How Japan blurs the line between religious ritual and sport
To sports fanatics, watching a favourite player put their skills into action may feel like a religious experience. Some may even compare a visit to a team’s home stadium to treading hallowed ground. But in some parts of the world, sports and religion have an even more explicit connection beyond just the usual reverence of fans.
One example of a practice which blurs the line between a ritual and sport is ‘yabusame’. This is a traditional Japanese form of equestrian archery, and the sport mostly takes place as a tournament between competing individual riders. Riding along a course of 218 metres with three consecutive targets to the left, the mounted archers show off their martial arts skills by taking aim from a galloping horse. According to The Japan Equestrian Archery Association, there are three domestic forms of traditional equestrian archery. However, yabusame is particularly noteworthy compared to the others, in that it is actually considered a sacred ritual.
Its roots can be traced back to the 6th century, but the yabusame ceremony as practiced today started in 1187 when the ritual was held by Minamoto no Yoritomo, the founder of the Kamakura shogunate. It was created as both a way to train his samurai in horseback archery in case of a possible war, and a way to pay tribute to the gods, and pray for blessings and prosperity.
The tournaments are often held at shrines dedicated to the Shinto religion, which is indigenous to Japan. From the beginning of each tournament to the end, a string of rituals are strictly observed in the correct order, such as presenting an arrow to the deities and partaking in sacred sake. Rather than seen as a way to entertain dwellers of the mortal realm such as us, the most important audience of the tournament is the gods themselves. Yabusame can be seen as an offering, or even entertainment, intended for divine spectators.
Although yabusame is traditionally referred to as a ritual due to the religious aspects, the sporting element is there too. There are two main schools that train yabusame archers, the Takeda School of Horseback Archery and Ogasawa School. Their students are required to master the very difficult riding technique necessary to take part in a tournament. Yabusame riders hold their body just above the saddle and horse by an incredibly small distance, allowing them to keep a stable posture and aim accurately, despite the speeding horse’s gallops. Those who enter the tournaments fiercely compete to claim the top prize. Not that there’s any monetary gains to be made. The competitor who places first will be bestowed with honour and a symbolic white cloth, which signals divine favour.
These days, yabusame competitions take place at various times of the year, in certain towns across Japan. At the tournament held by Washibara Hachiman-gu shrine in Shimane, the event takes place on the oldest yabusame archery range in the country.
Those involved in yabusame have tried to preserve the traditional way of carrying out this sport as much as possible. The shape of the bow used by the archers hasn’t changed since it was created in the Yayoi era (300 BCE – 300 CE), and they wear traditional costumes of the Kamakura period, which was when yabusame was developed as a preparatory exercise for samurai warriors. The saddles and stirrups customarily used were manufactured thanks to a traditional Japanese method, which has sadly died out completely. But rather than just utilise modern items, practitioners continue using genuine antique saddles and stirrups, which they carefully preserve so they can stay functional for years to come.
In many religious rituals, exactly who is allowed to take part is a rule strictly enforced. Yabusame is no exception, and traditionally only men could compete in the tournaments. This restriction has eased up in the modern day, and there’s a smattering of women-only tournaments held across the country. For advocates of female representation in yabusame, the blurry distinction between sport and religious ritual has worked in their favour. More emphasis has been put on the sport definition of the practice, which has ultimately allowed female archers to lend their bow to the cause of keeping the tradition alive.
That’s not to say that modernisation has robbed yabusame of its sacred aspects. Events are still held in order to pray for certain positive outcomes and honour the deities. In July of this year, a yabusame tournament was held in Tokyo to wish for a safe and successful Olympic and Paralympic games. The ceremony featured both male and female archers, and was live-streamed via YouTube rather than attended in person by spectators due to COVID restrictions.
Not many sports tournaments held in the modern day combine athleticism, martial arts, religion, and history all at once. Thanks to those keeping the tradition of yabusame alive in Japan, we can witness a largely unknown, sacred side of sport, spectacular enough to entertain even the gods themselves.
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