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Yabusame (????) is a type of Japanese archery, one that is performed while riding a horse. The archer shoots a special “turnip-headed” arrow at a wooden target.
This style of archery has its origins at the beginning of the Kamakura period. Minamoto no Yoritomo became alarmed at the lack of archery skills his samurai had. He organized yabusame as a form of practice.
Nowadays, yabusame is performed at the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu in Kamakura. It is also performed in Samukawa and on the beach at Zushi, as well as other locations.
Japanese bows date back to prehistoric times — the Jomon Period. The long, unique asymmetrical bow style with the grip below the center emerged under the Yayoi culture (300 BC – 300 AD) Bows became the symbol of authority and power. The legendary first emperor of Japan, Emperor Jimmu, is always depicted carrying a bow.
The use of the bow had been on foot until around the 4th century when elite soldiers took to fighting on horseback with bows and swords. In the 10th century, samurai would have archery duels on horseback. They would ride at each other and try to shoot at least three arrows. These duels did not necessarily have to end in death, as long as honor was satisfied. One of the most famous and celebrated incidents of Japanese mounted archery occurred during the Genpei War (1180–1185), an epic struggle for power between the Heike and Genji clans that was to have a major impact on Japanese culture, society, and politics.
At the Battle of Yashima, the Heike, having been defeated in battle, fled to Yashima and took to their boats. They were fiercely pursued by the Genji on horseback, but the Genji were halted by the sea.
As the Heike waited for the winds to be right, they presented a fan hung from a mast as a target for any Genji archer to shoot at in a gesture of chivalrous rivalry between enemies.
One of the Genji samurai, Nasu Yoichi, accepted the challenge. He rode his horse into the sea and shot the fan cleanly through. Nasu won much fame and his feat is still celebrated to this day.
During the Kamakura Period (1192–1334), mounted archery was used as a military training exercise to keep samurai prepared for war. Those archers who did poorly might find themselves commanded to commit seppuku, or ritualistic suicide.
One style of mounted archery was inuoumono — shooting at dogs. Buddhist priests were able to prevail upon the samurai to have the arrows padded so that the dogs were only annoyed and bruised rather than killed. This sport is no longer practiced.
Yabusame was designed as a way to please and entertain the myriad of gods that watch over Japan, thus encouraging their blessings for the prosperity of the land, the people, and the harvest.
A yabusame archer gallops down a 255-meter-long track at high speed. The archer mainly controls his horse with his knees, as he needs both hands to draw and shoot his bow.
As he approaches a target, he brings his bow up and draws the arrow past his ear before letting the arrow fly with a deep shout of In-Yo-In-Yo (darkness and light). The arrow is blunt and round-shaped in order to make a louder sound when it strikes the board.
Experienced archers are allowed to used arrows with a V-shaped prong. If the board is struck, it will splinter with a confetti-like material and fall to the ground. To hit all three targets is considered an admirable accomplishment. Yabusame targets and their placement are designed to ritually replicate the optimum target for a lethal blow on an opponent wearing full traditional samurai armor (O-Yoroi) which left the space just beneath the helmet visor bare.