Name of sport (game)
Name in native language
Place of practice (continent, state, nation)
This sport discipline is practiced in Japan. Performances of it are occasionally shown in other countries.
The roots of this sport date back to prehistory. It was established in Jōmon era. According to historians, year 12,000 BCE was the beginning and year 300 BCE was the ending of the era. The shape of the bow, that is used nowadays, was created during Yayoi era (300 BCE – 300 CE).
Until the 4th century archers were moving on foot, then they started horseback riding. After few hundred years later samurais, who were at most 10% of Japanese population, began dueling in a way similar to today’s Yabusame – each of the samurai rode closer to the other rider in order to shoot him with at least three arrows.
At the end of the 12th century in Japan’s history began another important period for Yabusame. Kamakura era, apart from socio-political transformations closely related to the emerging feudalism and reducing emperor’s role to ceremonial functions, also began the tradition of demonstrating archery techniques on a horse before the government. It was also an exercise preparing for a possible war.
Later, this sport discipline lost its popularity. It experienced a big reform only in the year 1724. It was then that Ogasawara Heibei Tsuneharu led by Shogun Yoshimuna developed a new Yabusame style: combining the traditions and textbooks of both schools of this sport. Both schools were created in the 9th and 12th centuries.
What is interesting, this discipline was also used for ritual purposes. It was demonstrated during prayers for healing, repelling evil, or the birth of children.
After the abdication of the last ruler of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1867) and the restoration of the Empire, the sport lost its popularity once more. It was only after the Second World War that Yabusame returned and now is an essential element of the Japanese tradition.
Archers are dressed in traditional costumes from the Kamakura period – a time during which this sport was actually created. The sport begins with a ritual prayer. The leader of the game places an arrow on the altar in order to drive away evil spirits, after short introductory ceremonies. He sacrifices that arrow to the gods. Later, one of the players stands in front of the main place of the celebration. He says a prayer intended to bring peace and abundant crops to the country.
Next, on the altar an olive branch is offered, and the leader of prayer gives one of the archers a folded arrow, which will be used again at the next ceremony. The speech ends with a few hits on the gong. After leaving the temple, players go on the game field.
A further prayer takes place before reaching the destination. The archer, being already on his horse, tightens the bowstring, directing the arrow towards the sky and then towards the ground, which reminds a deep bow. These activities are performed for peace and prosperity.
The procession, leaded by the person with the olive branch, passes along the track of the game, which is about 218 meters long (2 Japanese chōs). A fence is placed on both sides of it. On the left, about 5 meters from it, at a height of 2 meters, 3 square targets with a length of 35-50 centimeters, spaced apart at equal distances, are installed. These distances, however, can change, because they are dependent on Yabusame schools and rules applied in a given region.
First, there are several test runs, during which no shields are shot. Then the main game begins. Two people standing at the beginning and the end of the track give the signal to start by waving fans. While horses’ gallop, riders have to hit the targets. If they succeed, the player sitting at the target raises a white fan.
Over the time, the targets were changed to wheels with a diameter of 10 centimeters. Inside there is confetti that shoots from it after being hit by an arrow. Some Yabusame schools, however, do not have this kind of targets.
Here and there after shooting all three shields archers receive a white robe, which they put on their shoulders.
Yabusame is not often practiced. Mostly only on chosen, festive days, as well as during visits of heads of state, or other high-ranking officials from other countries.
Yabusame performances take place in various districts of Japan on different days. However, in many places in this country this discipline is practiced on September 15, on Shintō festival Rei-sai, during which there is pleading for further prosperity from the gods. Rei-sai is one of the three most important celebrations throughout the year.
In addition, some regions demonstrate this discipline on Sunday, which is near April 15, May 4, May 5, August 1, September 9, November 3, and several other days.
There are no regular games. The position of the archer in Yabusame is a highly honorable matter. Although only men practiced this sport, for some time also women become archers – they compete with each other, presenting this discipline.
Ogasawara-ryū – school founded in 1187.
The Japan Equestrian Archery Association
20-43 Onarimachi, Kamakura, Kanagawa-ken
Sources of information
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ve0KVtx_u74 – report from men’s games.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DDDvSRCVq_g – report from women’s games.
Source of photos used in this article and gallery: