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Momote Shiki: Japanese Archery Ritual
Centuries-old ritual held for the fortune of new adults
David Michael Weber (crossfire)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2008-02-17 12:16 (KST)   

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Japan: Coming of Age Day 2008




Archers in old style kimono preparing to shoot n the archery ritual known as Momote Shiki
©2008 D.Weber
Seijin-no-Hi or Coming of Age Day is celebrated all throughout Japan on the second Monday of January. Throughout the country, similar ceremonies and activities take place among those newly turned 20 such as the wearing of special kimono, going to shrines, attending speeches, and so on. At Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, a unique ceremony takes place that is often overlooked in favor of seeing the kimono-clad girls that populate the shrine on that day.

Behind the main shrine complex an archery ritual known as Momote Shiki is performed for the good fortune of all those turning 20 and becoming new adults. Archers wearing a style of formal kimono that samurai once wore in olden times shoot two arrows a piece at a central target.

Archers arriving at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo
©2008 D.Weber
The Momote Shiki ceremony is conducted by the Ogasawara-Ryu, one of the oldest schools of Japanese-style archery. The Ogasawara family has long been associated with martial arts training most especially archery. The founder of the Ogasawara line was Nagakiyo who was born in the mid-12th century. He excelled as a mounted archer and was granted the surname of Ogasawara by the Emperor after the name of his birthplace in modern Yamanashi Prefecture.

12th century Japan was a transitionary time. In prior centuries, the Emperor's Court ruled the land from Kyoto. Nobles held the reigns of power but as time progressed they began to lose their power to the emerging warrior class. With the increase of violence, the noble administrators had to rely more and more on the formerly despised warrior class to quell the problems. Eventually the warrior class came into its own in the mid-12th century when the powerful warrior family, the Heike or Taira, came to dominate the Imperial Court.

The archers wear a style of kimono worn by samurai 800 years ago
©2008 D.Weber
The Heike became arrogant in their new found power thus breeding many enemies. War broke out between them and their powerful rivals the Genji or Minamoto clan. The leader of the Genji was Minamoto-no-Yoritomo. Yoritomo destroyed the Heike family and came to rule all of Japan as Shogun. He ruled from his capital Kamakura which lies an hour south of Tokyo by train.

Nagakiyo had been Yoritomo's mentor and instructor in mounted archery. With Yoritomo's ultimate victory, the Ogasawara's fortunes rose. Yoritomo was keen that his warriors keep their martial skills honed even during peacetime. The reason for this and his decision to set his capital in Kamakura far from Kyoto was the precedent set by his former enemies, the Heike family.

Before shooting, the archers give reverence
©2008 D.Weber
One of the prevailing opinions of the day as to why the once powerful Heike family fell so completely was their descent into decadence. They spent more time worrying about their appearance and their poetry ability than they did on their martial skills. One Heike general was famous for abandoning his position in abject terror when a flight of geese so startled him that he thought the Genji were attacking. A great part of this stemmed from the Heike's close proximity to the culture of the Imperial Court.

Yoritomo did not want his followers to become soft and weak like the Heike. He wanted to establish a strong legacy so he set his new capital in Kamakura far from the Imperial Court. Furthermore, he avidly supported the Ogasawara clan in training warriors to maintain their skill and discipline. A number of archery rituals still practiced today were started because of Yoritomo's stern insistence that his followers retain their martial fighting skills.

A Shinto Priest preparing to shoot a special arrow to begin the ceremony
©2008 D.Weber
Archery whether mounted or on foot was strongly emphasized because at this time the much-praised samurai sword had yet to truly come into its own. In Yoritomo's time, the bow was the principle weapon of the samurai and the symbol of his profession and spirit.

Yoritomo's shogunate government lasted until the early 14th century. After his Spartan policies were ignored, the Kamakura Shogunate leaders became lax with luxury and in the end they fell to more determined and stronger enemies. The Ogasawara survived the downfall of the Kamakura shogunate and went on to serve the new shogunate government establish by the Ashikaga clan.

A Shinto Priest loosens and removes his left sleeve so it will not hinder his shooting
©2008 D.Weber
Sometime after the power of the Ashikaga shoguns declined, the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu established a new shogunate government set in Edo (today Tokyo) in 1603. He requested Ogasawara Tsunenao, the head of the clan at the time, to be a mentor and instructor to his son.

The Tokugawa Shogunate ushered in an unprecedented two centuries of peace. Fighting skills were no longer in great demand; however, practice of the martial arts continued but took on a new form. Archery and other martial skills became less about the physical and more about the spiritual. Archery became viewed as a way to self-improvement; of disciplining the mind and soul.

©2008 D.Weber
The Ogasawara clan continued to serve the Tokugawa shogunate until 1868 when the shogunate was abolished. In the midst of a rapidly modernizing Japan of the late 19th century, the Ogasawara continued to teach their traditional arts. However, since there were no more samurai to train in Japan's new society, the Ogasawara opened their school to the general public.

Today the Ogasawara perform a number of archery rituals throughout the year at a number of shrines. Every spring in the Asakusa district of Tokyo, they perform the mounted archery ritual of Yabusame.

©2008 D.Weber
The Momote Shiki ritual is carried out on Seijin-no-Hi, Coming of Age Day though the ritual predates the holiday by centuries. Momote - means "hundred hands." The ritual is a bit of Shinto mathematics: ten archers at a time shoot two arrows a piece. The number of archers times the number of arrows equals 100. The type of arrow used has white fletching or feather. This is the same type of arrow which is sold as good luck charms at shrines during New Years. The Momote Shiki ritual is the origin of this arrow charm. The Momote Shiki ritual used to be held in private until the Edo Period (1603-1867) when it became open to the general public.

Before the archers begin, a Shinto priest shoots a Kabura-ya, a special red-colored arrow with an turnip-shaped head. The arrow makes a whistling noise as speeds along. The noise is believed to drive away evils from all four directions.

Archers draw the bow above their heads before bringing it down to aim
©2008 D.Weber
The archers wear a type of kimono known as a kariginu. The kariginu was the everyday dress of the samurai of the Kamakura Period (1192-1333) and was based on clothes worn on hunting expeditions. On their head is an eboshi -- a type of hat worn by court nobles in earlier centuries.

The traditional way of shooting the bow is very slow and meticulous. The archers begin by slowly uncovering their left arm and shoulder leaving them and the left side of the chest completely bare. The purpose for this is practicality rather than for ritual purposes.

©2008 D.Weber
Traditional kimono robes are loose and flowing which could easily inconvenience the shooting of the bow. Female archers however do not reveal their shoulders and chest. They put their arm through a specially designed hole on the sleeves of female kimono then tie up the sleeve.

The bow is raised upwards and brought slowly down while the arrow is pulled back past the ear. Then at last the string is let loose and the arrow speeds towards the target. The emphasis of the ritual and Japanese archery in general is not on striking the target accurately but on the spiritual repose the archer achieves and maintains throughout the whole ceremony. Balance is sought between spirit and bow when the mind is empty but not dwelling on emptiness.

Archers receive a ceremonial serving of sake after the ritual
©2008 D.Weber

A Zen Master of the Kamakura Period once wrote:
No target's erected
No bow's drawn
And the arrow leaves the string;
It may not hit,
But it does not miss!


Once all the archers have shot the required number of arrows, they receive a small portion of sake and the ceremony is considered concluded. The health and good fortune of the new adults is thus spiritually assured for the year.

©2008 D.Weber

©2008 OhmyNews
A native Tennesseean, David M. Weber is currently at the grammatical grindstone cranking out gerunds, dangling modifiers and perfecting tenses as an English teacher in Japan. In his travels, he has hiked the Inca Trail, been mugged in Mexico City, broke his leg in Switzerland, attempted to bike through Mexico and failed, climbed Pyramids in Egypt and Mexico, drank great quantities of beer at Oktoberfest and gambled at Monte Carlo.
Other articles by reporter David Michael Weber

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