Why Is The Japanese Longbow Asymmetrical?

by | Oct 22, 2022

The Japanese Longbow or Yumi is unique among war bows and stands apart from bows across the rest of the world. Technically, this bow of bows isn’t really a Longbow. There is a slight recurve to the limbs. It stands at 2.2-2.5m in length, it is the world’s longest bow, which is over half a metre longer than an Olympic Recurve bow. But why is the Japanese Longbow asymmetrical?

The Japanese Longbow or Yumi was designed asymmetrically because the Japanese realised that the hand shock after the arrow’s release culminated in the centre of the bow. By shifting the grip below the centre they were able to eliminate almost 50% of the vibration.

In this article, we’ll delve deeper into the reasons behind shaping the Japanese Yumi in this way and explore the resulting benefits.

Why Is The Japanese Longbow Asymmetrical?

The Yumi is made from a combination of bamboo and a Japanese wax tree. But the main feature of the Yumi is the fact that the grip is located one-third of the way up the bow making it asymmetrical. There is a lot of speculation surrounding this odd design feature.

While archery and the use of bows worldwide typically involve holding the bow in the centre, in Japan, people have been holding bows approximately one-third of the way up from the bottom for the past 2,000 years.

While this design may seem odd to Western eyes used to seeing only perfectly symmetrical bows, there is a logic behind the shape of the Yumi.

Benefits of an Asymmetrical Bow

Ease of Use on Horseback

In feudal times, Japanese archers rode into battle on horseback. As they were facing enemies on all sides, the practicality of being able to easily switch the bow from one side to the other meant that they could defend and attack from every angle.

Shooting Arrows from a Kneeling Position

When Japanese infantry gathered to defend in ranks, they would place archers on the front lines in kneeling positions.

Japanese Archers Kneeling

By holding the bow one-third of the way up, they could easily adopt the kneeling position without experiencing difficulties in accommodating the length of the bow in relation to the ground.

Reduces Vibration and Handshock

The main purpose of asymmetric design in the Japanese Longbow is to minimize vibration and hand shock after releasing the arrow, although the above theories may hold some truth.

Holding the bow at a lower point reduces vibration through the hand. After the arrow has been released, the vibration will travel up the bow and into the centre, causing extreme shock to the hand. Almost enough to make you drop the bow.

Faster Arrow Speeds

Also because of the bow’s typically lighter draw weight, drawing the bow from the middle will produce a weaker rebound and therefore less propulsive force.

Drawing the bow from a lower position is much harder to do, and will produce a much higher propulsive force. This, in turn, means more energy is transferred into the arrow.

Arrows fired from a Yumi bow have been recorded at speeds of up to 180-200kmph, or 164-182fps.

Related: How To Choose The Right Longbow: A Beginner’s Guide

Why Does Holding The Yumi Lower Down Reduce Vibration?

Scientists have found that a third of the way up the bow, there is a sweet spot where the waves of vibration cross over. They saw that at this sweet spot, (known as a node), the bow is relatively still.

The vibration occurs on the bowstring’s return after the release of the arrow. In the picture above, the orange line represents the wave of vibration, while the red dot is the node. This is where the archer will grip the bow.

In physics terms, this is the best spot to fire the arrow from.

Can You Shoot A Japanese Longbow From The Centre?

Shooting a Japanese Longbow from the centre is possible. You will immediately feel how easier it is to draw the bow back. But upon release, the hand shock can be such that you might end up dropping the bow.

The Yumi would never be shot from the centre in any kind of traditional setting however as the vibration would not allow for a smooth release of the arrow.

Where Can I Try The Japanese Yumi Bow?

Shooting the Yumi bow is a complex and intricate process. One style of Japanese archery, or Kyudo, is a martial art that utilises the Yumi bow.

Kyudo has its roots firmly in the history and traditions of the Samurai and involves a lot of rituals, meditation and breathing exercises where shooting the Yumi bow is only one part of the process.

Kyudo enjoys widespread popularity in Japan, with high schools, universities, Kyudo schools, and academies across the country offering instruction in this traditional art.

This doesn’t mean that you have to hop on a plane bound for Kyoto. But the further you go from the cultural root of Kyudo, the more difficult it is to find good instruction.

Japanese Longbow

But if you’re lucky enough to have a Kyudo academy nearer to you than the Far East, then you should definitely give it a go!

You can still get hold of a Yumi bow and arrows and practice the technique of drawing the bow. There are plenty of online distributors of Kyudo equipment and videos on Youtube showing you how to use it.

Conclusion

Shooting from the lower third of the bow is a unique characteristic of Japanese archery, but once you realise the practicalities and benefits of this position, you’ll find you have a much better connection to the art of Kyudo!

The Japanese Yumi bow’s asymmetrical design makes it a very unique bow in archery. During a time of war, people fashioned the asymmetrical bow out of necessity. Today, Kyudo connects us to a long-standing cultural heritage and allows us to enjoy it as a form of meditation and spiritual training.

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