Horseback archery has an interesting place in Japanese culture. It is now a purely ceremonial event that can be seen across the country. I was fortunate enough to discover that a small Yabusame association chapter held a competition just up the street from a local station, so I went with some friend to see this tradition first hand!
A Brief History of Yabusame
Yabusame traces its routes back to the 6th century when Emperor Kinmei ordered three arrows shot form horseback in Oita Prefecture at Usa Jingu shrine. In the Heian era, the rules of horseback archery were codified by Minamoto no Yoshiari on the order of Emperor Uda. These rules have survived for centuries and were passed down to the big two Yabusame schools in Japan: the Takeda School and the Ogasawara School. In the 12th century, the practice was further codified and expanded upon by Minamoto no Yoritomo, the founder of the Kamakura Shogunate, with the advising of expert Yabusame practitioner Saigyo Hoshi. The practice and popularity of Yabusame waned over the years, but miraculously, the practice still lives to this day and continues to be practiced much like how it was so many years ago. The one main difference is that nowadays, the archers use western-bred horses, which are larger and faster than the horses of old Japan, meaning that the competition today is more difficult than it was before.
Terms and Rules
Yabusame itself is a type of horseback archery, or kisha/umayumi. The riders themselves are called ite, and spend years perfecting the Japanese art of riding and shooting known as tachisukashi. The ite wears a special outfit if they are a man. I did not see the women ite wearing the same outfits, so I am unsure if there are analogous components for female archers. The archers wear special hats (kimen ayahigasa), leg coverings (mukabaki), and shoulder pads () which contain their family crest etched with gold thread. They also carry a pair of swords, as traditional warriors on horseback would have had in the past.
An interesting tidbit: They don’t use arrowheads. Rather, they use these bulb-tipped arrows to shoot at the targets. This is to reduce any injuries from wayward arrows, seeing as the crowds are pushed up against the shooting track.
There are different types of riding competitions, based on the height of the target. If the archer aims and shoot three arrows directly to the left, it is Yundeyoko, which is what I saw during this event. Yundesugai is when the target is placed at ground level on the left side, and Metesugai is when the target is placed on the ground on the right side. If you hit the target, one of the target judges with a large pole will raise it, signaling a drum to be sounded, giving the archer one point. Archers don’t win any money, but rather, glory and prestige for themselves and their school.
The Kawagoe Yabusame, held out in Kasumigaseki, is a relatively small affair compared to other Yabusame events, I’m sure. There were only a few archers: three women and three men. After the grand ceremony to begin the contest, the archers took their turns riding down the track, shooting at the three targets as they went. We were set up around the third target, which is where they have the most speed and is a very difficult target to hit because of this.
Each rider ran twice, shooting as they went. The targets were simple squares of wood place atop a pole in a diamond orientation, looking similar to boards used by martial artists for public display or performance. The speed at which they zip by is truly amazing; hitting that piece of wood must require some incredible timing, made even more challenging by the fact that the rider is straddling a galloping horse. Once all the targets were hit and the riders were done, the crowd very quickly dispersed and the riders allowed guests to queue up and ride their horses around a small circle by the first target.
If you’re in Saitama in Fall, I whole-heartedly recommend coming to see this small Yabusame display. You can also check the official Yabusame association website I linked above for more dates and events where you can check out some equestrian archery!