The master bow-maker, unbowed By Norman Munroe At 62 years of age, master bow-maker, Kikunga, is as sprightly as a man half his age. As he shows me and my translator, around his workshop he is a blur of emotion and voluble in his responses, as he enthusiastically demonstrates not just how a traditional Japanese longbow is made, but also shares a little of the storied history of this weapon. Kikunaga-sensei is one of a dwindling number of craftsmen skilled in one of the many traditional crafts of Japan. Japanese archery, or kyudo as it is called in Japanese, is an ancient art with its roots going back to the earliest period of Japanese history, the Jomon period 10,000 years ago. The bow was used, initially, as a weapon for hunting but was soon, inevitably, pressed into service as a weapon of war. Bows, in their earliest forms were made from branches of trees but down the ages the design and construction of the weapon has been constantly refined. Bamboo (take, in Japanese) was first used to make bows during the Edo period, in the 17 th â€“ 18th centuries. The craft of making bows has been handed down from master to student for generations, often from father to son, but also from master to apprentice, as in Kikunaga-senseiâ€™s case. The southern part of Japan has long been the locus of bowmaking. The Miyakonojo area of Miyazaki Prefecture in southwestern Kyushu has been particularly renowned for generations as a centre of excellence in the manufacture of the Japanesestyle longbow. Bows are also manufactured in southern Kagoshima Prefecture, with a lone outpost further north, in the ancient Japanese capital, Kyoto. Bows from these centres are supplied all over Japan.
It is into this ancient and noble tradition that Kikunaga-sensei entered 40 years ago. As a young man, growing up in Miyakono City, he searched for a career path. He laughingly described himself as not being much good at academic work, preferring to work with his hands and at age 21 he became apprenticed to a bow-maker. It is still his trade 40 years later. A cottage industry, bows are made by hand, in a timeconsuming and painstaking process involving more than two hundred different steps. The learning process was just as arduous and long for the then apprentice, whose first task was to learn how to use the tools of his trade. Not quite as easy as it sounds. Some of the tools, especially those used to twist and shape the bamboo, themselves are made by hand and can only be used a few times before they have to be replaced. This in itself was time-consuming. The sinewy muscles rippling along his forearm and shoulders and the strong-looking fingers testify to the level of labour intensiveness required. Though the manufacturing is still carried out almost entirely by hand, modern technology has eased the process somewhat. In Kikunaga-senseiâ€™s workshop, really a traditional-styled Japanese house adjacent to his home, traditional tools like a variety of planes â€“ both wooden and metal-bodied - of different sizes and styles lay cheek by jowl with modern tools such as jig saws and band saws, as well as piles and bundles of material stacked in corners and on the floor . Bows in different stages of completion are lined up in a rack across one wall. At the rear of the studio is a kiln, blackened by years of use, with its chimney poking up into the sky. Inside the kiln, strips of bamboo reach skyward on the serried layers of shelves. The Miyakonojo bow was developed from out of the bows used in the ancient Satsuma kingdom in south-west Kyushu, in what
is now mostly Kagoshima Prefecture, which lies to the south of Miyazaki Prefecture. A bow is built to suit the individual who will use it and the length and the tension on the string, as well as the strength of the bow is adjusted to suit their capabilities and physical characteristics, such as the length of the personâ€™s arm. A completed bow usually spans more than two metres in length and the cord can be made either of fibre or even steel. A Japanese long bow is a fearsome weapon and in countless battles down the ages volleys of shafts from them vanquished threatening enemies. Nowadays, battles like these are relegated to the make-believe world of movies and television and the bow is used only for sport. Kyudo, like other Japanese traditional martial arts â€“ both with and without weapons â€“ is practiced all over Japan as well as around the world. Internationally, however, it has not achieved the same level of popularity as other traditional Japanese martial arts such as karate or judo but in Japan many school children learn the art as an extra-curricular activity. There are also kyudo clubs in many villages, towns and cities. There is a national administrative body, the All Japan Kyudo Federation, while the international governing body for the sport is based in Japan as well. The Japanese bow is shaped differently from, say, a traditional English longbow, (although they are of comparable size) or those used by Native American Indians. It is also shaped differently from those used, for example, in Olympic competition, where the grip is located in the middle of the arched shaft. On a Japanese bow, the grip is located about two-thirds of the way down the shaft but despite the odd appearance (at least to Western eyes) the weapon is so constructed that it is very finely balanced. Deceptive as it may
first appear, a bow can exert up to two thousand pounds of pressure on an arrow and strike a target over 300 metres away. Bow-makers, by the way, donâ€™t make arrows. Arrow-making, or fletching, is a separate activity pursued by professional fletchers. Like so many other items in Japan, the primary material used to make a bow is bamboo (or take, in Japanese). While a bow can be made in a day, from prepared materials, the whole process of preparation of the material takes quite some time. Kikunaga-sensei gets his bamboo from far away Osaka-ken, where he goes to reap his bamboo by hand. He reaps enough to last him for quite some time. Having acquired the bamboo, the next step is the preparation of it for use as a construction material. A bamboo pole is cut into strips. One bamboo pole is divided into about four strips; the longer the better, though not the entire length of a fullgrown pole will be used. With rapid deft movements using a hand saw, he demonstrates. To my untrained eye the strips look almost perfectly symmetrical. Only two of the strips, however, are used. Strips which have knots, where the trunk was sprouting branches, are discarded as these areas would make for weak points in the finished product. The bow-maker notes, though, that very often it is difficult to get the desired length strips and so two strips may have to be joined together to obtain the right length. The join is made at the point where the grip is located, with the wrapped grip hiding the point of union. The bamboo strips are left to dry naturally for six months, then other stages of the curing process ensue. The strips are oiled and placed outside to dry in the sun over a period of two weeks, a process subject, of course to the vagaries of the weather, especially during the rainy season. The dried strips are
then ‘roasted’ over a charcoal fire to clean them and to help get rid of the oils in the wood. The strips are then rubbed dry and placed in the kiln where they are baked. This main curing process takes place. Kikunaga – sensei explained that two strips of cured bamboo ‘sandwich’ a strip of haze or sumac (kaze in Japanese) and it is at this point that the dried strips are sorted to find their mates. Angela Wang, my translator, says Kikunaga-sensei describes the sorting and selection as a kind of ‘match-matchmaking process leading to a wedding.’ It is this partly intuitive process which determines that the selected strips will ‘harmonise’ to produce the strongest possible bow. The ‘wedded’ strips are then glued together and so twisted that their natural springiness are harnessed to contribute to the balance of the bow. The grip is fashioned from deer-skin. A completed bow is a beautiful thing; indeed a work of art. The bows lined up against the wall gleam with varnish and polish and seem almost alive; waiting to loose their bolts towards some target. Kikunaga-sensei, also points out that although each bow is tailored for an individual’s weight and strength, all bows are designed to be used right-handedly and natural left-handers must learn to shoot right-handed! But there is a point where art and philosophy meet, even in bow-making. A new bow may cost upwards of Yen 80,000 but after all the labour, time and effort expended to create it, there is no guarantee that it will last a long time. Ultimately the durability of the weapon depends on the quality of the materials used and a completed bow may break after one or two uses as readily as it will last for 20 years without needing to be replaced. Such is the nature of things, ephemeral. At 62 years of age Kikunaga-sensei displays no signs of slowing down. At the same time, however, he will have no successors in his workroom when he downs tools. Like many traditional crafts,
bow-making is a slowly dying art, despite the fact that the number of kyudo practitioners is growing, both in Japan and elsewhere. As of this interview in August 2005, there were 12 active bow-makers still active in the Miyakonono area, the highest concentration in one place, down from over the over 40 who were active when he was just learning the craft. Two others are active in Kagoshima Prefecture, one in Kumamoto Prefecture and another in the city of Kyoto. Kikunaga-sensei is alone in his workshop. His children are not interested in his craft and he has no apprentices. Training an apprentice eats into valuable production time, he reasons, and so he has never taken one on. At least not yet, though he has not entirely dismissed the idea. To be sure, the period of apprenticeship and the gaining of proficiency in the art, to the point where one can strike out on oneâ€™s own can take quite a long time, upwards of ten years. He himself plans to carry on making bows as long as he is able to and as long as he still enjoys doing it. Not so long ago there was a swing away from using traditional hand-crafted weapons in favour of bows made of artificial materials like fibre-glass and carbon fibre. This deviation, about 10 years ago, was responsible, Kikunaga-san says, for a sharp drop in the number of persons engaged in the cottage industry. Sales of traditionally made bows suffered badly and those who were not able to weather the storm simply closed their doors or went into other fields. Outwardly, at least, he appeared to be not too worried about the declining numbers of his fellow craftsmen but one sensed that he was trying to put a good face on it. The general consensus, at least in his view, is that the traditionally made bows give better performance, even if they may not last as long as a fibre-glass bow. This view has, in fact, been borne out by gradually re-invigorated sales.
Another problem that has become more acute in recent times is the growing scarcity of some materials. This, however, has been a far easier matter to address, with trial and error being successful in finding replacement materials. Human resources, however, is a different matter.