Mounted Archary of the Samurai: Shooting Dogs, Entertaining Gods, and Competing for Glory


In the eighth month of 1186, Minamoto Yoritomo consulted with Satô Norikiyo, who became a Buddhist master known as Saigyô, about poetry and mounted archery.  This private discussion was an early indication of Yoritomo's taste for court culture, later formalized by Yoritomo himself and sustained by succeeding bakufu leaders.  The culture that developed as a result of efforts to mold a unique warrior society in Kamakura was a product of socio-cultural patterns of the aristocratic warriors in the Heian period, and, to a limited extent, newly created socio-cultural activity.  Though this was necessary for the process of developing a unique culture, the lack of model cultures led Kamakura warriors to rely almost exclusively on established socio-cultural patterns of behavior, some of which they adopted in unchanged courtly form; in other cases, they adapted patterns to fit their new identity.

This essay examines the practice and performance of the three forms of mounted archery—yabusam, kasagake, and inuômono—as central socio-cultural activities of Kamakura warrior society. As the primary form of warfare, the practice of mounted archery superseded that of swordsmanship or wielding a halberd, which, together, made the three principal fighting skills.  Moreover, the emphasis on mounted archery elevated its practice to become a form of entertainment, competitive or social, or a component in a set of shrine rituals. Of the three, yabusame and kasagake were a direct continuation of established court practices, while inuômono was a new form of mounted archery that best reflected Kamakura warriors’ newly acquired taste for an activity that was both warrior-like and without precedence at the Heian court.

Umayumi 騎射

By the Kamakura period mounted archery (umayumi), according to written records, had been the primary battle skill for elite warriors for some 750 years. The earliest of many such records of mounted archery appears in the Nihon shoki. Fearing a challenge to his reign Emperor Yûryaku decided to assassinate Prince Ichinobe no Oshiha by way of deception.

“Along with the Imperial Prince, I wish in the first month of winter, when the sky is cloudy and the cold wind blows keenly, to go for an excursion in the moors, where we may somewhat divert our minds by running archery.” The Imperial Prince Ichinobe no Oshiha accordingly followed the hunt. Hereupon the Emperor Ohohatsuse drew his bow and putting his horse to a gallop, called out falsely, saying, “There is a wild boar!” and shot the Imperial Prince Ichinobe no Oshiha dead. (Aston, Nihongi, p. 336)

According to this record, mounted archery was a known hunting method, and though shooting at another mounted archer seem to be an improvisation in this incident, Emperor Yûryaku’s confidence in his ability to carry it out successfully suggests that it was also a known method of warfare. Another point worthy of attention is Emperor Yûryaku’s reference to mounted archery as an activity to relieve the stress of daily life at court.

Another reference to umayumi in Kuji kongen, a Muromachi-period document, as a regular practice on every fifth day of the fifth month, informs us that “[t]he emperor departed for a banquet at Butoku-den. [There] the dignitaries were presented with sake. …After that, there was a performance of mounted archery. The general accepted the selection of archers, and the captains of the left and right guards rode their horses and pulled their bows. This [performance] is also called mumayumi. It began in the residence of Empress Suiko….” Though we cannot corroborate this information with sources contemporaneous to the reign of Empress Suiko (r. 592-628), records in the Shoku Nihongi of performances of umayumi in 702, and for Emperor Shômu (r. 724-749) in 724, confirm that it was an established performance by that time.

Court diaries further illustrate the popularity of mounted archery. In the Dainihon kokiroku collection of court diaries there are 86 references to umayumi. Though the collection is large, the relatively even distribution of the references over some 300 years, between 924 and 1232 reflects the consistency of this practice. Some of the more detailed descriptions reveal a high level of formality in elaborate performances of what later became kasagake and yabusame.

Yabusame, Kasagake 流鏑馬・笠懸

In yabusame and kasagake, the archers ride along a row of two to three targets that were set some distance apart, and shoot one arrow at each target while galloping fast.  In inuômono each mounted archer had to strike as many dogs running free within the confines of a courtyard as he could.  At the end of a round, each archer reported the number of hits, and a referee announced the name of the best archer.  From among the three types of mounted archery, yabusame was a formal performance that followed strict rules, kasagake was semi-formal (see plate 1), and inuômono was the least formal practice that took the form of sports entertainment.

1. Kasagake

Yabusame was the only one of the three forms of mounted archery practice that was performed regularly at Tsurugaoka shrine as part of the annual hôjôe.  It served to entertain the god Hachiman and his worldly worshipers, but at the same time it was organized as a competition in which winners and losers were either praised and presented with gifts, or were shamed and left empty handed.  Furthermore, as a social event, archers and assistants were selected from among warriors according to their merits and services to the bakufu.  The assistant set up the targets and fixed them after they were hit by arrows, collected the used arrows, and confirmed successful hits.  Naturally, being an archer was prestigious, while the assistant duty was sometimes viewed as more degrading than being excluded from the competition. 

For the yabusame during the hôjôe of 1187, Yoritomo assigned Kumagai Naozane to set up the targets (matodate).  However, Naozane declined the assignment, claiming that the task of setting the targets was done on foot while the archers were mounted, which, in all, was far inferior to being a mounted archer.  Though Yoritomo attempted to persuade Naozane that his role was even more important than that of an archer, Naozane boldly refused.  Yoritomo then punished Naozane by confiscating some of his landholding.  After Yoritomo again took a position against Naozane in a legal dispute a few years later, Naozane felt that he could no longer serve Yoritomo and became a lay monk, which, for a gokenin, meant retirement from bakufu service.Miyazaki Fumiko argues that it was this confrontation with Yoritomo that pushed him to become a follower of the monk Hônen.  Another explanation is that Yoritomo resented Naozane's religious inclinations towards Hônen's teachings of Pure Land, and sought to humiliate Naozane in public in order to show not only his dissatisfaction, but also to deter others from following Naozane's example.

Both views of the confrontation between Naozane and Yoritomo seem only partially accurate.  Naozane, who began to follow Hônen's teachings before the yabusame incident, went against religious conventions.  Thus, Yoritomo's dissatisfaction was justified.  At the same time, Yoritomo's attempts to convince Naozane to reconsider his decision not to participate in the yabusame, together with continued employment of Naozane's sons, suggests that Yoritomo only intended to send a message rather than cause a rift between the two.  Naozane's reaction, on the other hand, was only the beginning of a growing sense of alienation that ended in his retirement.  At any rate, incidents similar to that between Naozane and Yoritomo did not occur again.  This particular one set a precedent for the social nature of yabusame in Tsurugaoka shrine in the years that followed.

From the first during Yoritomo's rule until the last recorded in the Kamakura period in 1325, yabusame was one of the main forms of entertainment at Tsurugaoka shrine.  Records of yabusame in the Azumakagami, our main source of information, often list the names of archers and their assistants, which suggests that prestige remained part of the performance throughout the Kamakura period.  Over time, though, yabusame lost its original appeal, most likely for lack of enthusiasm on the bakufu's part, and also because of economic difficulties.

The last record of yabusame in the Azumakagami is somewhat peculiar, yet revealing.  The annual hôjôe that was scheduled for the fifteenth and sixteenth days of the eighth month of 1265 was conducted only on the fifteenth day, without the usual social entertainment on the second day and without the regular participation of the shogun. Instead, shogun Munetaka went in "great secrecy" (mitsumitsu) to Hôjô Tokimune's private stage (gosajiki) to view horsemanship.  The records inform us that, due to economic constraints, the shogun did not make a formal appearance, and that the size of the area set for viewers was smaller than usual.  The first performance was yabusame, followed by horse racing and sumo wrestling.  The question, though, is why the second day of the hôjôe was performed in private and in such secrecy?

The Azumakagami indirectly suggests two explanations.  First, shogun Munetaka's wife was in an advanced stage of pregnancy, which required Munetaka to be especially careful with his behavior in order to avoid misfortune.  In fact, at the end of that day's entertainment there were special prayers conducted for the safety of the birth. We are told that five days later Munetaka's wife gave birth to a healthy girl.  But this explanation seems to blanket the real reason--that the bakufu's coffers could not provide for the lavish rituals and displays at Tsurugaoka shrine that called for hundreds of participants, viewers, and guests, to enjoy themselves at the expense of the bakufu (see plate 2).  This was most likely the reason for the suspension of the yabusame performance at Tsurugaoka shrine until a single revival in 1325.  The only grand display of yabusame during that time took place in Kyoto in 1295, under courtiers' patronage.

2. Yabusame

The high cost involved in the production of a yabusame event, and perhaps even the strain of formalities, may explain the popularity of kasagake.  The meaning of the word kasagake is "hanging kasa-type hat."  This refers to the use of a flat warriors' hat as a target for mounted archery .  The use of the hat instead of a real target, such as the yabusame's wooden board, suggests that it was an improvisation before yabusame.  In order to avoid damage to the hats, warriors used arrows with round, wooden heads.  Later, when kasagake took roots as a regular form of entertainment, a leather pouch filled with sand or feathers replaced the kasa hat.  Yet the improvised nature of kasagake remained, as it was an informal practice that did not involve strict decorum or elaborate settings.  Warriors' costumes and protective gear were also kept simple to provide minimal protection, namely comfortable cloths and a chest cover made of leather to prevent the bowstring from scratching the shooter's chest (see plate 1). 

The two basic ones were long distance and short distance kasagake, both of which refer to the distance between the shooter and the target (See Plate 3).  Another form was lot (kuji) kasagake in which the participants drew lots to determine their order in what seemed like a competition.  In addition, though fundamentally informal, kasagake also developed into specific forms that included a formal performance at a shrine (jinji kasagake) and on special religious festivals, such as the tanabata kasagake.

3. Kasagake

The first mention of kasagake in the written records was in 1057 in Taira Sadaie's diary.  Little is known about that performance, but from a later record we learn that in the second month of 1092, on the day of a festival organized by Middle-Counselor Fujiwara Tadazane, Minamoto Yoshitsuna led a group of some twenty warriors in a performance of kasagake.  Of the twenty, ten warriors held the Fifth Imperial Rank.  These records tell us that the practice of kasagake became popular among aristocratic warriors sometime in the eleventh century, which suggests that warriors had been practicing it already for some years before it was considered important enough to be recorded by the highest civil aristocracy. 

By the Kamakura period, kasagake was a recognized form of warfare practice, as well as an entertainment.  The practice of kasagake was a regular activity in warriors' residences as depicted in Obusuma Saburô emaki (see plate 1 for Obusuma residence, and plate 3).  On the eve of the Genpei War, Retired Emperor Takakura asked to be entertained by a performance of kasagake and yabusame at the private residence of Yorimori.  Similarly, Fujiwara Yorizane viewed kasagake for his personal entertainment.  Emperor Go-Toba even practiced kasagake to improve his skills in mounted archery.  For that purpose he employed Minamoto Tomomasa as a kasagake instructor.  Also, the Genpei seisuiki tells us that Kiso Yoshinaka, upon realizing that he could not escape death, performed kasagake in a gesture of farewell.  These examples show that, because kasagake was less formalized than yabusame, courtiers and warriors engaged in it for different reasons and in various private locations as dictated by changing circumstances.  At any rate, only rarely was kasagake performed at Tsurugaoka shrine.  But when warriors performed it there, it appeared more formal for the occasion.

Inuômono 犬追物

Animal shooting was created sometime during the Genpei War as an effective practice of mounted archery whose chief purpose was to simulate, as much s possible, the dynamics of the battlefield, though the records of these early practices tell of a leisurely atmosphere rather than a strict one.  In the first recorded practice in 1182, Yoritomo and his closest warriors used cattle as targets (ushiomono):

The buei departed for Yui-no-ura. Spirited mounted warriors lined up to display their skills in mounted archery. First there was cattle targeting. Shimokôbe shoji (shôen administrator) [Yukihira] was the organizer. The archers were Hangae Shirô [Shigetomo], Wada Tarô [Yoshimori] and Jirô [Yoshishige], Miura Jûrô [Yoshitsura], and Aikô Saburô [Suetaka].  Following that, they fixed riding boots (momonukigutsu) on an 8 shaku long pole, and asked Aikô Saburô to shoot arrows [at the boots]. He shot five [arrows] but all missed [the target].

Then, in 1187:

nihon [Yoritomo] departed for Yui-no-Ura where there was cattle targeting. The archers were Hangae Shigetomo, Wada Yoshimori, Sahara Yoshitsura, and Katsunishi Kiyoshige. After the rounds they went to Okazaki Shirô Yoshikane’s residence, and drank countless numbers of sake cups.

What is clear from these descriptions is that there was neither formal procedure nor set order of events. Instead, warriors gathered to enjoy an informal competition in a relaxed atmosphere, then concluded the gathering by getting drunk. In fact, the arrangement of boots on a pole to serve as targets for archery was clearly an on-the-spot improvisation. The lack of further records of similar archery competitions until 1222 is perhaps an indication that such animal targeting was not a formal event until Sanetomo established the practice of dog targeting (inuômono).

In the practice of inuômono mounted warriors stood around a circle marked by a straw rope. A dog handler then released a dog at the center of the marked circle, and the mounted warriors had to hit the dog with as many arrows as they could. The practice later developed to have numerous warriors and dogs in a single bout. A referee kept a record of the hits, and at the end of the bout informed of the results and the warrior with most hits was declared a winner. Arrows used in inuômono had padded arrow heads to prevent the killing of the dogs upon the first strike. This allowed for multiple hits. Nevertheless, even with padded arrow heads, after multiple strikes the dogs died. In such cases it was not uncommon to have dog meat served in the feast that followed the event.4. inuômono

5. inuômono

The first recorded account of inuômono is in 1222, just a few days after a regular practice session of archery:       

There was dog targeting in the southern garden. The young lord watched with anticipation. Sanuki Hanebayashi [Sanemasa] expressed his concern in that matter. Ôshû [Yoshitoki] and Ashikaga Yoshiuji the former governor of Musashi and others observed [the performance]… 

Sanemasa’s concern was likely related to his wife’s advanced stage of pregnancy. According to prevailing Buddhist beliefs, hurting animals might bring bad fortune, and thus shooting dogs was not what Sanemasa viewed as a prescription for health. Three days after the event Sanemasa went to Tsurugaoka Hachimangû to pray for safe delivery. Then, after three more days his wife gave birth to a healthy girl. At that time divination masters performed further rituals. For warriors such as Sanemasa, it was a re-assurance that Buddhist divinities permitted the performance of inuômono.
In the first inuômono of 1222 there were four archers targeting twenty dogs, and judged by one referee. In the inuômono of 1230 there were twelve archers in two groups, sixty dogs, and two referees.  In 1251 there were eighteen archers in three groups, though the number of dogs and referees are not mentioned (see Plate 5, 6). But following the previous numbers, there should have been some hundred dogs and three or four referees. By the middle of the Kamakura period, then, targeting dogs was a grand event for participating warriors and invited guests and observers.

Technical Aspects

Many historians have defined the three forms of mounted archery as the medieval warrior’s practice of sharpening his martial skills in preparation for battle.  Yet, if we consider the pre-determined technical rules of yabusame, kasagake, and inuômono, on one hand, and on the other the chaotic engagement between two or more armies on the battlefield, these forms of mounted archery seem less of a practice, much more of a display of skills. Let us briefly review the technical aspects of each of forms.

Yabusame and kasagake required the mounted archer to gallop along a stretch of unpaved fenced road, maintain constant speed, and shoot three arrows at three inanimate targets, and at a fixed interval (see illustration 1). Under these conditions, the archer had to shoot the arrows to his left side at an almost optimal angle. Other than his horse going astray or bad weather, the archer did not expect surprises or disruptions of any sort.  And then again, bad weather would have caused the cancellation of the event, which meant that even that was not a concern. Similarly, though the archers were required to dress according to a certain code, their attire restricted their movements far less than full body armor.

Inuômono posed much of a challenge to the mounted archers for obvious reasons.  Unlike yabusame and kasagake, the targets were alive, small, and could be faster, more enduring, than the chasing horses. Galloping therefore was not linear but rather executed in any direction and at varying speeds. In addition, a rider chasing after a dog had to consider other riders standing in his way or targeting the same dog. Such conditions simulated a battlefield confrontation much more realistically than yabusame and kasagake, even though the archers did not wear a suit of armor, nor were they under the distress of a counter enemy attack.

On the battlefield a warrior was dressed in a full body armor, including a heavy helmet, and had a long sword hanging against his waste and a short sword, or a knife, tucked in his belt. He was accompanied by attending foot-soldiers carrying pole arms or bows, and had to coordinate his attack with the other mounted archers in his force.  His enemy was equipped in a similar manner but could be distinguished by identification markers such as the color of his armor. Nevertheless, in the chaos of battle, when the forces mix and the arrows fly, distinguishing enemy from foe could prove quiet difficult.


Umayumi for entertainment was almost as old as umayumi for hunting and warfare. Later forms of mounted archery—yabusame and kasagake—which were practiced and performed by aristocratic warrior families (i.e., Minamoto and Taira), naturally remained warriors' favorites in the Kamakura period, but were emphasized more than before as warrior culture. In effect, Kamakura bushi made mounted archery their own. What made it easier for Kamakura warriors to “hijack” and annex yabusame and kasagake was that as entertainment for the in and sekkanke they began only little over a hundred years before the establishment of the Kamakura bakufu. Similarly, dog targeting (inuômono) was arguably the only form of entertainment warriors developed that had no precedence at court. And while inuômono was practiced by warriors in their private residences or designated gathering areas in the provinces or in Kamakura, all the other socio-cultural activities took place at major shrines such as Tsurugaoka Hachimangû.

The social function of all three forms of mounted archery is unmistakable. Their participants were selected from among warriors closest to the bakufu. The selection of warriors for specific roles and duties at each event—archers, referees, and target setters—depended on similar considerations of lineage and association. Similarly, any performance of mounted archery was in conjunction with religious or social events, and for the pleasure of high-ranking warriors.  Success or failure was determined by points and observed by many, making these forms of mounted archery a matter of glory or shame rather than the battlefield’s life or death.