Kyūdō, literally meaning "way of the bow", is the Japanese art of archery. It is a modern Japanese martial art (gendai budō) and practitioners are known as kyūdōka.

It is estimated that there are approximately half a million practitioners of kyūdō today. In 2005 the International Kyudo Federation had 132,760 graded members, but in addition to this kyūdō is taught at Japanese schools and some traditions refrain from federation membership.


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. 500 BC–300 AD). 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." During these times the bow began to be used in warfare in addition to hunting. Later, the ceremonial use of a bow was adopted from China and continued in Japan after it ended in China. From China was also adopted the composite technique of bow manufacturing by gluing together horn, wood, and animal sinew.

The changing of society and the military class (the samurai) taking power in the end of the first millennium created a requirement for education in archery. This led to the birth of the first kyūdō ryūha (style), the Henmi-ryū, founded by Henmi Kiyomitsu in the 12th century. The Takeda-ryû 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).

From the 15th to the 16th century Japan was ravaged by civil war. In the latter part of the 15th century Heki Danjo 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.

The use of bow as a weapon of war came to an end when the first Europeans arrived in Japan in 1542. The bow however remained alongside the arquebus for a long time because of its longer reach, accuracy and especially because it was 30–40 times faster. Arquebus however did not require the same amount of training as a bow, so Oda Nobunaga's army consisting mainly of farmers armed with arquebuses annihilated a traditional samurai archer cavalry in a single battle in 1575.

During the Tokugawa 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, practiced 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.

During the changes brought by Japan opening up to the outside world in the beginning of the Meiji era (1868–1912) the samurai lost their position. Therefore, all martial arts, including kyūdō, saw a significant decrease in instruction and appreciation. In 1896, a group of kyūdō-masters gathered to save the 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. It took however until 1949 before the All Japanese Kyūdō Federation (ANKF, jap. Zen Nihon kyūdō renmei) was formed. Guidelines published in 1953 kyūdō kyōhon define how in a competition or graduation, archers from different schools can shoot together in unified form.


Kyūdō is practiced 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 emphasize 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 hitchu, "true shooting, certain hitting", is used.

According to the Nippon Kyudo 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 realized naturally.

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.

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 did not speak Japanese and 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 dojos (training halls) vary in style and design from school to school, and from country to country. In Japan, most dojos have roughly the same layout; an entrance, a large dojo 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 dirt hillock and the targets, placed 28 meters from the dojo floor.


Kyūdō is practiced in different schools and styles and even between dojos 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, kufu 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.

Learning of kyūdō starts with a rubber practice bow gomuyumi 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 practicing first yugamae, then the draw and last release and shooting at makiwara. When beginner is starting to shoot at mato, they may be asked to shoot from half or three-quarters distance from the usual.

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

[1][2]A Kyudoka practicing on a MakiwaraMakiwara 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 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 the arrow's arc.

Mato is the normal target for most kyudo 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 meters. In competitions and graduations hoshi mato is used. For ceremonies it is most common to use kasumi mato which is the same as hoshi 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:

  1. Tôteki, the arrow hits the target.
  2. Kanteki, the arrow pierces the target.
  3. Zaiteki, the arrow exists in the target.