What is Yumi the Japanese bow?
The bow is a tool made to shoot targets at a distance with arrows, utilizing the elasticity of materials like wood and bamboo. A bow consists of the main body, the "bowstave," and the "string." When explaining in combination with arrows, it is called a "bow and arrow". In Japan, it has evolved from a hunting tool to a weapon and then to a ceremonial tool. This article explains mainly about the history, types, and structure of bows in Japan.
History of the Bow
The history of the bow is old, and its uses vary from hunting and weaponry to ceremonial tools. I'll explain the history of the bow according to its uses.
The Bow as a Hunting Tool
It is said that humans began using bows about 20,000 years ago (the Late Paleolithic period), and they were born as hunting tools in various parts of the world, not just Japan. By shaping elastic wood or bamboo into a long thin piece and stretching a string between the ends, a bow is made. By attaching a sharpened bone or stone to the tip of a wooden or bamboo stick and shooting it as an arrow, prey at a distance beyond reach could be caught. In Japan, bows coated with lacquer were already used during the Jomon period, and obsidian was used for arrowheads. Also, hunting scenes with bows are depicted on bronze bells made during the Yayoi period.
The Bow as a Weapon
The bow evolved from a hunting tool to a weapon. This was due to the increase in population, the emergence of wealth disparities, and the occurrence of wars from power struggles. The shape of the bow that Japanese people used as a weapon is described in detail in the "Wei Zhi Dongyi Biography Wa People" section of the Chinese historical book "Three Kingdoms" from the 3rd century. The wooden bow has a short lower part from the grip and a long upper part, indicating that the bow of that time had a similar shape to today's bow. The body of the arrow was bamboo, and iron or bone was used for the arrowhead. Even after guns were introduced, bows continued to be valued as one of the major weapons along with katana swords and spears (yari), seemingly due to their ease of creation and cost-effectiveness. Battles usually started with long-distance combat with bows, and as the distance closed, they switched to close combat with spears and swords. A samurai in battlefield, is usually fully armed with samurai armor, their primary weapon usually is long bow, spear, and katana (could be tachi or Uchigatana). In the samurai society, the training of the bow was valued along with horse riding, are described by the term "the way of the bow and horse".
The Bow as a Ceremonial Tool
Ancient Japan was strongly influenced by China culturally, and bows, which were used as ceremonial tools on the Chinese mainland, came to have sacred and magical connotations in Japan. The act of shooting a distant target without moving a step from one's position with a bow and arrow must have seemed divine at times. The "shooting ceremony", a representative ritual of the bow, is a China-originated event that was established as a New Year's court event from the early Heian period. In ancient Japan, it was believed that evil spirits (demons) arose at the change of seasons (seasonal festivals), so bows and arrows, which have sacred connotations, were used as lucky charms to ward them off. For example, the "ceremony of the resonant string" uses only a bow, and the string is strongly plucked to make a sound that drives away demons. There are also rituals such as "exorcism" that use bows and arrows to drive away demons, which can be seen all over the place. Even today, "demon-breaking arrows" that can be obtained at temples and shrines during the New Year, or "demon-breaking bows" that are given on the first New Year after the birth of a boy, are familiar to Japanese people as ceremonial bows.
Types of Bows
In Japan, there are two major types of bows: the "Yumi" (Japanese bow) and the "Koyumi" (small bow). I'll introduce each of their features.
Yumi (Japanese Bow)
As the name suggests, Yumi is a term used in contrast to the Western bow (archery). The first feature is its length. The length of a Yumi is among the longest in the world, with the standard being 221 cm (approximately 7 feet 3 inches). Another feature is that it is held and used lower than the center of the bow. From ancient times, the Yumi was called a "Ooyumi" (large bow) and there existed bows of various lengths such as "Hankyu" (half-bow) which was around 6 feet, but it is believed that this length was preferred by the samurai because it had the most power and it remains so until today.
Koyumi (Small Bow)
Koyumi refers to small bows made mainly for recreational use. During the Heian period, Koyumi was used as an indoor game by nobles. There were also even smaller bows for children called "Suzume Koyumi". Another type of recreational small bow is the "Yanagi Yumi" made from willow, with a length of about 85 cm (approximately 2 feet 8 inches).
Next, I will explain the structure of a Yumi. The bow consists of a basic structure of the bow stave and the string, and the shape of the bow is called "Nari". Please note that the names introduced below are general terms. They may differ depending on the region, school, and materials of the bow.
Bow Stave (Yugara)
The main body of the bow is the bow stave. The side facing the string is called the belly (Yuhara), and the opposite side is called the back. The typical names of each part of the bow stave are as follows:
Urahazu (end nock): This is at the very top of the bow stave, where the string loop is attached.
Uwasekiita (upper faceplate): The belly part below the Urahazu.
Togashira: The place where the grip and the rattan wrapped around the upper part meet.
Nigiri (grip): The part of the bow you hold when shooting an arrow. Also known as Yuzuka (bow handle).
Shimosekiita (lower faceplate): The belly part above the Motohazu.
Motohazu (bottom nock): This is at the very bottom of the bow stave, where the string loop is attached.
The string is made from materials that are elastic and durable even when shaped into a thin thread. In the old days, animal skins, intestines, and plant hemp were the main materials.
String loop: A loop-shaped string to attach to the Urahazu or Motohazu.
Upper string: The string above the Nakajikake.
Nakajikake: The part where the arrow is set and pulled back. It is adjusted to fit the groove made on the end of the arrow.
Lower string: The string below the Nakajikake.
Nari refers to the shape of the bow. The bow has names for the curved parts, which reflect the features of the bow.
Himegaeri: The curved part at the upper part of the bow.
Toriuchi: The part with the most curve, below the Himegaeri.
Dou: The gradual part from the Toriuchi to the lower part of the grip.
Oikoshi: The curved part from the Dou to the Kogaeri.
Kogaeri: The curved part at the lower part of the bow.
Bows are still a familiar tool used for religious ceremonies
Bows were born all over the world and were used as tools for hunting, weapons, games, and rituals. In Japan, a Yumi, which boasts one of the longest lengths in the world, has been used since ancient times. Even now, not only is the technique preserved in the form of Kyudo (Japanese archery), but it is also a tool that is often seen in traditional events at temples and shrines across the country. It is popular as an antique item as a tool in which the power to ward off evil resides.