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Kyūdō , literally meaning “way of the bow“, is the Japanese art of archery. It is a modern Japanese martial art (gendai budō).

The bow was likely invented in the late Paleolithic or early Mesolithic. The oldest indication for its use in Europe comes from the Stellmoor in the Ahrensburg valley north of Hamburg, Germany and from the Grotte dell’Addaura in Italy, dates from the late Paleolithic (9th millennium BC).

The arrows were made of pine wood and consisted of a mainshaft and a 15–20 centimetre (6–8 inches) long foreshaft with a flint point. There are no known definite earlier bows; previous pointed shafts are known but may have been launched by atlatls rather than bows.

The beginning of archery in Japan is, as elsewhere, pre-historical. The first molded metal images with distinct Japanese asymmetrical longbow are from the Yayoi-period (ca. 250 BC – 330 BC). The first written document is the Chinese chronicle Weishu (dated before 297 AD), which tells how at the Japanese isles people use "a wooden bow that is short from the bottom and long from the top."

The bow became the main weapon of war of the Assyrians and Egyptians, whose warriors shot it on the ground and from chariots to great effect. War chariots fell entirely out of fashion by approximately the beginning of the Common Era, but development of horse archers by the people of the Eurasian Steppe, brought highly mobile archers back to the fore. Using composite bows, steppe peoples such as the Scythians, Huns, Turks, and Mongols became a dominant force.

In the Middle Ages, European powers made effective use of the longbow as a major weapon of war. It was an extremely effective weapon in battle and could penetrate armor from a considerable distance. The longbow however is a difficult weapon to master and requires years of training for effective use in war. A longbow which can pierce later medieval armour also requires a very strong man to draw it. In Medieval England and Wales, the longbow became a popular weapon, and archery was a popular pastime. When the quality of English archery began to decline in the 16th century, English monarchs went so far as to mandate by law longbow training for males of military age and placed restrictions on other physical sports such as football and ninepins so people would practice.

The development of gunpowder, muskets, and the growing size of armies (and their consequent demand for less-trained levies) slowly led to the replacement of bows as weapons of war, supplanted by firearms, which were simpler for conscripts to learn and use, causing bows to be relegated to sport and hobby use.

A practitioner will begin with seiza (traditional sitting position) followed by mokuso (meditation).

The practitioner may shoot at a specially designed straw target called makiwara (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 his body). Because the target is so close and the shot most certainly will hit, the archer can concentrate on refining his technique rather than on worrying about where the arrow will go

In its most pure form, kyūdō is practiced as an art and as a means of moral and spiritual development. Many archers practice kyūdō as a sport, with marksmanship being paramount. However, the goal most devotees of kyūdō seek is seisha seichu, “correct shooting is correct hitting”. In kyūdō the unique action of expansion (nobiai) that results in a natural release, is strived for. When the spirit and balance of the shooting is correct the result will be for the arrow to arrive in the target. To give oneself completely to the shooting is the spiritual goal. 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

Kyūdō practice as all budō includes the idea of moral and spiritual development. Today many archers practice kyūdō as a sport, with marksmanship being paramount. However, the goal most devotees of kyūdō seek is seisha seichu, "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 muso, "no thoughts, no illusions". This however is not Zen, although Japanese bow can be used in Zen-practice or kyūdō practiced 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.

The yumi (Japanese bow) is exceptionally tall (standing over two meters), surpassing the height of the archer (kyūdōka). Yumi 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 glassfiber or carbon fiber) yumi. Even advanced kyūdōka may own non-bamboo yumi and ya due to the vulnerability of bamboo equipment to extreme climates. The suitable height for yumi depends from the length of archers draw (yatsuka) which is usually about half the archers height.

Ya (arrow) shafts were traditionally made of bamboo, with either eagle or hawk feathers. Most ya shafts today are still made of bamboo (although some archers will use shafts made of aluminum or carbon fibers), and ya feathers are now obtained from non-endangered birds such as turkeys or swans. The length of an arrow is the archers yatsuka plus between 6 to 10 centimeters. Every ya has a gender (male ya are called haya; female ya, otoya); 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. It is often claimed that the alternate spinning direction of the arrows would prevent two consecutive identically shot arrows from flying identically and thus colliding.

The kyūdō archer wears a glove on the right hand called a yugake. 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), there are different advantages to both.

With a hard glove, the thumb area is not very flexible and has a pre-made groove used to pull the string (tsuru). With a soft glove, the thumb area is very flexible and is without a pre-made groove, allowing the practitioner to create their own, based on their own shooting habits.
Typically a yugake will be of the three or four finger variety. The amount of fingers on the glove is dependent on the school of kyudo and the weight of the bow being pulled. Three finger yugake are usually used with bows below 20 kilo, while four finger yugake are used with bows above 20 kilo. Though rare, it is not unheard of for archers to use one finger or five finger gloves. Some schools, such as Heki-ryū Insai-ha only use the three fingered glove, even with bows above 40 kilo. A practitioner’s nock and grip of the arrow can be dictated by the glove and bow they are using. It is not uncommon for practitioners who have upgraded or downgraded bow weight to continue to use the same glove and not change.
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.

Unlike occidental archers (who, with some exceptions, draw the bow never further than the cheek bone), 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.
The yumi is asymmetric; the grip is positioned at about one-third the distance from the lower tip and upper and lower curves differ. Several hypotheses have been offered for this asymmetric shape. Some believe it was designed for use on a horse, where the yumi could be moved from one side of the horse to the other with ease. Others claim that asymmetry was needed to enable shooting from a kneeling position and yet another explanation is the characteristics of the wood from time before laminating techniques. The hand holding the yumi experience less vibration at this point.

A bamboo yumi requires careful attention. Left unattended, the yumi can become out-of-shape and may eventually become unusable. The shape of a yumi will change through normal use and can be re-formed when needed through manual application of pressure, through shaping blocks, or by leaving it strung or unstrung when not in use.

The shape of the curves of a yumi is greatly affected by whether it is left strung or unstrung when not in use. The decision to leave a yumi strung or unstrung depends upon the current shape of the yumi. A yumi that is relatively flat when unstrung will usually be left unstrung when not in use (a yumi in this state is sometimes referred to as being 'tired'). A yumi that has excessive curvature when unstrung is typically left strung for a period of time in order to 'tame' the yumi.
A well cared-for yumi can last many generations, while the usable life of a mistreated yumi can be very short.

The string (tsuru) of a yumi is traditionally made of hemp, although most modern archers will use strings made of synthetic materials such as Kevlar, which will last longer. Strings are usually not replaced until they break; this results in the yumi flexing in the direction opposite to the way it is drawn, and is considered beneficial to the health of the yumi. The nocking point on the string is built up through the application of hemp and glue to protect the string and to provide a thickness which helps hold the nock of the arrow in place while drawing the yumi.

Serious kyūdō practitioners treat the yumi with reverence, as pieces of great power, and as teachers with much to impart to the student (a yumi is said to hold within it part of the spirit of the person who made the yumi). A kyūdō student will never step over a yumi which lies on the ground (that would be considered disrespectful), and will typically treat a yumi as they themselves would wish to be treated (e.g. kept away from excessive heat or cold, kept dry, kept away from excesses of humidity or dryness, carried upright). It is also considered disrespectful to so much as touch another person's yumi without his/her permission; yumishi (yumi-maker) Kanjuro Shibata has said this is tantamount to touching someone else's spouse in a sexual manner.

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 Kyudo Kyohon (Kyudo Manual). The hassetsu consists of the following steps:

1.Ashibumi, placing the footing. The archer steps on to the line from where arrows are fired (known as the shai) and turns to face the kamiza, so that the left side of his body faces the target. He then sights from the target to his feet and sets his feet apart so that the distance between them is equal to his yatsuka, approximately half his body height. A line drawn between the archer’s toes should pass through the target after the completion of the ashibumi.
2.Dozukuri, forming the body. The archer verifies his balance and that his pelvis and the line between his shoulders are parallel to the line set up during ashibumi.
3.Yugamae, readying the bow. Yugamae consists of three phases:
1.Torikake, gripping of the bowstring with the right hand.
2.Tenouchi, the left hand is positioned for shooting on the bow’s grip.
3.Monomi, the archer turns his head to gaze at the target.
4.Uchiokoshi, raising the bow. The archer raises the bow above his head to prepare for the draw.
5.Hikiwake, drawing apart. The archer starts bringing down the bow while spreading his arms, simultaneously pushing the bow with his left hand and drawing the string with the right, until the arrow is level with his eyebrows.
6.Kai, the full draw. The archer continues the movement started in the previous phase, until he reaches full draw with the arrow placed slightly below his cheekbone. The arrow points along the line set up during ashibumi.
7.Hanare, the release. The bowstring is released from the right hand.
8.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.
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



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