Wakyu (Japanese bow) (和弓)

Wakyu is the Chokyu (long bow) (weapon) used in Japanese Kyudo (Japanese art of archery). Its standard length is determined to be seven shaku and three sun (approximately 221 cm) and the term, 'wakyu' is used in opposed to the western archery. It was called as Daikyu in ancient times, and those that were longer than 2 m was called as Daikyu, and shorter bows (approximately 45 to 160 cm) were labeled as Hankyu small-sized bow.


The western bow has a span of approximately 160 cm and segregated into parts such as the central handle and rims. Meanwhile, the wakyu has a standard length of 221 cm that is biggest in the world by observing just length, the grip being positioned at one-third length from the bottom, lowered as seen from the center of the bow (the longer top and short bottom) and it is made from one unit structure.

While it seems as though the longer top and short bottom seem to be unbalanced, the grip rests at the center of the vibration and brings less vibration to the archer. Although advanced in skill, one could use the difference in the reflection of upper and lower body of the bow, and control the way arrows are shot (give more flight distance, fly it straight, etc.).

One theory holds that the beauty of wakyu is due to the golden ratio that exists between the distance from the top of the bow to where the arrow is cocked and the distance from where the arrow is cocked to the bottom of the bow.

The bow is held generally in left hand and the arrow is placed on the right side of the bow (western bow cocks it toward left) before the string is pulled with a right hand covered by yugake (hand protector). The tsuru (bowstring) is held at the bottom of the right thumb and hazu (nock of an arrow) is held in a Mongolian style by with an index finger (the western bow holds the string with the index to the ring finger in a Mediterranean style). It is pulled strongly down from the top until the right hand ends up at the right shoulder, and the tsuru is pulled back toward behind ears.


The length of the bow is not the direct distance from end to end of the bow but measured along the curve of the bow. In another words, it is a length of the material itself. The seven shaku three sun (approximately 221cm) is called as 'Nami sun' (Average sun (3.03cm)), and the seven shaku five sun (approximately 227 cm) that extends is called as 'Nobi sun' (Extended sun) or 'Ni sun nobi' (extension by two sun), seven shaku seven sun (approximately 233 cm) as 'Yon sun nobi' (extended by four sun), and seven shaku (approximately 212 cm) as 'san sun zume' (contracted by three sun) or 'sun zume' (contraction by a sun (3.03 cm)). Wakyu bow length depends on the matching body composition and the height of the archer, and the average arrow length of up to 85 cm is determined to be Nami sun, up to 90 cm is Nobi sun, up to 95 cm was Yon sun nobi, and those shorter than 80cm is considered to be seven shaku.

According to the All Nippon Kyudo Federation, "the standard bow length is 221 cm (seven shaku three sun), but the slight lengthening and shortening of a bow is allowed depending on the height of the archer or the type of the tournament." "... The bow is gripped two-thirds in length from the top of the bow." "The length of the Yazurido (Arrow slide binding) is longer than six centimeters." "No label, device used to assist the aim, or similar sort is allowed on the bow." While most of the tournament rules are already determined, All Nippon Kyudo Federation says that "the tools for Kyudo are not standardized completely, and there is a need for individual adjustments and familialization with tools required to increase the ability of bow." "That will help with the understanding of the traditional kyudo." Thus it partially acknowledges the versatility of wakyu created from past craftsmen.

While it is determined that "the location of the grip is located two-thirds from the top," the actual grip is not located exactly two-thirds but approximately at three-fifth.

Sori (warpage)

Wakyu generally forms an unique smooth curve called as nari (shape of the bow). It is called harigao (stetched face) or nari when the tsuru of the bow is taunt, hikinari (shape of the bow when pulled) when the bow is pulled, and urazori (bow bending in an opposite direction, when the tsuru taking off from the bow) when tsuru is released, and these are important elements need to be observed when handling each bow characteristic and management.

Wakyu is generally formed from five nari. The five locations are called from the bottom, kozori (small curve), oogoshi (area around the belt), do (stomach), toriuchi (37-38 cm below the upper area of the bow), hime zori (princess sori) and harigao, and different harigao and strengths are formed from the reflection strength balance. The harigao of the bow is called as Edo nari (Nari of Edo), Bishu nari (nari of Bishu), Kishu nari (Nari of Kishu), Kyo nari (nari of Kyoto), or Satsuma nari (Nari of Satsuma), and has an characteristic depending on locations and a bow craftsman. The nari of the bow is not uniform depending on the favoritism and habit of the archer, difference in each materials, and the shape of the stringed bow is different whenever the string is strung.

The wakyu is not straight when viewed with the tsuru nearby and yugara (wooden or bamboo part between Motohazu (the lower top of the bow) and Urahazu (the top of the bow)) further away, and the tsuru is placed slightly left in order to make it located at the right edge of yugara where the arrow is placed. The condition where the tsuru is located at the right side of the bow is called as iriki (wood inserted) and is a curvature required to shoot the arrow straight. However, when tsuru is located toward left of the bow, it is called as deki (protruded wood) and needs repairmen since it is broken.


The traditional bamboo bow has basic three layered structure, and called from the side of the bowstring, uchitake (inner bamboo) (also called as maetake), nakauchi (inner hit), todake (outer hit), and nakauchi is sandwiched between uchitake and todake. Nakauchi has layers of charcoaled strips of bamboo called higo piled up in a row and sandwiched between layer of wood. The completed bow shows the wood sandwiched between maetake and todake, and this part of the wood is called sobaki (side wood).

By heating and scorching the bamboo with fire, the binding of cellulose, which is the main component of fiber and vascular bundles of the bamboo, becomes gradually stronger and transforms into a natural carbon based fiber with graphite in the end. This allows it to develop a light and strong flexibility, and used as the core of the bow called higo.

The unique curve of the wakyu bow is formed by piling up the uchitake, nakauchi, and todake painted with glue, and uniformly bound with 'Fujitsuru' (wisteria vine) before beating in 100 to 200 bamboo wedges between the vine and bamboo, and bend it while compressing (as a result, the production of wakyu is expressed as 'beating the bow.')
The act of pulling and shooting the arrow is called 'pulling the bow' or 'pull.').

The todake is stretched while pulling the bamboo bow with a nakauchi as the core, and uchitake is compressed, and the todake and uchitake function as a spring for the bow reflection, and the characteristic of the bow varies greatly depending on the nature of the bamboo, the amount of burning, and number of higo being used. The typical bamboo bow brings out the characteristics of each part, by placing it in fire as long as todake keeps white color, uchitake keeps white or gets lightly colored, and higo becomes black almost like a charcoal. The strength of the bow is adjusted by thinning the thickness of the bow or making it wider.


The bamboo bow usually uses madake (Japanese Timber Bamboo, Phyllostachys bambusoides) and hazenoki (Japanese wax tree, Rhus succedanea L). In case of madake, two to three year-old sannenndake (three year-old bamboo) are chosen and then among them, only madake that fit the criteria depending on its joint length, the distances between joints, diameter and curvature, are chosen for the bow material. The bamboo is harvested between fall and winter, the seasons when the bamboo is most dry. The branches of the bamboo is cut off, rested for over a year, and heated over the fire to wipe away the oil, and made into an ingredient for the bow. Among those, the bamboo other than madake is used as higo, a susudake (bamboo with soot, those that are placed as a thatched roof of a house) is used for maetake, and unmonchiku (Leopard bamboo, Phyllostachys nigra f. boryana), Phyllostachys nigra cv. Punctata are sometimes used for decorative purposes.

Hazenoki has excellent flexibility and is used as a material for the sobaki (bow surrounded with two pieces of bamboo) from a long ago. Other than hazenoki, there are bows that are made of Karaki (imported Chinese wood) such as Rosewood and Ebony, are present despite being few in numbers. On rare occassions, hazenoki develops moku (a name of a rare pattern) on bark such as Nawamemoku (knot moku), chijimi moku (contracted moku), bird eye moku, and quail moku decorations considered to be the beauty of nature that appears on a wakyu valued along with mondake (bamboo with patterns). However, it is becoming harder to gain hazenoki produced in Japan, and is believed that the resource will dry up in the future.

The glue that keeps the bamboo together is an important factor that determines the nature of the bow. The glue that is made from petroleum oil is mainly used in recent days, but gelatin from the deer skin called nibenikawa has been used from long past and makes the pulling movement soft, bow to last long, and is skilled although it is harder to obtain compared to those that used the petroleum oil. The one that uses nibenikawa is called nibe bow, and is valued among advanced kyudo archers.


The complete length of the wakyu is determined to 221 cm as a standard since Edo period, but it is not known why wakyu began to be held at the lower end of the bow.

Expected reasons are as follows.

The material that could be easily obtained in Japan was plant related. The bamboo and wood start to fail when it is shaken too much, and by making the bow length longer, it decreases the strain on the bow and allows it to outstand more arrows. As a result, it developed into the current shape from the pursuit of bow durability and strength.

The ancient bows were created from one single material carved out from wood for reasons mentioned above, and were held with the root side at the bottom and top of the wood as above. However, since the root has stronger durability of the wood, the bow began to be held at lower end in order to have a balance.

The foot soldiers had to crouch and bushi (samurai warriors) of high standing had to pull the arrow on top of a horse during the battle that it came in the way with the ground or horse when the bottom part was long. As a result, the bow began to be held toward the lower end.

The traditional bows were considered to be a holy tool in Japan and became longer with the respect and belief. There are many religious ceremonies seen using bows in Japan even now.

While people contemplated on why the wakyu became longer, it actually became shorter within the span of long history. There were bows that were longer than 3m during the Kofun period (tumulus period), and Shosoin Treasure House stores a bow that has a length of 2.4m. In addition, the standard length of the bow was seven shaku five sun (2.27m) from Kamakura to Edo periods.

There were Japanese long bows called Daikyu long bow that was longer than two meters, short bows labeled as Hankyu small-sized bow, and various bows with different lengths, martial or recreation purposes, made from plants or animal were present in Japan from ancient times. The one that had the most strength and favored by bushi was Daikyu long bow, and the archery evolved and remains today as kyudo. In another words, it resulted from selections made from the purpose of different periods and choices made during the history.


Stone Age Bow in the Jomon Period: Approximately 13,000 B.C.-
It is known that stone arrow heads were present from the stone age, but it began to appear in Japan from the Jomon period. The bow at that time was used for hunting purpose and was a necessary living tool. The bow was carved out from a single wood (Cephalotaxaceae) and we can often see the bow that was bound with wood barks or hemp and fixed with lacquer for itsreinforcement (the bow of this period is referred to in archeology as 'Marukiyumi' (bow made from a small sapling or tree limb (often catalpa wood) and had a centered grip)). The lacquered bow had decorations and showed signs of being used for a religious ceremonies. However, at that time the bow had the length of about 160 cm at longest, and the complete bow is very hard to be excavated due to the material being the wood, and is not known completely.

Marukiyumi in the Yayoi Period: 500 B.C.-
The differences in wealth formed with the entering of Yayoi period, and battles occured pretty frequently. The purpose of the bow shifted from everyday hunting tool to an assassination weapon, and many adjustments were made to shoot with more strength and longer distance. As a result, naga shaku (long shaku) longer than two meters, longer top and shorter bottom, and shimobe yori (closer at lower end) bows began to be used. According to the pictures on potteries discovered in archeological remains and Gishi Wajinden (Records of the Wa people (Japanese), Chronicle of Wei), Wa people had "weapons...that are wooden bows and the bow is shorter at the bottom and longer at toward top." From the above, it could envision the shape of the bow during that time. The ends of the bow changed from the bowstrings being tied around the bow to a protruding shape to make it easier to hook and unhook the bow string.

Marukiyumi made of a single material was used until the Heian period, but the wakyu bow shape shifted to the current shape as time passed. In addition, 'azusayumi' (a bow made of Japanese cherry birch) began to be used as a kigo (a season word) in waka (a traditional Japanese poem of thirty-one syllables), and the bow began to develop spiritual aspect into a holy tool rather than being just a weapon.

Fusetakeyumi (Lowered Bamboo Bow) in the Heian Period: 10th Century-
Synthesized bow made by binding the wood and bamboo together began to appear during this period. It had a simple shape of sticking the bamboo to the outer area with wood as the central piece in order to increase the force.
It was the same period as the birth of 'bushi.'

Sanmaiuchiyumi (Three boards hit bow) in the Heian Period: 12th Century-
It was a bow that bound bamboo at the front and back of the central wooden piece. It was the structure developed from the maruki and fuseta bows. It was born approximately before or after the time of Genpei period (late 11th century-late 12th century CE).

Shihochikuyumi (Four directions bamboo bow) in the Muromachi Period: 15th to 16th Century-
It had a structure of covering the central wooden core with bamboo. It was probably a period when Japan entered the Sengoku period (period of Warring States).

Higoyumi (Bow of the bow womb) (弓胎弓) in the Edo Period: 17th Century-
The traditional bow that is passed on till today was created at this time (please refer to the structure column for details) *The first time it appeared in a writing was from the early Edo period, but higoyumi was probably created prior to the Edo period. The archery tournament at Sanjusangendo Temple in Kyoto City was performed frequently during the early Edo period. The modifications of bows, arrows, and yugake were frequently made for the tournament for the honor and dignity of han (domain). Skills developed during that period became a foundation for the modern day creation of archery tools. The primitive form of modern day yugake probably originated during this period.

Glass Bow (alias): Showa Period-
Koyama Kyugu Company of the long established store that began from the Edo period announced the new bow material that intertwined the glass fiber around the wooden core. The glass bow allowed for mass production, had strong durability, and was easy do its after care. Bows made from various modern ingredients such as carbon fiber and Kevlar were created since then, and many businesses were established that created them industrialy. It began to influence even the conservative kyudo athletes, and its cost friendly and easy management allowed bows to be widely used by students and beginners.
In order to broadly categorize bows according to the material they are made from, fiberglass bows are referred to as 'glass bows,' carbon fiber bows as 'carbon bows,' and traditional bamboo bows as 'bamboo bows.'

Names of Each Part

It is the protruding ends of the bow, and the top is called "urahazu" and the bottom as "motohazu" (lower tip of the bow, written as '本弭' or '元弭'). The name originated from the fact that the foot of the bow was where the root of the bamboo or origin (written as 本(元)), and the top faced kozue (tree top) or sue (ends). In order to distinguish it from the hazu of the arrow, it is also called yuhazu (nock (of a bow)).

Sekiita (end-plates onto which the end loops of the bowstring are attached)
The bow has the shape of having ten something to twenty something centimeters inside and binds the uchitake from top and bottom. The urahazu side is called uwasekiita (upper sekiita) or hitaigi (forehead wood), and the motohazu side is called shimosekiita (lower sekiita). Hazenoki is often used for the side wood, but a wide variety of wood such as rare imported wood from China, Bombay black wood, and Japanese persimmon is favored or used for decorations since it is the area which will give the least influence to the ability of the bow.

Thee boundary between sekiita and uchitake is called kiritsume. A very thin two to three millimeter cane cord is bound at the location a few centimeters above kiritsume.
This cane is called as 'Kiritsumedo' or 'Kaburado,' and the uwasekiita is called as 'Kamikiritsumedo' and the shimosekiita as 'Shitakiritsumedo.'

It is located directly above the grip, and is a cane that is bound next to the leather grip. There are various forms of it such as straight line, no side weave, flat weave, 奴籐, suginari (fir face), and 等籐. It is bound in order to protect the arrow from slipping, but is used to aim the target. The most bottom part of yazurido is called as 'Togashira' and yazurido is bound from this area. Currently, the Kyudo Federation requires the wakyu to be bound more than six centimeters, but it used to be bound differently depending on the archery school.

Nigiri (grip)
It is also called as 'Yuzuka' (The grip of a Japanese bow). It is the area used to grip the bow as the name implies. It is located adjacent to yazurido and a leather for nigiri is bound. It is the most important part that lies within the palm of the archer, and uses a deer leather that is soft and keeps in moisture.

Tsuru (bowstring)
It is a strong cord or string strung between the bow. The traditional hemp string uses hemp or karamushi (choma (hemp)) with kusune (pine-resin) painted or soaked in it. The ends of the tsuru forms Tsuruwa (string loop) in order to string it to the bow, but Tsuruwa requires an unique knot. In current days, the tsuru made from synthetic fibers such as Kevlar, Zylon, and aramid fibers are commonly used. Recently the archery string which is modified for wakyu tsuru began to appear on market.