Kyūjutsu (弓術) (“art of archery”) is the traditional Japanese martial art of wielding a yumi bow as practiced by the samurai class of feudal Japan. Although the samurai are perhaps best known for their swords, kyūjutsu was actually considered a more vital skill for a significant portion of Japanese history. During the majority of the Kamakura period through the Muromachi period (c.1185–c.1568), the bow was almost exclusively the symbol of the professional warrior.
The beginning of archery in Japan is, as elsewhere, pre-historical. The first images picturing the distinct Japanese asymmetrical longbow are from the Yayoi period (ca. 500 BC–300 AD). The first written document describing Japanese archery is the Chinese chronicle Weishu (dated around 297 AD), which tells how in the Japanese isles people use “a wooden bow that is short from the bottom and long from the top
The changing of society and the military class (samurai) taking power at the end of the first millennium created a requirement for education in archery. This led to the birth of the first kyujutsu ryūha (style), the Henmi-ryū, founded by Henmi Kiyomitsu in the 12th century. The Takeda-ryū and the mounted archery school Ogasawara-ryū were later founded by his descendants. The need for archers grew dramatically during the Genpei War (1180–1185) and as a result the founder of the Ogasawara-ryū (Ogasawara Nagakiyo), began teaching yabusame (mounted archery).
From the 15th to the 16th century, Japan was ravaged by civil war. In the latter part of the 15th century Heiki Danjō Masatsugu revolutionized archery with his new and accurate approach called hi, kan, chū (fly, pierce, center), and his footman’s archery spread rapidly. Many new schools were formed, some of which, such as Heki-ryū Chikurin-ha, Heki-ryū Sekka-ha and Heki-ryū Insai-ha, remain today.
The Yumi as a weapon of war began its decline after the Portuguese arrived in Japan in 1543 bringing firearms with them in the form of the matchlock. The Japanese soon started to manufacture their own version of the matchlock called tanegashima and eventually the tanegashima and the yari (spear) became the weapons of choice. The yumi, however, would be continued to be used alongside the tanegashima for a period of time because of its longer reach, accuracy, and especially because it had a rate of fire 30–40 times faster. The tanegashima however did not require the same amount of training as a yumi, allowing Oda Nobunaga’s army consisting mainly of farmers armed with tanegashima to annihilate a traditional samurai cavalry in a single battle in 1575.