Bow Weapons in Japan

In the beginning, the bushi were recruited to help the outer courts fight off barbarians. They were trained to be different than the effeminate nobles of the early 1100s - to be strong, bold, brave, rough. By 5 a child was in full costume, and at 15 he had learned all he needed to know about swords, horsemanship, and archery. The Japanese symbol for war was the bow and arrow ... and a samurai learned both foot and mounted archery.

With the amount of training needed to become a soldier, the warriors soon became aristocrats in their own right. This skill and background gave their archery a noble aspect - this was not the ´peasant archer´ of medieval times. The bow, arrows, quiver, and other equipment were of the highest quality and precision.

Bows were first developed between the 3rd and 6th centuries. At this time they were made of unvarnished boxwood and selkowa. This did not stand strain very well, so a move was made to bamboo with lacquer. A wood core was used, with a strip of bamboo, and a laminate to provide strength. Glue gave way under the strain of pulling the string, so rattan was used to bind the pieces together.

Bows were stored in tubular bags of cloth, tied on either end. The average bow was 6 1/2´, and bows were graded in the number of men required to string them.

Arrows, or ya, were made with a bamboo shaft, carefully treated and straightened in a hot sand bed. The feathers were most often of eagle, hawk, crane, or pheasant feathers.

Arrow heads were made by special smiths, and were often intricately designed. There were three main types of arrow heads (Ya no ne):

  • The narrow four-sided arrowhead was very common, and usually named after the leaf the head resembled. For example, there was the yanagi, or willow-leaf, and sasa no ha, or bamboo leaf. These arrows were designed to penetrate deeply through armour.
  • Next was the barbed broadhead, or hirane. These were mostly used for decoration or show, and could have poetry or symbols engraved on them, with only a thin blade.
  • Finally there was the forked arrowhead, named karimata. Although legend says these were used to cut ropes and lacings, it would be extremely difficult for a samurai to time the spin of the arrow to cut anything. Some of these arrows were fitting with whistling devices, which were used to signal troops.
The tsuru, or bowstrings, were made of hemp or ramie, then coated with wax. The upper end was tied with a red silk ribbon, while the lower was tied with white. Often an extra silk tab was at the top so the bow-stringer could hold the string with his teeth while he pressed down on the bow with both hands.

The first quivers were ebira - boxy constructions with an open top. They were functional, but let in the rain and were unweildy. By the Ashikaga era, the utsubo were bamboo on all four sides ... a cylinder shape, the top was rounded, and the bottom lidded, so the Japanese could draw from beneath.

Using the Bow
A Japanese archer used bows in a different manner than a European did. While the European would the bow steady as he drew, the Japanese raised his bow when he knocked his arrow. As he pulled the string back, he would slowly lower the bow, releasing the string just as the target came into range. Also, the European style of holding the arrow against the string is to hold the arrow on the left side of the bow, between the thumb and index finger. The Japanese hold the arrow to the left of the bow, between the bent thumb and curled next two fingers.

Special Bows
The standard bow in Japan was a long recurve, seen in the Heiji Monogatari Emaki painting and many, many others.

The han kyu, or half bow, was for use in restricted spaces - hallways in castles, or in tight trees.

Even smaller was the kago hankyo, which was a miniature bow and arrow set designed to be used from within a palaquin.

Bows designed for equestrian use had the hand-grip quite low on the bow, so the shorter, lower limb could be moved across the horse easily.

The recurve compound was examined but not adopted by the Japanese. Being a mostly Buddhist country, Japanese did not want to use the cow horn and sinew needed to build these types of bows. Of course, their Buddhist sensbilities did not preclude them using leather for a number of items, including archery gloves, but apparently leather is one of those necessary items and was made an exception of.

Use of Bows
Bows were the key weapon of the samurai for the longest time. Samurai fought individually, as archer against archer, instead of moving forward as a troop. Mounted archers were the pride of an army, with many tales and epics being written about them.

One famous archer was Minamoto Tametomo, who between the ages of 13 and 15 captured many castles and won many battles. Bows figured in a great archery duel over a misty river, between the Taira and Minamoto in 1180.

Bows were even used from boats - the only real military use of boats until the Europeans arrived was to use them as launching platforms for the sharp arrows of the archers.

Even when guns were introduced, they required expensive powder from England and ideal conditions - rain would put out the powder, while wind would blow out the fuse. The bows still performed better, at about the same range, and had a higher rate of fire. In addition, the raw materials for bows were indiginous and cheap. All the same, guns eventually took over, and archers were relagated to yabusame, an intricate practice of shooting small targets from horseback.

So, the bow was the centerpiece of the samurai tradition for almost all of Japan´s history. It evolved, as do all weapons, but remained a symbol of skill, wealth, concentration and discipline that draws many of us to it even in today´s modern times.

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