Phases of Martial Structuring: Kyūsen no Michi ~ Part 1

The next martial system that influenced how the bushi fought is called “Kyūsen no Michi” (弓箭の道), which translates as “the path of the bow & arrow”. An older term that comes from China, there is very little differences, if any, from Kyūba no Michi (弓馬の道). Much of the practice of archery as a system for military purposes has been covered in a previous post part of this series. Due to the role the bow & arrow played in Japanese history, the topic of Kyūsen no Michi will be divided into 2 parts. For the first part, to avoid restating similar info from before, I will go over the existence of the term in various documents, as well as a brief summary of the use of archery in Japan during warring times based on certain criteria.

DOCUMENTATION

The word kyūsen, which can also be pronounced as “kyūshi” or “yumiya¹”, is but one of the preceding labels that identify the use of the bow and arrows for war purposes. The term may have been 1st adopted sometime after the 9th century, with one of the influences possibly being a song found in “Heishakō²”, which is a collection of war-related songs composed by a renown Tang Dynasty poet named To Ho³. Although short, the stanza goes as the following:

“行人弓箭各在腰”

This line translates as the following below:

“The warrior departing for war carries a bow and arrows at his side”

Artwork called “Ujigawa” (宇治川), which depicts two warriors riding into the Uji River with bow in hand, rushing towards an ongoing battle. Artist is Haishi Kōji. From the book “Jōyō Kokugo Benran” (常用国語便覧).

As much of the culture from China was being brought over to Japan, many aristocrats would share contents such as Chinese poetry and literature, and adopt what was written into their lifestyles. The warrior class would do the same, as they adopted many things related to the bow, from methods on how to make a bow from specific materials, to adding ceremonial customs that would treat archery almost like a religious practice.

The word “kyūsen” would appear later in Japanese works, such as Heiji Monogatari (平治物語), Heike Monogatari (平家物語), Taiheiki (太平記), and Azuma Kagami (吾妻鏡). In the way it’s used, kyūsen depicts someone who’s a warrior, or those who were disciplined for military activities. It is expressed that for one to be accepted as a bushi (武士, warrior) or trained in bugei (武芸, martial skills), learning how to use the bow & arrow was an important part of it.

EARLY HISTORY

We learn that the bow & arrow was placed in the center of the warrior culture from written accounts of warfare from the 12th century onward. With bows in hand while on horseback, warriors were ready to let their arrows fly as depicted in events such as the attacks in Kyōto during Heiji no Ran (1159-1160), disputes between the Taira and Minamoto clans during the Genpei Gassen (1180-1185), and the continual unrest due to the establishment of militaristic governance throughout the Kamakura period (1185-1333).

Pic of part a of picture scroll where warriors using bow & arrow are attacking residence of the burning Sanjō Palace. From “Heiji Monogatari Emaki” (平治物語絵巻).

For combat, common tactics with the bow & arrow included ya-awase (矢合わせ, raining arrows) at the commencing of a battle, and kibamusha (騎馬武者, mounted warriors) using the bow while closing the distance. Despite acting as an army, infantry and elite soldiers engaged with the enemy in 1-on-1 skirmishes predominantly. Outside of combat, warriors spent their time using the bow & arrow in pasttime activities known as “Kisha Mitsumono” (騎射三物). This included equestrian recreations where one displays their skills in shooting. Hunting was also an activity warriors spent their time doing, usually in groups.

Since the Japanese spent centuries battling one another due to internal strife and a struggle for power, their tactics were, for the most part, universal amongst the many warrior families and armies commanded by feudal lords. This would change, however, once their country was in danger to an outside threat.

MONGOL INVASION

In the 13th century, Kublai Khan declared himself not only emperor of Mongolia, but acquired sovereign power in China and made Korea submit as a vassal state. In the mid 1200s, he would then turn his sights on Japan and threatened them to submit under his control and order several times. Despite advise from the Imperial court, the current shogunate at that time (primarily controlled by the Hojo clan) refused. After making preparations, Kublai would set out troops from both Mongolia, China, and Korea, and put forth the 1st Mongol Invasion on Japan in 1274⁴. As the first real foreign threat, almost all feudal lords and warrior families combined their efforts to fight for their country instead of for personal gain against one another. They did their best to prepare their forces and head to the northern border of Kyūshū, which is where the Mongolian forces used to embark on Japan.

While the Japanese expected the same customs for conducting battles based around their tried and true strategies, they were gravely mistaken; their customs and strategies were ineffective against an enemy that did not abide to them. Instead, they were faced with unpredictable tactics from the invaders, which included advancing and retreating tactics by archers, and multiple attackers against single opponents. The Mongol force also utilized weaponry far advanced, such as smaller bows that had a heavier draw, poisoned and fire-rocket arrows, explosives, and swords with more curvature. The leather armor that the Mongol invaders wore also gave them favorable defense against the Japanese weapons such as the tachi; although long, the blade of the tachi was thin, with accounts stating that they broke after becoming snagged in the leather armor. As for the bow & arrow hailed favorably by the Japanese warriors, it did not fair so well either; its initial purpose of shooting down single opponents proved difficult against enemies who would retreat out of its effective range, or close the gap in groups. Such unforeseeable tactics brought much fatalities within the Japanese warriors’ ranks, especially in the earlier battles.

Section of the artwork depicting invaders from the Mongol army fighting against Japanese warriors. Here, a kibamusha (cavalry warrior) is slain. From “Mōko Shūrai Gassen Emaki” (蒙古襲来合戦絵巻)

In the end, the Japanese warriors were able to win through the natural occurrence of high winds that sank many of the invaders ships at night, alongside with night raids on any surviving ships. Defeated, Kublai Khan would wait several years before attempting another invasion in 1281, only to face similar results due to ill-prepared sea vessels against turbulent winds on the sea. Despite their overall victory, the Japanese discovered that there were flaws in their current arms & tactics, especially those that heavily depended on fighting on horseback and using the bow & arrow. In order to compete with the outside world, they had to adopt new weaponry, and improve on their tactics.

NEW TACTICS

Although starting after the 1st phase of the Mongol Invasion, military groups and specialists put great effort in redefining their approach to warfare once the threat of Kublai Khan was over, especially during the later years of the Kamakura period. For starters, greater emphasis was placed on larger numbers of troops. In order to utilize troops better, battle formations were also incorporated, which divided them into groups and serving specific purposes. With a larger army, swarming & rushing upon the enemy became the prime objective, which had troops focus more on using close-range weapons, such as the uchigatana, nagamaki, and the yari.

While the skill level and etiquette associated with the bow & arrow were retained for high-class warriors, it saw less use than normal as they did not fit in well with the new tactics for battle. On top of this, armor was modestly improved with added defense against arrows. Instead, the yari was given precedence in overall use and versatility⁵, as seen in the increase of group tactics of spearsmen. The yari was also used by cavalry, which was specialized on and made popular by certain feudal lords such as Takeda Shingen in the mid 1500s. While raining arrows was still a valuable strategy, archers would stay back, hidden behind cover or surrounded by fences.

Woodblock painting called “Samurai Archer”. Dated 1899. Artist is Mizuno Toshikata (水野年方). From ukiyo-e.org.

At certain points did the bow & arrow see improvements. For example, in the late 15th century, new tactics incorporating groups of archers shooting while walking was being incorporated into the battlefield. Credited to Heki Danjō Masatsugu⁶, this allowed specially trained archers to advance and give addition cover to fellow troops, as well as to better assist with retreating tactics. In the mid 16th century, some armies would have archers work side by side with gunners, and incorporate long range tactics to both deal damage while dealing with flankers. On top of this, the use of fire arrows by archers, which was learnt from the tactics by the Mongol and Korean soldiers during the aforementioned Mongol Invasion, became commonplace, especially by those who commanded navy fleets such as the Murakami clan.

All in all, dwindling use of the bow & arrow would continue throughout the Sengoku period (1467-1600) until the end of civil battles due to the Tokugawa shogunate from Edo period onward. In its demise, the dependency on firearms in battle would grow immensely due to factors such as the influences from Western countries, improvements in the overall technology, potential damage they deliver, and the less demand of skills to use them. Despite the shift in focus, some warrior groups who still saw value in the bow & arrow kept the skills and tradition alive, where it is still practiced even today.

ENDING

We’ve come to the end of this brief overview of what Kyūsen no Michi is and how it depicts the importance of the bow & arrow throughout the history in Japan. In part 2, the discuss will focus on specific groups that represented excellence in the use of bow & arrow, as well as few individuals who are considered pioneers in Kyūsen no Michi.


1) When referring to the kanji “弓箭”, both pronunciations “kyūsen” and “yumiya” share this. “Kyūsen” is a more “foregin” way of stating bow & arrow, whereas “yumiya” is more native dialect. Later, yumiya would use the kanji “弓矢”, possibly to make the term more Japanese-like.

2) 兵車行. Pronounced as “Bīng Chē Xíng” in Chinese. This roughly translates to “Songs of the War Chariot”.

3) 杜甫. Pronounced “Dù Fǔ” in Chinese.

4) This particular matter concerning Kublai Khan is generally known as “Genkō” (元寇). This term was 1st used during the Edo period by the Tokugawa shogunate to refer to this event. Before that, another name was used, which was “Mōko Shūrai” (蒙古襲来). Both literally mean “Mongol Invasion”. Within this event, there was 2 invasion attempts, with the 1st one called “Bunei no eki” (文永の役, Campaign of Bunei period), and the 2nd one called “Kōan no eki” (弘安の役, campaign of Kōan period).

5) Before the Kamakura period, Japanese warriors used another type of polearm called the hoko (鉾), which was a shorter, single or double-edged bladed weapon. Derived from a Chinese variant, it was primarily a stabbing implement. The yari, on the other hand, was a much larger polearm with a longer blade that, depending on design, was versatile for not only thrusting, but for cutting and striking.

6) 日置弾正正次

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