流鏑馬 – Yabusame – Kamakura

Yabusame (流鏑馬) is a type of Japanese archery, one that is performed while riding a horse. The archer shoots a special “turnip-headed” arrow at a wooden target.

This style of archery has its origins at the beginning of the Kamakura period. Minamoto no Yoritomo became alarmed at the lack of archery skills his samurai had. He organized yabusame as a form of practice.

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Japanese bows date back to prehistoric times — the Jōmon Period. The long, unique asymmetrical bow style with the grip below the center emerged under the Yayoi culture (300 BC – 300 AD) Bows became the symbol of authority and power. The legendary first emperor of Japan, Emperor Jimmu, is always depicted carrying a bow.

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. In 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 necessarily have to end in death, as long as honor was satisfied. One of the most famous and celebrated incidents of Japanese mounted archery occurred during the Genpei War (1180–1185), an epic struggle for power between the Heike and Genji clans that was to have a major impact on Japanese culture, society, and politics.

At the Battle of Yashima, the Heike, having been defeated in battle, fled to Yashima and took to their boats. They were fiercely pursued by the Genji on horseback, but the Genji were halted by the sea.

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

One of the Genji samurai, Nasu 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 might find themselves commanded to commit seppuku, or ritualistic suicide.

One style of mounted archery was inuoumono — shooting at dogs. Buddhist priests were able to prevail upon the samurai to have the arrows padded so that the dogs were only annoyed and bruised rather than killed. This sport is no longer practiced.

There are two famous schools of mounted archery that perform yabusame. One is the Ogasawara school. The founder, Ogasawara Nagakiyo, was instructed by the shogun Minamoto Yoritomo (1147–1199) to start a school for archery. Yoritomo wanted his warriors to be highly skilled and disciplined. Archery was seen as a good way for instilling the necessary principles for a samurai warrior.

Zen became a major element in both foot and mounted archery as it also became popular among the samurai in every aspect of their life during the Kamakura Period.

Yabusame as a martial art helped a samurai learn concentration, discipline, and refinement. Zen taught breathing techniques to stabilize the mind and body, giving clarity and focus. 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 other archery school was begun earlier by Minamoto Yoshiari in the 9th century at the command of Emperor Uda. This school 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, Toshiro Mifune, was a noted student of the Takeda school

~ by rawlandry on April 19, 2010.

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