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Home > Part 1
Yumi: The Japanese Long-Bow
by Robert G. Dening
From: Outing, Vol. XXI., No. 2., pp. 83-91.
November 1892.
Part 1 of 9
Yumi: The Japanese Long Bow

     "Every time his bowstring twanged an enemy fell."

SO it was said of Yoritomi, the ablest Shogun and greatest ruler that ever lived in Japan—he who founded the dual system of government by making himself the first dictator, with his seat of government at Kamakura, while the Mikado was maintained a ceremonious, dignified, but unapproachable captive at Kioto.

This important event in the history of the Japanese was the outcome of a great battle fought in 1185, when Yoritomi, the leader of the powerful Minamoto family, overthrew the Taira. It was a naval battle between great high-pooped junks, loaded to the water's edge with warriors. But, strangely enough, it was a naval battle that owed its victory, if we can believe the chronicler, to the prowess of the bow and arrow.

The iron bolts shot from the longbows of the Minamoto archers are said to have gone crashing through the planking of the Taira junks, scuttling them as effectually as the more modern rifle-ball. As the riddled hulls sank, they left the brave warriors, swimming in a bloody sea, easy targets for the showers of relentless arrows of the Minamoto.

Then began the long line of Shoguns and the imprisonment of the Mikados. The wars and intrigues of succession were entirely confined to families aspiring to the Shogunate, for although' several families had the, honor of a line of Shoguns, the Mikados descended, century after century, in an unbroken succession and without loss of prestige. The last of the great Shogun families was the Tokugawa, who were driven from power in 1868, when the Mikado, after seven centuries of mock rulership, was restored to his true position of emperor, on the flight of the defeated Shogun.

The Western powers would not recognize Japan's right to close its own ports, and its brave warriors were made to feel the combined effects of modern civilized war in the bombardment of Shimenoseki by an allied fleet.

Civilization marches arm in arm with the art of killing. And though this unequal conflict with civilized powers was a severe lesson, it was one cheaply bought, for the men of Satsuma discarded: at once their native weapons and clumsy armor and, equipping themselves with American rifles, made war on the Shogun.

This revolution of the people of the south culminated in a great battle at Tokio in January, 1868. A strange battle, where the weapons of the middle ages attempted to hold their own against Remington breech-loaders, a battle between the ancient warrior and the modern soldier. A battle, the issue of which has changed in a few years the thoughts and habits of a whole nation; feudalism ceased to exist; the clash of the keen sword of the Samurai and the twang of his bowstring were silenced forever.

Up to this event, known in Japanese history as the "Restoration," the national weapons of Japan were the longbow, the sword and the spear. The best artists and artisans had for centuries devoted their time and talents to perfecting and ornamenting the sword, mysterious and secret rites were observed in its manufacture and "christening." It is one of the sacred emblems of sovereignty.

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