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Swords, Cutting and Military History

Myths and realities of Yadome – Arrow cutting

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Few images in Japanese myth and storytelling are more dramatic than that of a bushi in combat, taking a stand before attacking archers, cutting incoming arrows out of the air;  within the martial arts community, few topics have created more debate.

Yadome no jutsu (the military study of arrow cutting or blocking) is a semi-legendary skill which allows warriors to defend themselves from incoming arrows by cutting them out of the air, or at least knocking them away.  Stories of heroes from many battles tell of individuals of exceeding skill with this ability.  Coming closer to the modern day, several authors over the last two centuries have reported seeing practitioners display this skill, and there was at least one Japanese ryuha (school) which included the study of yadome in their curriculum.

Today, there have been several public demonstrations of yadome recorded, though much disputed by professional martial artists at to their realism.

 

Mythology

In the Heike Monogatari (Tale of the Heike), one of the most famous examples of arrow cutting is described:

“Then Gochi-in Tajima, throwing away the sheath of his long naginata, strode forth alone on to the bridge, whereupon the Heike straightaway shot at him fast and furious. Tajima, not at all perturbed, ducking to avoid the higher ones and leaping up over those that flew low, cut through those that flew straight with his whirring naginata, so that even the enemy looked on in admiration. Thus it was that he was dubbed ‘Tajima the arrow-cutter’.”

Tajima the arrow cutter

 

Such skill being seen as an indicator of superior martial prowess, Yadome made its way into Japanese myths and stories.  Ascribed to great heroes, those born of — or trained by — supernatural creatures (such as the tengu), and to those whose skills are considered mystical, such as the Shinobi (ninja), this skill entered the realm of pure fiction.

 

Yadome in history

Arrow cutting makes an appearance in text in Honcho Bugei Shoden, “A short biography of the martial arts of our country” by, Shigetaka Hinatsu (1716, various translations) ,  in which Maniwa-nen Ryu is listed as practicing the art of yadome no jutsu.  The vast majority of modern martial art and Japanese history text books which list yadome either cite Hinatsu’s work as the source, or else they cite someone else’s research, with said research being derived from the Honcho Bugei Shoden.

There are few directly references to arrow cutting in other martial arts, though in one discussion on the E-Budo forum, one poster comments:

Furthermore, in a biography on Takeda Sokaku. AJ Sokaku Takeda Biography (7) (editor note: full version available to Aikido Journal members only) Tokimune states:

“Katate seigan [one handed middle posture] and Katate uchitsuki [one handed hit/thrust] are sword cutting techniques handed down through the Takeda family which Sokaku inherited and used extensively. These are old sword forms remaining from cavalry battles in Koshu. The katate seigan is said to be a yadome no jutsu (arrow stopping technique). Sokaku was left-handed and good at properly using both hands one after the other so as to rest one hand [briefly]. He always used this method.

Another author at Aikido Web also suggested the founder of Aikido, Ueshiba Morihei, had mastered yadome:

I also learned that Ueshiba had mastered the art of yadome, in which a bokken is used to deflect an arrow shot straight at you from a bow.

Maniwa-nen Ryu continues to this day to be described as including yadome no jutsu among their teachings; it mentions this practice is considered an advanced technique.

 

Modern Debate

Several items in recent years have sparked a lively debate on various martial arts and web discussion forums on the reality and practicability of arrow cutting as a modern martial art.

As early as 2001, a discussion on the E-Budo forum had at least one participant saying he had personally seen a demonstration of yadome in Japan, and gave some details.

Yes, yagiridome exists. It’s practised by exponents of the Maniwa Nen-ryu, though I only ever saw the former headmaster, Higuchi Sadahiro, do it at special demonstrations at his home (there is an old dojo, a historical landmark, on the property). A friend of mine, who is a senior exponent of the ryu, told me that it’s not a part of the curriculum, per se, but sort of an adjunct. I’m not sure if it was ever performed by anybody other than Higuchi S., or if it was done only for the special demonstration held at their hatsu geiko (opening practice) each year.

In the same discussion, another poster says there was a video made of a demonstration of yadome by Higuchi Sadahiro, said video being supervised by Donn Draeger, martial artist and author.  Unfortunately, the video spoken of seems unavailable and indeed, unidentifiable.  It is mentioned that this art practices yadome using padded arrowheads, at a range of some 20-30 metres from the archer.

 

Videos

Several recent documentaries, specials or programs have also kept discussion of yadome alive and well:

One of these appeared in the documentary “Secrets of the Samurai Sword” from NOVA (2007), in which a Japanese master successfully cuts an arrow from the air.

 

 

On the Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters program, in an episode called Ninja 2 (2009), a famous martial artist demonstrated it was at least possible to catch — and therefore hit — an arrow in flight… at least under carefully controlled conditions.

 

 

Most recently, Iisao Matchi was filmed cutting a BB pellet out of the air, though there is much debate as to conditions and whether this was trick or stunt (MartialTalk.com)

 

 

While there is continued discussion and debate over the physics involved,  over whether such techniques would be of use against full-strength bows in combat conditions, or indeed whether yadome no jutsu is anything more than just a myth, there seems to be enough evidence to consider it being within the realm of possibility.

If you have any factual or personal information on yadome you’d like to share, please contact me at:  [email protected]  You can also comment here.

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