Yabusame is a traditional Japanese archery performed while riding a horse in dedication to the deities and praying for universal peace, a rich harvest and people’s health. The method has been established 800 years ago and is maintained and practiced mainly by the Takeda School of Horseback Archery and Ogasawara School.
Yabusame is a sacred ritual where the archers shoot at three targets to their left from galloping horses. They do not just compete over their martial skills but as they shoot arrows in prayer, it is regarded as of a highly spiritual nature.
Shooting arrows from a galloping horse is called kisha or umayumi. There are three forms of kisha namely yabusame, kasagake, and inu-ou-mono. Among these, yabusame is regarded as special for being a sacred ritual.
Yabusame Riding Course
Highlights of Yabusame
The length of the yabusame riding course and distance between targets remain unchanged from the Kamakura period. However, many of the horses used in the ritual today are of western breeds and are bigger in size and run faster. Therefore it is very hard to hit the targets as the archers only have a few seconds to nock the arrow before reaching the next target. The difficulty of yabusame may be higher today.
The archers in yabusame are called ite, and only those who have undergone strict training can become one.
The ite have mastered the exceptional technique, only existing in Japan, called tachisukashi. Tachisukashi is a form of riding without pressing the horse’s body with the legs and without resting the body on the saddle, keeping the hips away from the saddle by one sheet of paper distance, which is very difficult to master. By this riding style, the body of the ite maintains a stable posture without the up and down movements of the upper body enabling the ite to aim accurately at the targets from the galloping horses.
When you watch a yabusame performance, please feel its dynamic power together with ite’s high shooting technique and refined riding posture.
The Costume of Ite, the Horseback Archers in Yabusame and the Harness
The ite who participate in the yabusame ritual wear hats called kimen ayahigasa, and put on either garment called hitatare or suou. They wear igote on their left shoulder which has the archer’s family crest embroidered in golden thread. Their hips are covered with mukabaki made of summer deerskin. On their waist, the archers wear a tachi, a long sword, and a short sword called maezashi or yoroi doshi and wear gloves, tabi, and foot wear called igutsu. They hold in their hands a bow called shigeto and carry arrows called jindoya inserted at their waist. Metal arrowheads are not used because bloodshed is considered taboo in Shinto rituals.
The saddles used in yabusame are called wagura and waabumi is the name for the stirrups. They are typically Japanese. The manufacturing technique for both of them are no longer available and therefore antique pieces are repaired and used carefully.
The wagura are made of wood and consist of parts such as maewa (pommel) or the arched front plate, shizuwa (cantle) or the arched real plate, igi or the contoured sidebands, and shiode the tie-downs attached to the base of a saddle. The waabumi are made of iron and are rather big as to cover the foot. They are also called zetsuabumi or tongue stirrups as they resemble the shape of a tongue. These stirrups are big and heavy and therefore have stability enabling ite to ride the tachisukashi style
The Costume of Ite
Origin of Yabusame
It is said that the origin of yabusame goes back to the 6th century when Emperor Kinmei ordered to shoot three arrows on horseback called yabasame at Usa , present-day Usa Jingu shrine in Oita Prefecture.
In the Heian Era, Emperor Uda ordered Minamoto no Yoshiari, a master in horseback archery, to fix the ”Rules and Etiquette of Horseback Archery”. These were later passed down through generations of the Minamoto clan, and then to the Takeda and Ogasawara families, who were descendants of Shinra Saburo Yoshimitsu.
Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-1199) founder of the Kamakura shogunate sought instruction from Saigyo Hoshi, an expert on yabusame, and held a yabusame ritual in 1187 to commemorate the restoration of peace. He also summoned experts on horseback archery to discuss manners and fix yabusame proceedures and contributed to the flourishing of yabusame.
With the arrival of a turbulent age of warfare yabusame faded from the historical limelight for a time. But in spite of all the rises and falls of different regimes, the teachings have been handed down through the generations and continue to this day.
Shooting Methods of Kisha
There are many forms of shooting in kisha， however the following three forms are mainly used in presentations.
This is the style of shooting directly to the left. In yabusame the archer shoots three arrows consecutively directly to the left.
This is the style of shooting at the targets placed on the left side ground level. This style is used in kasagake.
This is the style of shooting at the targets placed on the right side ground level and is used in kasagake. This is a very difficult technique as the archer with his bow on his left hand must widely twist his body and shift the bow over the horse’s neck to the right side and aim.
* What is kasagake
Kasagake was widely practiced in the Heian and Kamakura periods. The Azuma Kagami, compiled in the Kamakura period, records that Minamoto no Yoritomo and his son Yoriie both enjoyed kasagake with their vassals.
In those days, the samurai were well protected with heavy armor, making it difficult to inflict fatal wounds. Therefore, to defeat an opponent in a single shot, they aimed at the only vulnerable part of the armor、the face. If an opponent looked up or turned his face around, for example, a samurai versed in horseback archery would seize the opportunity and shoot a kill shot into the face. Kasagake was a way to train those skills. Important samurai such as Taira no Masakado, Kiso Yoshinaka and Nitta Yoshisada all died in battle due to arrow wounds to their faces.
* Kasagake Performance
In yabusame, the archer rides the horse in one direction and shoots the arrows at three targets placed on the left side, while in kasagake, the archer rides the horse and shoots while he goes and returns. The targets to aim at on the going are surrounded by bamboo picket fence on both sides, giving the archer only one chance of hitting the target when the archer is on straight angle with the target. The shooting on the return is called ko-kasagake and the targets are smaller and are placed at the right and left sides near the horse’s foot which requires very high shooting skill.
Yabusame Ritual Procedure
Shutsujin (taking to the field):
With the sound of the Gathering Drum the participants assemble and start the march in order.
Kaburaya hoken (dedication of the turnip-headed arrow), ganmon sojo (prayer recitation)
The participants enter the warship hall. Then bugyo or the magistrate presents to the deity a turnip-headed arrow called kaburaya with a metal tip.
Meigen no gi (ritual of sounding the bowstring)
This is a ceremony to drive away evil spirits by sounding the bowstring. This ritual is said to date back to the eleventh century when Minamoto no Yoshiie, a renowned archer, cleared the emperor of his disease by sounding the string on his bow three times.
Tencho chikyu no shiki (ritual to pray for prevailing peace in heaven and on earth)
The rider nominated by the magistrate rides forth to the center and performs gogyo no joho, riding in a circle three times to the left and twice to the right, then draws the bow like the full moon and aiming toward the sky and toward the ground, he prays for universal peace, a rich harvest, and people’s health.
The participants march in formation to the riding ground to the beat of the Marching Drum.
Subase (test run)
The bugyo ascends to the recording station, and the shoyaku take their places as well. When all is ready, the bugyo beats the drum to start the subase, and the archers ride their horses at full gallop through the course without shooting their arrows.
Housha (votive shooting)
Archers are divided, usually into two groups, and they race down the course while quickly fixing each arrow to the bow and shooting successively, starting with the first target. Each group repeats the performance twice.
Kyosha (competitive shooting)
Those who achieved the top results move on to kyosha, or competitive archery.
The targets are changed to small ceramic targets. The target shatters when an arrow hits the mark, sending the confetti flying like snowflakes. The kyosha stage determines which archer achieves the most hits.
Gaijin no shiki (victory ceremony)
The sound of the Ending Drum concludes the kyosha. The archer who made the most hits advances to the center with a target in hand and kneels down. Either the bugyo or the inspector unfolds his fan and observes the target from between the slits. The taikokata beats the Battle Drum three time and the participants respond with a shout of victory. This ritual is also a metaphor for inspecting the exterminated evil spirits.
Naorai (sipping of sacred sake)
The gaijin no shiki is followed by naorai, in which the participants sip sacred sake. Finally, the participants withdraw, marking the end of all ritual proceedings.
Tencho chikyu no shiki
Yabusame is performed with the help of staff known as shoyaku, who assist with the proceedings in various roles. The shoyaku wear attire called hitatare and serve in six different roles: taikokata, hatamochi, ogikata, matometsuke, heifuri, and yatori.
The taikokata beats the drum as a signal at key moments throughout the ritual.
The hatamochi are flagbearers who lead the procession with red and white flags.
The ogikata wave their fans to signal the start of the horse’s run.
The matometsuke are responsible for judging target hits.
The heifuri signal that a hit has been made by waving their wands, called hei.
The yatori pick up the discharged arrows and return them to the archer.
As seen, there are different roles for shoyaku, and are indispensable for yabusame to be performed. It is an honor to be selected as shoyaku that supports the yabusame.
Shoyaku in procession
#1 Horseback Archery
Presentation of the dynamic performance of horseback archery, of the horseback archers’ skill and history of yabusame and others.
#2 Costumes and Equipment
Presentation of archers’ costumes, harness and archery equipment in yabusame.
#3 Sacred Ritual
Presentation of each ceremony of yabusame and of shoyaku, those who assist the yabusame performance.
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