar between his teeth, the bow held horizontally instead of perpendicularly, and the arrow on the wrong side, would wing his shafts into the very centre of the target with a monotonous frequency which afforded him unalloyed satisfaction and the unhappy and orthodox proprietor ineffable disgust."
Photo credit: Arthur Grix, "Japans Sport in Bild und Wort," Berlin, Wilhelm Limpert Verlag, 1937
JCS Dec 1999