Kyūdō (Japanese: 弓道) is the Japanese martial art of archery. Experts in kyūdō are referred to as kyūdōka (弓道家). Kyūdō is based on kyūjutsu (“art of archery”), which originated with the samurai class of feudal Japan. Kyūdō is practised by thousands of people worldwide. As of 2005, the International Kyudo Federation had 132,760 graded members.

File:Kyudo – Buddhist ceremony – Mount Takao – 2016 3 13.webm
Ceremonial Kyūdō, 2016


A Japanese archer with targets. Ink on paper, 1878.
The beginning of archery in Japan is pre-historical. The first images picturing the distinct Japanese asymmetrical longbow are from the Yayoi period (c. 500 BC – 300 AD).

The changing of society and the military class (samurai) taking power at the end of the first millennium created a requirement for education in archery. This led to the birth of the first kyujutsu ryūha (style), the Henmi-ryū, founded by Henmi Kiyomitsu in the 12th century. The Takeda-ryū and the mounted archery school Ogasawara-ryū were later founded by his descendants. The need for archers grew dramatically during the Genpei War (1180–1185) and as a result the founder of the Ogasawara-ryū (Ogasawara Nagakiyo), began teaching yabusame (mounted archery).[citation needed]

Sengoku period
From the 15th to the 16th century, Japan was ravaged by civil war. In the latter part of the 15th century Heki Danjō Masatsugu revolutionized archery with his new and accurate approach called hi, kan, chū (fly, pierce, center), and his footman’s archery spread rapidly. Many new schools were formed, some of which, such as Heki-ryū Chikurin-ha, Heki-ryū Sekka-ha and Heki-ryū Insai-ha, remain today.[citation needed]

16th century
The yumi (Japanese bow) as a weapon of war began its decline after the Portuguese arrived in Japan in 1543 bringing firearms with them in the form of the matchlock. The Japanese soon started to manufacture their own version of the matchlock called tanegashima and eventually it and the yari (spear) became the weapons of choice over the yumi. The yumi as a weapon was used alongside the tanegashima for a period of time because of its longer reach, accuracy and especially because it had a rate of fire 30–40 times faster. The tanegashima however did not require the same amount of training as a yumi, allowing Oda Nobunaga’s army consisting mainly of farmers armed with tanegashima to annihilate a traditional samurai archer cavalry in a single battle in 1575.

17th century on

First Archery of the New Year by Torii Kiyonaga (1787)
During the Edo period (1603–1868) Japan was turned inward as a hierarchical caste society in which the samurai were at the top. There was an extended era of peace during which the samurai moved to administrative duty, although the traditional fighting skills were still esteemed. During this period archery became a “voluntary” skill, practised partly in the court in ceremonial form, partly as different kinds of competition. Archery spread also outside the warrior class. The samurai were affected by the straightforward philosophy and aim for self-control in Zen Buddhism that was introduced by Chinese monks. Earlier archery had been called kyūjutsu, the skill of bow, but monks acting even as martial arts teachers led to creation of a new concept: kyūdō.[citation needed]

During the changes to Japan brought by opening up to the outside world at the beginning of the Meiji era (1868–1912), the samurai lost their status. Therefore, all martial arts, including kyūdō, saw a significant decrease in instruction and appreciation. In 1896, a group of kyūdō masters gathered to save traditional archery. Honda Toshizane, the kyūdō teacher for the Imperial University of Tokyo, merged the war and ceremonial shooting styles, creating a hybrid called Honda-ryū. However, it took until 1949 before the All Japanese Kyudo Federation (ANKF; Japanese: Zen Nihon Kyūdō Renmei) was formed. Guidelines published in the 1953 kyūdō kyohon define how, in a competition or graduation, archers from different schools can shoot together in unified form.[citation needed]

Kyūdō is practised in many different schools, some of which descend from military shooting and others that descend from ceremonial or contemplative practice. Therefore, the emphasis is different. Some emphasise aesthetics and others efficiency. Contemplative schools teach the form as a meditation in action. In certain schools, to shoot correctly will result inevitably in hitting the desired target. For this a phrase seisha hitchū, “true shooting, certain hitting”, is used.

According to the Nippon Kyūdō Federation the supreme goal of kyūdō is the state of shin-zen-bi, roughly “truth-goodness-beauty”, which can be approximated as: when archers shoot correctly (i.e. truthfully) with virtuous spirit and attitude toward all persons and all things which relate to kyūdō (i.e. with goodness), beautiful shooting is realised naturally.

Kyūdō practice, as in all budō, includes the idea of moral and spiritual development. Today many archers practise kyūdō as a sport, with marksmanship being paramount. However, the goal most devotees of kyūdō seek is seisha seichū, “correct shooting is correct hitting”. In kyūdō the unique action of expansion (nobiai) that results in a natural release, is sought. When the technique of the shooting is correct the result is that the arrow hits the target. To give oneself completely to the shooting is the spiritual goal, achieved by perfection of both the spirit and shooting technique leading to munen musō, “no thoughts, no illusions”. This however is not Zen, although Japanese bow can be used in Zen-practice or kyūdō practised by a Zen master. In this respect, many kyūdō practitioners believe that competition, examination, and any opportunity that places the archer in this uncompromising situation is important, while other practitioners will avoid competitions or examinations of any kind.

Since the Second World War kyūdō has often been associated with Zen Buddhism. But not all kyūdō schools include a religious or spiritual component. This popular view is likely the result of a single book Zen in the Art of Archery (1948) by the German author Eugen Herrigel. Herrigel spoke only a little Japanese, generally using a translator to speak with his teacher. His view on kyūdō was in part due to mis-communication and also to his exposure to a contemplative form of kyūdō. Even so, Herrigel’s book, when translated into Japanese in 1956, had a huge impact on perception of kyūdō also in Japan.

Zenko (a Heki Ryu Bishu Chikurin-ha school of kyūdō) is affiliated closely with Shambhala Buddhism and has groups in the United States, Canada and Europe.

Kyūdō dōjōs (training halls, aka “kyūdōjō”) vary in style and design from school to school, and from country to country. In Japan, most dōjōs have roughly the same layout; an entrance, a large dōjō area, typically with a wooden floor and a high ceiling, a position for practice targets (Called makiwara), and a large open wall with sliding doors, which, when opened, overlooks an open grassy area and a separate building, the matoba which houses a sand hillock and the targets, placed 28 metres from the dōjō floor.

Kyūdō is practised in different schools and styles and even between dōjōs of the same style, the form of practice can vary. To harmonize practice and ceremonial shooting (sharei) in 1953 the All Nippon Kyūdō Federation (ANKF) formed an establishing committee from the main schools to take the best elements of each school and form the ANKF style that is used today throughout Japan and in most kyūdō federations in the west.

In kyūdō there are three kinds of practice (geiko): mitori geiko – receiving with the eyes the style and technique of an advanced archer, kufū geiko – learning and keeping in mind the details of the technique and spiritual effort to realize it and kazu geiko – repetition through which the technique is personified in one’s own shooting.

Beginners start with a rubber practice bow and by practising the movements of hassetsu. The second step for a beginner is to do karabiki training with a bow without an arrow to learn handling of the bow and performing hassetsu until full draw. Handling and maintenance of the equipment is also part of the training. After given permission by the teacher beginners start practicing with the glove and arrow. Next steps may vary from teacher to teacher, but include practising first yugamae, then the draw and last release and shooting at makiwara. A beginner starting to shoot at the mato may be asked to shoot from half or three-quarters of the usual distance.

Advanced beginners and advanced shooters practise shooting at makiwara, mato and some with omato.

A kyūdōka practising on a makiwara
Makiwara is a specially designed straw target (not to be confused with makiwara used in karate). The makiwara is shot at from a very close range (about seven feet, or the length of the archer’s strung yumi when held horizontally from the centerline of the archer’s body). Because the target is so close and the shot most certainly will hit, the archer can concentrate on refining technique rather than on the arrow’s arc.

Mato is the normal target for most kyūdō practitioners. Mato sizes and shooting distances vary, but most common is hoshi mato thirty-six centimeters (or 12 sun, a traditional Japanese measurement equivalent to approximately 3.03 cm) in diameter shot at from a distance of twenty-eight metres. For competitions and examinations kasumi mato is used. For ceremonies it is most common to use hoshi mato which is the same as kasumi mato but with different markings.

Omato is the mato used for long distance enteki shooting at 60 m distance. The diameter of omato is 158 cm. There are separate competitions also for enteki shooting.

There are three levels of skill:

Tōteki, the arrow hits the target.
Kanteki, the arrow pierces the target.
Zaiteki, the arrow exists in the target.
The Yumi (弓, lit. the “[Japanese] Bow”) is exceptionally tall (standing over two metres), surpassing the height of the archer. Yumi shafts are traditionally made of bamboo, wood and leather using techniques which have not changed for centuries, although some archers (particularly, those new to the art) may use synthetic (i.e. laminated wood coated with glassfibre or carbon fiber) yumi. Even advanced practitioners may own non-bamboo bows and arrows because of the vulnerability of bamboo equipment to extreme climates. The suitable height for the bow depends on the archer’s draw (yazuka) which is about half the archer’s height.

Ya (矢, lit. “[Japanese] Arrow”) shafts (Yagara (簳, lit. “Arrow Shaft”)) are traditionally made of bamboo, with either eagle or hawk feathers (Hane (羽, lit. “Feather(s)”)). Most ya shafts today are still made of bamboo (although some archers will use shafts made of aluminium or carbon fibres), and ya feathers are now obtained from non-endangered birds such as turkeys or swans. The length of an arrow is the archer’s yatsuka plus 6–10 centimetres. Every ya has a spinning direction being made from feathers from alternate sides of the bird, the haya spins clockwise upon release while the otoya spins counter-clockwise. Kyūdō archers usually shoot two ya per round, with the haya being shot first (haya means first arrow; otoya means second arrow). It is often said that the alternate spinning direction of the arrows would prevent two consecutive identically shot arrows from flying identically and thus colliding. The arrowhead is called a Yajiri (鏃, lit. “Arrowhead”). Ya are normally kept in a cylindrical quiver, called a Yazutsu (矢筒, lit. “[Japanese] Arrow Barrel”), with ceremonial and traditional archers using the Yebira (箙, lit. the “[Japanese] Quiver (of Arrows)”).

A three-fingered glove, or mitsugake
The kyūdō archer wears a glove on the right hand, called a Yugake (弽, lit. “Yumi gloves”). There are many varieties of yugake; they are typically made of deerskin. Practitioners can choose between a hard glove (with a hardened thumb) or a soft glove (without a hardened thumb); each has its advantages.

With a hard glove, the thumb area is not very flexible and has a pre-made groove used to pull the string (Tsuru (弦, lit. “Yumi bowstring”)). With a soft glove, the thumb area is very flexible and is without a pre-made groove, allowing the practitioners to create their own, based on their own shooting habits.

Typically a yugake will be of the three- or four-finger variety. The three fingered version is called a mitsugake, and the four-fingered version is called a yotsugake. Typically the primary reason an archer may choose a stronger glove like the yotsugake is to assist in pulling heavier bows (18–20 kg (40–44 lb) and above). The three-fingered glove is generally used with bows with a pull below 20 kilograms of draw weight, while the four fingered yotsugake are used with bows with a pull above 20 kilograms. This is only a generalization and many schools differ on which glove to use for their bows and glove use often varies from archer to archer and school to school.

A kyūdō archer preparing his yotsugake, or four-fingered glove
The practical reasoning for the extra finger on the glove stems from having more surface area available to the archer for the heavier draws. During the draw, the thumb of the archer is typically placed on the last gloved finger of the drawing hand, with the first (or, in the case of a yotsugake, the first and index fingers) being placed gently on either the thumb or the arrow shaft itself. Sometimes a type of resin powder, called giriko is applied to the thumb and holding finger to assist in the grip during the pull. The extra finger allows for a stronger hold on the thumb, as it is then placed on the third finger of the hand instead of the second. Some schools, such as Heki-ryū Insai-ha only use the three-fingered glove, even with bows above 40 kilograms.

The one-finger glove, called an ippongake is generally used for beginners and covers only the thumb. Some versions have a full wrist covering and others simply cover the thumb with a small strap and snap around the wrist. Because it has no glove over the fingers, it is typically uncomfortable for the archer to use giriko powder. Ippongake are generally not used by advanced archers, and cannot be used in Kyūdō Federation competitions.

The five-finger glove, called a morogake, is used almost exclusively by Ogasawara Ryū practitioners, and is not typically used in competition or by any other school.

A practitioner’s nock and grip of the arrow can be dictated by the glove and bow being used. It is not uncommon for practitioners who have upgraded or downgraded bow weight to continue to use the same glove and not change.

With the exception of the ippongake, the yugake is worn with an underglove called a shitagake made of cotton or synthetic cloth, mainly to protect the yugake from sweat which would degrade the deerskin of the glove over time. The shitagake comes in two varieties, three-fingered and four-fingered, depending on whether it is used under the mitsugake or the yotsugake.

An oshidegake on the bow arm of a kyūdōka
Because of the unique shooting technique of kyūdō, protection on the left (bow) arm is not generally required. The bow string, when properly released, will travel around the bow hand, coming to rest on the outside of the arm. However, on rare occasions a bow hand glove, called an oshidegake, is used, which serves to protect the left thumb from injury from the arrow and fletching. A forearm protector can also be worn, primarily by beginners, to protect the left arm from being hit by the string.

Powder made of burnt rice husks called fudeko is applied to the hand that holds the bow to absorb sweat, allowing the bow to turn in the hand.

Female archers also wear a chest protector called a Muneate (胸当て, lit. “[Yumi] plastron/chestguard”), which is generally a piece of leather or plastic which is designed to protect the breasts from being struck by the bowstring during shooting.

Because repeated usage tends to weaken the bowstring, it is not uncommon for a bowstring to break during shooting. Hence, many archers carry spare strings in what is called a tsurumaki (“bow string roll”). Traditional tsurumaki are flat yoyo-shaped carriers made of woven bamboo, typically with a leather strap. Recently, however, plastic tsurumakis are also coming into use.

Many archers also have small containers of fudeko and giriko attached to the end of the tsurumaki strap; these containers are called fudeko-ire and giriko-ire and are traditionally made of horn or antler (though many modern archers have fudeko-ire and giriko-ire made of plastic).

All kyūdō archers hold the bow in their left hand and draw the string with their right, so that all archers face the higher position (kamiza) while shooting.

Kyūdō archers draw the bow so that the drawing hand is held behind the ear. If done improperly, upon release the string may strike the archer’s ear or side of the face.

Resulting from the technique to release the shot, the bow will (for a practised archer) spin in the hand so that the string stops in front of the archer’s outer forearm. This action of yugaeri is a combination of technique and the natural working of the bow. It is unique to kyūdō.

Kyūdō technique is meticulously prescribed. The All Nippon Kyudo Federation (ANKF), the main governing body of kyūdō in Japan, has codified the hassetsu (or “eight stages of shooting”) in the Kyūdō Kyohon (“Kyūdō Manual”). Different styles have their own variations from the steps, most notable difference being between the vertical bow rising shomen and aslant bow rising shamen. The hassetsu of shomen-style consists of the following steps:

Ashibumi, placing the footing. The archer steps onto the line from where arrows are shot (known as the shai) and turns to face the kamiza, so that the left side of the archer’s body faces the target. The archer then sights from the target to the feet and with the feet set apart so that the distance between them is equal to the archer’s yazuka, about half his body height, and equal to the length of an arrow. A line drawn between the archer’s toes should pass through the target after the completion of the ashibumi. During competition, an archer may have a second set of arrows sitting on the ground at the feet. To be correct in ashibumi, these arrows must not extend in front of or behind the archer’s footing stance. The archer’s feet are then placed outward at a 60 degree angle from each other, forming a “V”, this ensures equal balance to both feet.
Dozukuri, forming the body. The archer verifies balance and that the pelvis and the line between the shoulders are parallel to the line set up during ashibumi. During dozukuri, the kyūdōka will straighten the back and posture, forming a straight line from shoulders to feet. Practically this is to prevent the bowstring from striking the archer’s face when shooting.
Yugamae, readying the bow. Yugamae consists of three phases:
Torikake, gripping of the bowstring with the right hand.
Tenouchi, the left hand is positioned for shooting on the bow’s grip.
Monomi, the archer turns the head to gaze at the target.
Uchiokoshi, raising the bow. The archer raises the bow above the head to prepare for the draw.
Hikiwake, drawing apart. The archer starts bringing down the bow while spreading his arms, simultaneously pushing the bow with the left hand and drawing the string with the right.
Daisan, Big three. This forms the midway point in Hikiwake.
Kai, the full draw. The archer continues the movement started in the previous phase, until full draw is achieved with the arrow placed slightly below the cheekbone or level with the mouth. The arrow points along the line set up during ashibumi.
Tsumeai, constructing the vertical and horizontal lines of the body.
Nobiai, uniting the expansions of the body.
Hanare, the release. The technique results in the bowstring being released from the right hand and the right arm extending behind the archer.
Zanshin, “the remaining body or mind” or “the continuation of the shot”. The archer remains in the position reached after hanare while returning from the state of concentration associated with the shot.
Yudaoshi, lowering of the bow.
While other schools’ shooting also conforms to the hassetsu outlined above, the naming of some steps and some details of the execution of the shot may differ.

Using a system which is common to modern budō (martial art) practices, most Western kyūdō schools periodically hold examinations, which, if the archer passes, results in the conveying of a grade, which can be kyū or dan level. Traditional schools, however, often rank students as a recognition of attaining instructor status using the older menkyo (license) system of koryū budō.

In Japan, generally the kyū ranks are only really tested for and achieved in high schools and colleges, with adults skipping the kyū ranks and moving straight on to the first dan. Dan testing is infrequent, sometimes occurring as rarely as once or twice a year. It is generally held by the prefecture kyūdō federation and the archer may have to travel to the prefecture capital or a large city to test. Often testing includes many archers and may take as much as 6 to 8 hours to test all of the prospective students. Kyū ranking tests are more frequent, tend to be held at schools and are not typically subject to difficult travel.

While kyūdō’s kyū and dan levels are similar to those of other budō practices, colored belts or similar external symbols of one’s level are not worn by kyūdō practitioners.


Second 2014 Kyudo World Cup, Paris.
While kyūdō is primarily viewed as an avenue toward self-improvement, there are often kyūdō competitions or tournaments whereby archers practise in a competitive style. These tournaments often involve kyūdōka from all ranks and grades, including high school, college and adult schools. Competition is usually held with a great deal more ceremony than the standard dōjō practice. In addition to the hassetsu, the archer must also perform an elaborate entering procedure whereby the archer will join up to four other archers to enter the dōjō, bow to the adjudicators, step up to the back line known as the honza and then kneel in a form of sitting known as kiza. The archers then bow to the mato in unison, stand, and take three steps forward to the shai line (shooting line), and kneel again. The archers then move in lock-step fashion through the hassetsu, each archer standing and shooting one after another at the respective targets, kneeling between each shot, until they have exhausted their supply of arrows (generally four).

In Japanese kyūdō competitions, an archer shoots four arrows in two sets, placing one pair of arrows at his feet and retaining the second pair at the ready. He first shoots the haya clasping the otoya tightly with the glove hand’s one or two last fingers. The archer then waits until the other archers shoot, then sets the otoya and shoots. Once all the archers have shot, the archer will then pick up the second pair of arrows at the feet and repeat the process, starting with the second flight’s haya. During normal competition, this process is done with the archers standing, however, the complete shooting procedure includes having the archer kneel in kiza while waiting between each shot.

For each hit on the mato, the archer is awarded a maru (“circle”) mark. For each miss, the archer is awarded a batsu (“X”) mark. The goal is to strike the target with all four arrows.

School clubs
Many Japanese high schools and colleges have kyūdō clubs (bukatsu) in which students gather after regular classes to practise kyūdō. Recently[when?] these have begun appearing in junior high schools as well, but it is generally left until high school. In some towns or cities where junior high schools don’t have a kyūdō club, a student may wish to enroll in kyūdō lessons outside of school, and to have enough time for practice, opt for a less time-demanding (and usually non-sports related) club at their school.

Major traditions
Mounted archery (Kyubajutsu)

Foot archery

Heki-ryū Chikurin-ha(竹林派)
Bishū Chikurin-ha(尾州竹林派)
Kishū Chikurin-ha(紀州竹林派)
Heki-ryū Insai-ha (aka. Heki Tō-ryū)(印西派)(日置当流)
Heki-ryū Sekka-ha(雪荷派)
Heki-ryū Dōsetsu-ha(道雪派)
Ogasawara-ryū (小笠原流)
In addition to the major traditions, there are many more recent and often more spiritual schools that are active outside Japan.

Kyūdō in the west
Unlike more common forms of Japanese martial arts (e.g. judo, karate), kyūdō is one of the Japanese martial arts that has not seen large amounts of mainstream interest in the West. While kyūdō appeared as early as 1898 in Italy, it has appeared in other western countries only in recent times. Many countries have no kyūdōjos, or only very small groups. Kyūdō is often brought back by westerners returning from Japan, who have studied it there. In some cases, it is supported by Japanese people temporarily living outside Japan. Often practitioners of other martial arts develop an interest in kyūdō.

Kyūdō arrived in America in the early 1900s. First in Hawaii with the Hawaii Kyudo Kai, and then on the mainland of the U.S.. Washington State saw the first group on the mainland, then in the San Francisco and San Jose. Next was Los Angeles with a group called the Rafu Kyudo Kai or Los Angeles Kyudo Kyudo Kai (Rafu was the method the local Japanese used for L.A.). From Los Angeles the next group to form was in New York.

When many of the Japanese were interned in camps, during the World War, all of the groups (except The Hawaii Kyudo Kai) disbanded; The Hawaii Kyudo Kai simply quietly practiced almost in secret.

So, other than The Hawaii Kyudo Kai there were no kyūdō groups in America after the war until around 1968, when a small group formed in the basement of a Buddhist church. The next revival in America was with Koen and Kiomaru Mishima who practiced with a small group in the basement of a buddhist church in Los Angeles; they were later joined by Rev. Hirokazu Kosaka; by 1976 (at the request of an original member of the Los Angeles Kyudo Kai, who belonged to the group in the 1920s) they had renamed their fledgling group ‘The Los Angeles Kai’.

The Hawaii Chozen-ji temple, a Rinzai Zen institution founded in 1972, began kyūdō teaching in 1979–80, with master Suhara Osho visiting from Japan.

In the 1980s, Shibata Sensei XX was invited by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche to the Karmê Chöling Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Vermont, where he demonstrated kyūdō for the first time in the United States. This visit and demonstration led to an interest in kyūdō in the Connecticut River Valley, and an active community that has continued until the present.

There is a growing interest in kyūdō in the UK, with a number of well-established kyudojos practising regularly.

Scroll to top