Competitive archery for the masses dating back to the Sengoku period
The sword played a key part in the daily life of the samurai, and indeed the two swords thrust into his belt were undeniable symbols of his social stature until the end of the samurai class and the foundation of modern Japan in the Meiji period (1868-1912). For a significant portion of Japanese history however, the bow was considered the most vital martial skill for the samurai, and the way of the warrior was even referred to as “the way of the horse and bow”.
From the Kamakura period (1185-1333) onward various schools of archery were founded to pass down the skills of archery and the etiquette surrounding it among the samurai class. Schools such as Ogasawara-ryu, Heki-ryu, and Takeda-ryu were formed and events such as Yabusame, Inu-o-mono, Kusajishi-shiki, and Kasagake became popular among the samurai class to hone their skills for both hunting and battle.
Archery remained an important battlefield skill throughout the constant wars of the Sengoku period (1467-1603), but the introduction of matchlock rifles from Europe at Tanegashima in 1543 saw the start of the decline of the bow as a weapon of war. The bow was still seen as an important weapon alongside the matchlock rifle due to its greater accuracy and higher rate of fire, but the matchlock rifle was comparatively easy to use and required much less training.
It was in this environment that Shihan Mato was created. Shihan Mato is a style of Japanese archery which uses a lightweight short bow, with the archer shooting from a seated position.
Shihan Mato is said to have been created around 1568, when Ito Yoshisuke (1512-1585) attacked Shimadzu Tadachika at Obi Castle in the province of Hyuga. The siege lasted for almost five months. Tadachika called for reinforcements, but peasants loyal to the Ito clan armed with handmade bamboo bows managed to distract the reinforcements long enough for the castle to be captured.
It is said that Yoshisuke showed his appreciation to the loyal peasants by allowing them to practice archery with short bows as an informal sport. The Ito clan soon capitulated to the Shimadzu clan, surrendering in 1576, but the practice of Shihan Mato continued at Obi Castle and is mentioned in the report of Shimadzu senior retainer Uwai Ise-no-kami Satokane that it was featured as entertainment at a drinking party.
Shihan Mato is quite different to kyudo, the more popular form of modern Japanese archery, and is more of a casual game rather than a spiritual practice. The name Shihan Mato (literally four and a half target) derives from the length of the shooting range 4.5 ken (8.2 metres), the style of short bow used with a length of 4.5 shaku (1.36 metres) and the target which is 4.5 sun (13.6 centimetres) across. The arrows used are also much longer than in regular kyudo.
It is thought that the seated shooting position in seiza was intended to reduce the martial application of the practice for the peasant classes. The bows currently used for Shihan Mato have a draw weight of only 4 kilograms, making them significantly lighter than the bows used in modern day kyudo, which can have draw weights of up to 20 kilograms, and the bows of the Sengoku period which were in excess of 50 kilograms.
Today Shihan Mato is still practiced as an informal game that can be played by participants of all ages and is particularly widely enjoyed in the Nichinan area of Miyazaki Prefecture and on the grounds of Obi Castle.
It is also possible to try Shihan Mato here at Sengan-en, and the target range can be found in the lower garden during fine weather. Make sure to come along and have a try at this informal introduction to Japanese archery next time you visit Sengan-en.
Alex is the Head of Overseas Business for Shimadzu Limited, and has lived in Kagoshima for over 15 years.
He has spent many years studying traditional swordsmanship, and has demonstrated martial arts for the Crown Prince of Japan as well as at many venerable shrines across Japan. He also practices calligraphy, zazen, and many other elements of Japanese culture and has translated several works on the subject.