Y Llwynog (yllwynog) wrote in kyudou,
Y Llwynog

Arrows (Ya):


Arrows were acquired by Japan from China at the same time as bows. It is said that willow wood was originally used, since its lightness and suppleness made it good for arrow shafts. To keep the dried-out wood from breaking, it was customary to rub it with oil. Along with willow, bamboo was also used. Arrowheads were made from iron or copper, finished with bamboo, horn, or bone. Many arrows from early times have been preserved, along with bows, in the treasure chambers of the temples of Horyuji and Daianji. These are certainly the oldest extant arrows. They are about 90 centimeters in length and no longer have any feathers; however, traces at the point of attachment allow us to tell that they formerly had two, three, or four feathers.

They are:

  • Togariya: arrows with spear-shaped heads, frequently provided with barbs (watakuri = gut rippers).
  • Yatsumekabura and mutsumekabura: arrows with a ball of horn (kabura) set in between the shaft and the head with 8 (yatsu) or 6 (=mutsu) holes (me=eyes) in it.
  • Takeyajiri: arrows with bamboo heads.
  • Kururiya: arrows with large, thick heads made from light wood.

A comparison between these early types of arrows with arrows that were in use later, and then again with the arrows of today, shows that this weapon has been subject only to very slight changes. The normal length for an arrow from the Middle Ages up to modern times has been given as three shaku, about 90 centimeters (1 shaku = 32 cm = 10 sun = 100 bu). The length of individual arrows depends on the height of the archer; it corresponds to half his length plus roughly 5 to 8 centimeters. Another unit of measure was the soku, which corresponds to the size of the closed fist, not including the thumb. Fourteen to fifteen of the archer's soku yielded the length of the arrow. The style of fabrication of the shaft (no), the lower end of the arrow (hazu), the head (ne) and the attached feathers (ha) gave the arrows their names.


The shafts are made out of yadake, a slender, very durable variety of bamboo. Two-year-old bamboo is used almost exclusively for the shaft. Three-year-old bamboo is considered no longer suitable for arrows. The length of the shaft is between 80 centimeters and 1 meter. The number of rings in the bamboo is not fixed, but for the most part there are four. Each ring has a special name, or even different names depending on whether the arrow in question is a war arrow or a sports arrow. By its natural color, the bamboo shaft stripped of its bark was white or brown, if it was roasted or browned over a straw fire in order to make it harder and less flexible. It was also customary to coat arrows with black or red lacquer in order to protect them from moisture. The common arrow shafts and their names were as follows:

  • Shirano: white, natural-colored shaft
  • Kogashino or aburino: roasted, brown shaft
  • Suyaki: burnt, brownish arrow, used in competition shooting
  • Sawashino: steamed black-lacquered arrow
  • Kawame norinono: a shaft lacquered to resemble bamboo bark
  • Nogoinono: red-lacquered shaft
  • Fushikage: shaft with shiny black lacquer on the bamboo rings and ring shadows, that is, the places from which the bamboo leaves were broken.

The procedure for making the matoya (mato arrows) of today runs something like this: After the bamboo has been cut, it is dried for six to eight months. During this time the shaft shrinks in length and thickness, and initially it is not straight. The first step in working it is called neru (forming). During neru, the arrow is moved back and forth over a charcoal fire and roughly formed with a notched piece of wood that serves as a lever for straightening it. After this, the arrow shaft is almost straight and is now roughly worked on the surface with a drawknife. This step in the work is called aradame (rough correction). In the following nakadame (intermediate, further correction), the arrow is straightened over a fire once more and has its surface shaved again. Finally comes the ishiarai (ishi=stone, arai=washing), a procedure in which the arrow is pulled through an oval stone in which two grooves have been driven. Sand is used here as an abrasive. Being pulled back and forth through the stone grooves finally gives the shaft a smooth and even surface. Now that the shaft has been smoothed, hardened, and straightened in this manner, we come to the final step, in which the arrow is either oiled or lacquered. An arrow shaft made in this way called yanochiku, or treated bamboo.

Three types of yanochiku are distinguished:

1.      Ichimonji (number-one sign). The name of this type of arrow comes from the sign for the number one, which in Japan is a straight stroke. For the arrow shaft, this means that its diameter remains unchanged throughout the entire length. The ichimonji is the standard arrow.

2.      Mugitsubo (grain of wheat). This arrow has its greatest diameter in the middle and tapers toward the two ends; hence the name "grain of wheat". Arrows with this sort of cross-section require a good tsunomi to ensure that their center of gravity remains truly in the middle while in flight. The mugitsubo is especially well suited for enteki (long-distance) shooting.

3.      Suginari (cedar-shaped). This arrow shaft has a conical form when looked at from the side. The diameter is least near the feathers and greatest near the point. These arrows are very well suited for target shooting, since they are heaviest at the point. In addition, these arrows can be used for a very long time, since the forward part of the arrow that ends up sticking in the earth gradually gets worn down, so that little by little one ends up with an ichimonji.

Bamboo shafts also come in different thicknesses, weighing anywhere from 5 momei (18.7 grams) to 7.5 momei (28 grams). The lighter arrows generally fly faster, but they lose their stability when shot from a stronger bow. When choosing the diameter of their arrows, most archers also take into account the length of the arrow as well as body size in order to achieve an aesthetically pleasing balance between body and equipment. One's yazuka, or arrow length, is determined by measuring from the center of the throat to the tip of the outstretched left arm, and adding an extra five centimeters for safety.

Bamboo arrows have gotten their form by being dried and worked over heat. But they can also lose their form due to both these elements. Too much moisture or blazing sun damages them over a long period of time and makes them warp. However, if an archer has the necessary experience and the appropriate tool, if he handles it properly, he can restraighten a crooked arrow over an open gas flame. In countries where the humidity of the air may be significantly less than it is in Japan, since bamboo reacts with particular sensitivity to this condition, it may be a good idea to rub arrow shafts from time to time with a nonresinous oil such as clove oil, especially around the ring shadows, to prevent them from drying out.

In recent years, aluminum or carbon-fiber shafts have come into use. But even though they, too, are fitted with real feathers, they cannot compare with the natural beauty and feel of bamboo arrows.


In order to secure te arrow firmly on the string, on its end there is a notch from 2 to 5 millimeters in depth. The variation in this dimension depends on the type of arrow. Three main types of hazu are distinguished.

1.      Tsugihazu is the attached end, which in earlier times was a notched bamboo ring set onto the end of the arrow. The type with attached ends was common in ancient times for practice arrows, arrows for shooting at targets (matoya), and sports arrows (jindo).

2.      Yohazu is the grooved end, which came to be used for war arrows (soya, togariya, etc.). The notch was cut directly into the bamboo shaft.

3.      Itehazu is the shooting end, made out of an attached piece of horn, and it has been preferred for practical reasons in modern times owing to its greater durability and its smaller circumference. Today's mato arrows are equipped exclusively with this type of nock.

The great majority of nocks today are made from goat or deer horn. Like the horn makiwara points, they are inserted into the arrow shaft and, if necessary, filed down to match its diameter. Most of the time the nocking slot of a horn hazu has to be finished by the archer so that it will correctly fit the nocking area of is tsuru. To do this use a small flat file and a very thin rattail file to make the inner portion of the slot slightly wider than the upper part. The resulting keyhole-like shape keeps the arrow firmly secured to the string.

Many older ya, and some ceremonial ya, have bamboo nocks. Often this type of nock is carved directly from the end of the arrow shaft. Sometimes, though, a bamboo nock is fashioned from a separate piece of bamboo and set into the end of the shaft, thus allowing the nock to be replaced if it breaks or is damaged in any way.


Wrappings are put on the arrow in various places; in some cases they serve to fasten the feathers and the points, and in others to strengthen the shaft itself. Their names indicate the purpose they are meant to serve or the places on the arrows where they are placed.

  • Urahagi: the top wrapping, about 1.3 centimeters wide, which fastens the quill of the feather above the feather onto the shaft.
  • Motohagi: the bottom wrapping, about 1.8 centimeters wide, which holds the quill of the feather below the feather.
  • Kutsumaki: the shoe wrapping, also called yatsukamai (arrow-bag wrapping), about 3 to 5 centimeters wide, which was wrapped around the tip of the shaft to keep it from bursting.
  • Kanemaki: the metal binding for holding in place the long arrowhead tang that is driven into the shaft and also for preventing the upper end of the bamboo from bursting.
  • Netamaki: a bulging, often bell-shaped wrapping, intended for the same purpose as the kanemaki.
  • Kaburamaki: a similar ball-shaped wrapping, which was mostly used with karimata, arrows with forked heads.

The materials used for the wrapping are evident from their names:

  • Itohagi: thread wrapping. This wrapping is done with white or colored silk cord. Specific colors were reserved for the use of the shogun abd the daimyo (higher nobles).
  • Kamihagi: paper wrapping. A wrapping made with very durable and firm, thinly rolled paper.
  • Kabahagi: bark wrapping. This wrapping is made with the bark of the cherry tree.
  • Urushihagi: wrappings that are coated with lacquer.


Valuable feathers were rarely used for arrows that were to be shot once, but were used for sport and hunting arrows that could be retrieved. For war arrows (soya), the choice was raptor feathers, because they are sturdy and tough. The feathers of the hawk, the harrier, the crane, and the wild goose were popular, but raven and chicken feathers were also used. Never, on the other hand, were feathers of the eagle owl used, since this bird was considered an evil omen in Japan. The best feathers are the outside tail feathers of the eagle. Since they are especially tough, they are also called ishiuchi, which means "rock striker", because this feather is so hard it can withstand striking a rock. Of almost equal quality are the outside wing feathers. Following next in quality are the lower middle feathers of the tail and the other wing feathers. All other feathers are often too soft and not suitable for fletching arrows. Since many raptors are nearly extinct, fletching made from eagle feathers, for example, in matching colors, is almost unaffordable.

For the fletching, feathers of about 14 centimeters in length are needed. They are either trimmed or left in their natural form and, as already mentioned, with silk-thread wrapping, fastened onto the arrow shaft by their split quill. In earlier times, certain feathers were attached to the shaft by the whole quill.

Arrows are fletched with three, four, and sometimes only two feathers. Generally three feathers are used for sports arrows.

Feathers are distinguished according to their color and markings:

  • Torafu: striped feathers
  • Motoshiro: feathers that are white at the root
  • Tsumaguro: black-edged feathers
  • Hoshikirifu: star-spotted feathers
  • Itofu: feathers with threadlike markings

To achieve the most uniform possible markings on all the arrows of a set, among other things, people have tried combining feathers, that is, gluing feathers of different colors on the same quill to make them look like one feather. It was hoped in this way to attain the desired decorative effect. Such markings also occur naturally in nature but are rarely to be found in twelvefold uniformity. Popular markings, among others, were:

  • Kiriu: feathers with a white band in the middle
  • Nakaguro: feathers that were black in the middle
  • Usobyo: feathers speckled at the root

The finest feathers, both in terms of beauty and durability, come from large birds of prey; most notably northern sea eagles (otori) amd hawks (taka). Both of these birds are getting more and more difficult to find in the wild, however. Indeed, the sea eagle has become so rare that it is now protected by an international agreement. Consequently, sea eagle feathers are no longer collected. Today, most feathers come from lesser eagles, geese, swans, and even turkeys – any of the larger birds that are no endangered.


In kyudo today, a set of matoya is composed of four arrows, two haya ("arrow A" or "first arrow") and two otoya ("arrow B" or "second arrow"). The difference between these two kinds of arrows lies in the way in which the feather is glued to the shaft and how it is curved at the end.

In the haya, the glued-on part of the feather quill is toward the archer as he nocks the arrow onto the bowstring. If one looks at the arrow from the nock end, the feathers are arched to the left.

In the otoya, the feather quill is glued on the side not visible to the archer. Looked at from the nock, the feathers are curved to the right.

The reason for the different mode of attachment and arrangement of the feathers is that, in the case of two arrows shot theoretically under the same conditions, because of the slight variation in the feather, the second arrow will never strike the same point as the first arrow and thus will not damage its valuable shaft and feathers.

In ceremonies and competitions, the haya is always shot first and then otoya. The haya is preferred as the first, more perfect arrow, because when it is viewed from the direction of the kamiza, it does not allow a view of the glued-on quills of the feathers.

To keep valuable arrows from being damaged by negligence, the feathers also have to be checked from time to time. If a feather has become loose from the shaft, it can be fastened again with a drop of glue. To make sure of the contact with the shaft, it is a good idea to pull a thin thread down through the vane of the feather and fasten the quill to the arrow with that. If the feather has become ruffled so that the individual barbs stand apart from each other, it is possible to resmooth such a feather over steam. After drying, the individual barbules on the barbs will fit back into each other, and the feather will again be smooth. Arrows should generally be kept in a closed quiver. It is a good idea to put in some moth crystals, since moth and mites like to attack feathers.

If a feather has been completely destroyed, one has to loosen the wrapping on the shaft and replace the whole feather. In that case it is a good idea to change all three feathers; otherwise the inner balance of the arrow may be thrown off.

Another question related to balance is whether to use wide or narrow feathers. For normal mato shooting, wide feathers are preferred, whereas for enteki shooting, nattow feathers are used.


The name of the owner is often marked on arrows. This is done with ink or lacquer, by burning in the letters, or by scratching them in with a knife. These marking are either made between the two wrappings on the nock or inconspicuously between the feathers. In earlier types, samurai used to add the names of their feudal lords as well as their title and province to the signatures, so that every warrior could tell by whom he was being attacked.

An exception in the matter of signatures – out of courtesy – was the markings on sports arrows used in dog hunting (inuoi). These arrows were marked with special but anonymous signs, never with the owner's name, since it often happened in the fields where the hunts were taking place that horses stepped on the arrows, and it would have been regarded as an indignity to have the name stepped on in this matter.


Classical arrowheads, or yajiri, ranged from simple tips of iron used for hunting or war to elaborately crafted ceremonial broad heads. Today, with the exception of special ceremonial procedures, these arrowheads are no longer used.

The heads (ne) were made of iron, horn, wood, and, in ancient times, also copper. For war arrows, only iron arrowheads were used, since these were capable of piercing armor. In competitive shooting in historical times, heads of wood and horn were preferred, while for dog hunting and sports arrows, all types of heads have been used.

The lengths of arrowheads vary between 3 and 5 centimeters. A rare but highly valued type of head of 18 to 20 centimeters in length is called tametomonoya, after the renowned twelfth-century archer Tametomo. Individual exemplars of this type of arrowhead are still preserved in temples.

The names of a few arrowsmiths are known; however, arrowheads were not only made by specialists, but often also by master armorers and swordsmiths. There are few cases of signed arrowheads.

Different forms of arrowheads were required for different purposes. Some were suited, for example, for piercing armor, splitting shields, or producing flesh wounds, or for use in close combat or for indirect shots against attacking cabalry.

The names of the individual types of heads often indicate the form, less often the purpose:

Karimata: forked arrowheads in the form of the feet of a wild goose

Haiwo: fly-tail-shaped heads, a variation of karimata

Hokoya: spear-shaped heads, with the following subcategories:

  • Torijita: bird-tongue shaped
  • Tatewari: chisel-shaped in the form of a two-edged sword point; used as a shield splitter
  • Togariya: spear-shaped arrowheads
  • Watakuri: gut-ripping arrowheads with barbs

Marune: massive, completely round arrowheads

Nomine: chisel-shaped arrowheads

These basic forms were produced in a great variety of subforms over the course of time; these carry names that suggest what they resemble – for example, willow leaf (yanagiba), triangle (sankaku), and flying buzzard (tobine).

Frequently we find arrowheads – especially of the kaburaya type and the broad, turnip-shaped hirane – that have multiple perforations, in the form of geometrical figures and family coats of arms, but also written characters. Very frequently we find heart-shaped perforations. They are called hoshonotama (flaming pearl) or also inome, the never-flickering eye of the wild boar. If arrowheads have perforations depicting written characters, these indicate either clan names, especially in the case of the ornamental arrows of provincial princes, or else phrases of prayer or the names of deities. In the last case, it is presumed that these are votive arrows, which were offered to the war gods by placing them in temples.

There are various hypotheses concerning the richly ornamented kaburaya. According to one, this arrow was the last arrow in the possession of a samurai. Only at the moment a battle was considered lost would he have shot this arrow.After the leader had shot this principal arrow, defeat was acknowledged, and only seppuku remained. Another interpretation is that there was a tainoya, a base arrow that was used in quivers in which the arrows rested on the bottom, that is, were not held by a bamboo framework laid over them that kept them together or upright. This arrow was fastened to the outside of the quiver, in a sense as a corner post that, together with leather loops, supported the other arrows. It is said of the tainoya that it was never shot but accompanied its bearer into the beyond.

For sport and competitive shooting, as well as for the hunt, blunt arrows were often needed. Itazuki were round, square, or flat arrowheads of wood or horn that were tipped with a thin metal cap.

Nail-shaped arrowheads made of iron were called byone, and square ones of the same metal were called jotaku. These were intended to stun but not kill animals.

In present-day kyudo, different arrowheads are used for makiwara arrows than for matoya. In order to damage the straw in the bale as little as possible, rounded iron or horn tips are used.

For mato arrows, attached heads made of iron are used. On aluminum arrows, either attached iron heads or cone-shaped points are used; these are directly attached to a short shaft set into the main arrow shaft.

Modern points (yanone) come in two types: regular target points and makiwara points. Most metal points fit over the end of the arrow shaft, and are available in a variety of diameters which enable them to be attached to the shaft without the use of any bonding agents. In cases where the point is not quite large enough to fit over the shaft, the end of the shaft can be shaved down a little to ensure a proper fit.

Metal makiwara points are fine for daily practice but better makiwara-ya, like those used for ceremonial purposes, are fitted with horn points. These points are first inserted into the open end of the shaft, secured by a little kusune or common white glue, then shaped with a file or knife to create an arrow with a smooth, clean line.


After each practice session one should, at the very least, wipe the arrows clean with a dry cloth. It is also a good idea to periodically oil the shafts with either walnut or camellia oil. This is especially important if the arrows are to be stored for a long time. It is the feathers, however, that need the most care. After each shooting they should be gently pulled back into shape to keep them from bending or breaking. If the feathers get to the point where shaping by hand is no longer effective, they can be lightly steamed until they regain their shape.

Arrows should always be stored vertically to avoid crushing the feathers. The most commonly used storage case these days is the yazutsu, a long, tubelike container designed to hold about six to eight arrows. Larger collections are stored in open stands or racks, or in arrow cases made of glass and wood.

from the books "KYUDO: The Way of the Bow" by Feliks Hoff, translated by Sherab Chödzin Kohn (Shambala, 2002) and "KYUDO: The Essence and Practice of Japanese Archery" by Hideharu Onuma with Dan and Jackie DeProspero (Kodansha International, 1993)

to be continued (next - the Types of the Arrows, including War Arrows)...

Tags: arrowheads, arrows, arrows construction, arrows history, care & storage, f.hoff, feathers, h.onuma, haya, nocks, otoya, shaft, signature, wrappings, ya
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