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Kyudo — hitting the target

by Amy Chavez

Spring is on the way with flying arrows. Which proves that islanders living in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea area don’t just sit around doing nothing all day (well, not every day anyway). On March 6, Awashima Island (population 300) will host a Japanese archery festival called Momote, a tradition that goes back hundreds of years.

Japanese archery, called kyudo (the way of the bow) has been around since Emperor Jinmu, the legendary first emperor of Japan. He is always pictured holding a bow. According to ancient chronicles, Emperor Jinmu was born Feb. 13, 711 B.C. in what is now Miyazaki Prefecture in Kyushu. Before 711 B.C. was Japan’s Age of the Gods. The emperor himself was a descendent of Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess.

I figure Jinmu must have dropped out of mainstream god society to become emperor and create the Imperial throne. Perhaps he got an annulment. At any rate, I have no problem imagining that the Imperial family is descended from the Sun Goddess. It was all so long ago that it’s like me saying I am the daughter of the stepson of the third wife of the fifth son of the King’s horse twice removed.

The ancient chronicles say Emperor Jinmu died at the age of 126, but is still remembered now every February. During the Meiji Period, Feb. 11, 660 B.C. was honored as the day Emperor Jinmu ascended the throne (creating the Imperial family) and thus founded Japan. Until 1948, this day was a national holiday called Kigensetsu. These days, however, we know it as Kenkoku kinen no hi, or “National Foundation Day.”

But there is a big problem with Emperor Jinmu: It is speculated, and largely believed, that he never existed. In which case, if it’s true, someone just made up all these stories and dates.

Even if Emperor Jinmu is not real, the bow he is always pictured with probably is and makes me believe that bows and arrows were used as far back as his time. I doubt the gods needed them before then (presuming they were not related to Cupid, whom to me, does not look like a nisei anyway).

At some point later, archery was performed on horseback, called yabusame. Yabusame warriors fought in the Battle of Yashima in the Genpei War (1180-85). In this famous Inland Sea battle between the Heike and the Genji clans, Nasu Yoichi outwitted the Heike warriors who challenged him to shoot at a target in the sea. Rather than shooting from shore, the way the Heike thought he would, Nasu rode his horse into the sea until he was up close to the target, and shot right through it. Yay Nasu!

Yabusame was later used as a military training exercise for the samurai to instill concentration and discipline. Zen incorporated yabusame into its teaching to give warriors the clarity and focus needed to master their fears in battle.

Warriors also performed yabusame to entertain the Shinto gods. As you probably know, gods like horses. The warriors were keen to impress the gods by galloping down a track and shooting arrows at three targets, hitting the bull’s eye on each one. (But oh, all the blind cows!)

Kyudo embodies the three essential elements: Truth, goodness and beauty. One must shoot with “a pure heart and meaningful purpose.” Today people still practice Kyudo for moral and spiritual development.

Should you decide to go to a kyudo or yabusame festival, here are a few things you should know. Never step over a bow (called a yumi) when it is lying on the ground. The bow is said to embody the spirit of the person who made it. To step over it is considered disrespectful. Treat unto the bow as if it was a person (ie: with respect). And never, ever covet someone else’s bow. Never even touch it without asking.

Should you see any of the following animals, be sure to thank them, because the arrows (ya) have bamboo shafts fletched with feathers from them: turkeys, swan, geese, eagles or hawks. The nock can be made from the horn of a deer or goat.

At the Momote festival on Awashima, locals participate and write their wishes on a piece of paper. These are attached to the arrow. If they hit the target, their wish will come true. Those having a yakudoshi (bad luck year) can also attempt to get rid of the bad luck by hitting the target. I asked a local what happens if you can’t hit the target and he said, “No worries. If you can’t hit it, someone will hit it for you.”