Banzai Bows: Sayanora Style

By Col. Robert Rankin USMC


Mention of ancient Japanese arms most usually calls to mind, as far as most people are concerned, the famed samurai sword. It may come as something of a surprise to you to learn that the Japanese were well known for their prowess with the bow. Bows were used by all nobles’ bad peasants alike. Instruction in the use of the weapon began at an early age and was continued on through adult years.

 It is probable that the Japanese were easily the equal of the storied English long bowman and the famous Turkish archers. In early times the bow was deemed of even greater importance than the sword. Indeed, the Japanese terms for bow and arrow and for war were synonymous. Even after the sword became the principal weapon and the symbol of rank, proficiency in the use of the bow was much sought and was regarded as an indication of the individual’s military ability.


The best archers in Nippon journeyed to Kyoto to demonstrate their skill. There at Sanju-San-Gen Do temple, a covered gallery was erected for their use. With a length of 132 yards, this structure was only twenty-two feet high, a fact which required tremendous strength on the part of the bowman to achieve a trajectory flat enough to allow the arrow to reach the mark. Is recorded that in 1696, one was a Daicheri shot 8,133 arrows in twenty-four hours (this is at the rate of about five a minute), of which 3,213 reached the mark!


The Japanese was bow was very long; in fact, some were as long as eight feet, but this was the exception, the average being around seven feet. Bows were made of a piece of deciduous wood sandwiched in between two especially selected pieces of bamboo, with the bark outward, all held together with fish glue,. It was nearly uniform in section throughout its length and at intervals was tightly bound with cane.

 The bow was curved at either end, and when strung, it reversed itself. There were no notches for the back for a short distance to form shoulders. The string went about the projecting ends and was held in place by the shoulders. Strings were of sinew or of bundles of silk thread treated with lacquer.

 The handle of the bow was well below center. In some instances a much as two thirds of the way down. This was necessary because the average Japanese is short and the bow was used from a kneeling position when the archer was not mounted. All in all, these war bows were powerful and affective.

 Another type of Japanese bow resembling a Tartar bow in shape was made of several different varieties of bamboo glues together. A metal sleeve covered the belly. The string striking against this produced a characteristic sound which often was used for signaling.


Ceremonial bows, intended only for parades and court functions, were highly lacquered and ornamented. These bows were in two sections, joined in the center by a metal sleeve which formed the handle. In addition to these, there were hunting bows of various lengths, some as short as two feet. These smaller bows were made of horn or whalebone.

 Arrows for the war bows averaged forty inches long and weighed around half a pound. Practically all were feathered, usually in a straight line with the shaft. Some, however, had the feathers arranged spirally about the shaft to cause it to rotate in flight and thus assist in keeping it on course.

 For the practical purposes of war, arrow heads differed greatly from those used for ceremonial purposes. Among war arrows was the hiki-ya. This had a large hallow head with openings cut in the sides. Air rushing through these while the arrow was in flight caused a whistling sound. Arrows of the type were used for signaling purposes, the wata-kusi, “tear fish,” had a head with movable barbs. These lay close to the shaft when the arrow was in flight but swung out at right angles when an attempt was made to pull it out of the flesh. The yanagi-ha, “willow leaf,” had a head with straight sides and was diamond shape in section. It was an extremely efficient general purpose missile, the karimata, “forked arrow,” was a two prong design with very sharp cutting edged. These heads varied in size from one to six inches between the prongs. They were used to cut ropes and armor lacing. Another lovely number, a variation of the karimata, was known as the “bowel raker,” and was reputed to cause a horrible death.

 Ceremonial arrows had heads which were large, heavy and very elaborate – and quite useless as weapons. They often were made by famous artist-armorers.

 It is rather interesting to note that the length of the bow and arrow was related to the particular warrior who was to use them. The unit of measurement for the war bow was the distance between the tips of the thumb and little finger of the spread right hand of the archer. Twelve to fifteen of these units were considered the proper length of the bow. The unit of measurement for war arrows was the width of the right hand, across the palm. Here again, twelve to fifteen of these units were reckoned to be the proper length for the arrows.

 Several kinds of quivers were used. One consisted of an open box to which a framework was attached to support the shafts of the arrows. The heads rested within the box and were kept apart by a series of small metal bars. Sometimes the box contained a small drawer in which spare bow and arrows were carried. Another type of quiver was closed wooden container with hinged lids at the top and on the sides, this type kept the arrows safe from the elements but it was damned awkward to get the arrows, Quivers were highly lacquered and richly decorated.

 Archers of higher rank were gloves resembling gauntlets. The second and third fingers were of softer leather and were usually of different color than the rest of the glove. The right thumb had a double thickness of leather on the inside to tae wear of the bow string. Lower ranks wore an abbreviated glove on the right hand only. This consisted of a thumb and two fingers, these attached to a broad band which tied about the wrist. At times all degrees archers wore a mail covered glove on the left hand to protect the hand holding the bow.

 The flaring neck guard of the characteristic Japanese helmet, in the case of archers, sometimes was hinged on the right side so that it could be folded back out of the way when the bow was being used. Many mounted archers, as well as other mounted warriors, frequently wore a horo. This was a long, wide piece of cloth attached at the top to the rear of the helmet and at the bottom to the waist. It was ornamented with the chop mark or crest of the wearer. As the archer rose along this bellied out behind and protected the back from arrows.

 In any discussion of Japanese military history and weapons. It is well to note that the feudal era in Japan did not come to an end until comparatively recently; in the early 1800s/ as compare to the early 1400’s in Europe. Although firearms were introduced into Japan as early as 1543 by Portuguese traders. they were not developed to any great extent in Nippon until the end of the Nineteenth Century. This resulted in the Japanese passing directly from the use of the primitive matchlock to the modern breech-loading percussion rifle, both of which were copied in toto from Western models without any developments in between. One of the reasons for this was that the samurai, the Japanese warrior knights, with their peculiar codes of ethic and honor, regarded the use of firearms as ungentlemanly! Consequently the bow was a major weapon until the very dawn of the present century.

 With the advent of Commodore Perry and the opening of Japan to world trade and Western culture, that nation was thrown overnight from medieval times into the modern world. Among other things, the Japanese received all at one time all the blessings of an advanced arms technology. That they were apt pupils was well demonstrated in the South Pacific in World War II.

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Bow and Arrow Magazine May – June 1963