The bow and arrow have a long history in Japan. By the third century B.C.E., Japanese warriors were using a long bow—a bow which was at least 2 meters (nearly 7 feet) in length—which was called the maruki yumi. As in other parts of the world, this bow was symmetrical in that the hand grip was in the center. By the third century C.E., however, Chinese observers noted that the Japanese archers were using an asymmetrical bow, one in which the upper and lower limbs were of different lengths. Toward the end of the eighth century C.E., the samurai began to emerge as Japan’s warrior class. The samurai were mounted warriors whose primary weapon was the asymmetrical bow.
Shown above is a samurai bow and quiver of arrows from a special exhibit on Samurai Armor at the Portland (Oregon) Art Museum.
The samurai refined ‘the way of the bow and horse’ (kyūba no michi) which then developed into ‘the way of the warrior’ (bushidō). Ian Bottomly, in his chapter on Horse Accouterments and Mounted Warfare in The Art of Armor, writes of the Heian period (794-1185):
“It is accepted that the bushi (members of the buke warrior class) had adopted a sometimes ritualized form of warfare based on individual duels between mounted archers. Battles were supposed to have begun with warriors issuing challenges before charging each other, shooting their arrows, then wheeling their horses and returning to their lines.”The asymmetrical bow is unique to Japan. The bow was made using a composite construction using three strips of mulberry wood with additional layers of bamboo at the back and the belly. The body of the bow was then lacquered black or red. A typical bow would be seven feet four inches in length.
The grip of the bow was one-third of the length of the stave from the base. This asymmetrical form created some interesting problems for the physics of archery. In order for the arrow to fly true, it must have an even pull. Constructing an asymmetrical bow so that it exerted an even pull on the arrow required significant skill.
With regard to shooting the bow, Thom Richardson, in his chapter on the Kofun period in The Art of Armor, writes:
"A Central Asian-style thumb release was used, but with a special leather glove (yugake) that had a reinforced thumb piece.”The samurai were mounted archers. On horseback, the samurai would hold the bow over his head to clear the horse and then bring it down with the left arm straight. Being on horseback meant that the samurai could only shoot on his left side along a fairly narrow arc. The legendary skill of the mounted samurai archery was due to hours of practice in which archery became a skill, an art, and a form of religious practice.
There are many stories of the great feats of the samurai archers. For example, it is said that Minamoto Tametomo sank a ship by hitting it below the water line. In another instance, at the 1184 Battle of Yashima, a fan was hung on the mast of a ship and the opposing samurai were challenged to shoot it down. Nasu Yoichi, who was on horseback in the water, hit the fan with his first arrow even though the ship was rocking in the waves.
The paintings above show the mounted samurai using the bow. These are on display at the Portland Art Museum.
Shown above is the bow and arrow. This is from a special exhibit on Samurai Armor at the Portland (Oregon) Art Museum.
Shown above is a display of samurai armor showing the bow and arrows. This is from a special exhibit on Samurai Armor at the Portland (Oregon) Art Museum.
Shown above is a small bow designed to be used from inside the small, enclosed carriage. This is from a special exhibit on Samurai Armor at the Portland (Oregon) Art Museum.
Samurai arrows were made from bamboo with duck feathers used for the fletching. The arrows were tipped with iron points. Arrows were often kept in a lacquered box with racks to hold the arrows in place.
Each battle was to begin with an archery duel and this was signaled by firing arrows high into the air over enemy lines. These signal arrows would have a large bulblike perforated wooden head. As the signal arrow flew through the air it would make a whistling sound to call to the Kami (the Shinto gods) to make them aware of the great deeds which were about to be performed.
The arrowheads shown above carry designs with a variety of religious or political messages. This is from a special exhibit on Samurai Armor at the Portland (Oregon) Art Museum.