A Glance at Satsuma’s Heki ryu Kyujutsu: Part 1

Japan has a long history of the bow and arrow. A prestigious weapon when feudal lords were at conflict for the unification of Japan, many bushi were required to learn the art of shooting an arrow, called kyujutsu in Japanese. Several martial schools became famous for their instruction on kyujutsu, such as Yamato ryu and Ogasawara ryu. One school in particular, called Heki ryu, has strong roots in warfare and was systematically devised to be used in the hands of both the elite warriors and infantry. It is unique in that the traditional methods of battlefield tactics is still preserved today, which is visible in the Satsuma style of Heki ryu.

Japanese bow with arrows
A Japanese bow with arrows, dating back to Edo period. From Wikipedia.

Let’s take a brief look into the history of Heki ryu to understand its roots, and it’s further development as a battlefield-focused archery system under the Satsuma style. The founder of Heki ryu is Heki Danjo Masatsugu  (bet. 1440-1505), an individual famed as the “pioneer who revitalized the archery of Japan”1. A student versed in the archery of Henmi ryu2 coupled with experience using the bow & arrow in war, Danjo established his form of archery later in his life during the the Muromachi Period3. Danjo’s archery style was adaptable to the battlefield, so many soldiers and high-class families sought to learn it. There are many branches of Heki ryu that claim to be derived from Danjo’s teachings due to his reputation.

Heki ryu Kyujutsu spread into Satsuma no Kuni (present day Kagoshima Prefecture) through Hongo Yoshinori.  He and his lord, Ukita Hideie, sought refuge there after being on the losing side in the battle of Sekigahara4 in the year 1600.  Yoshinori would later become a vassel to the Shimazu family, the rulers of the Satsuma Domain5, as well as the archery instructor in the area due to his hardened skills with the bow and arrow. Members of the Shimazu family also became proficient in Heki ryu, took pride in the archery abilities in their area, and were proactive in maintaining the effectiveness of Heki ryu Kyujutsu by helping to have many warriors in the land learn it.

Heki Danjo Masatsugu with disciple
Heki Danjo Masatsugu teaching Yoshida Shigekata kyujutsu. From Wikipedia.

There was another individual, named Togo Chozaemon Shigehisa, who’s exceptional talent in archery contributed to further development of Heki ryu Kyujutsu in Satsuma Domain.  A vassel of Shimazu Yoshihiro, Shigehisa’s talents were quickly recognized by his superiors. Viewed as a  protege, he was directed to receive deeper instructions of Heki ryu under Hongo Yoshinori in the early 17th century. Later, after Yoshinori passed away, Shigehisa was sent to Kyoto under apprenticeship of Yoshida Issuiken Insai Shigeuji6, in order to study all there is to know about Heki ryu Insai Ha7. In time, Shigehisa received his license in the Insai method of archery.

Shigehisa returned years later back to Satsuma Domain. He became the 1st instructor of Heki ryu Insai Ha Kyujutsu, and included what he learned to the Satsuma Heki ryu, vastly improving the archery within the area.

A Tanegashima on display. From Wikipedia.

The final stage of Satsuma Domain’s development of Heki ryu Kyujutsu happened around the 19th century, a time where the advancement of guns was well recognized. Looking at the history of guns in Japan,  their value rose steadily over time as they became more accurate in hitting their mark. With the increase in availability and overall simplicity in usage, guns such as the tanegashima8 saw more use in the years of skirmishes, utilized in group tactics to send volleys of shots to mow down soldiers. Commanders willingly included this weapon in their own units, which changed the way battles were engaged in. The high status of the bow & arrow started to wane over time; an age-old weapon that took years to master was losing its taste, for common tactics such as releasing a rain of arrows at the same time couldn’t compare to the direct and consistent damage guns were capable of.

Shimazu Nariakira, the 28th head of Satsuma Domain, didn’t sway to the reputation of guns so easily, nor was he ready to give up on archery. He rallied to his countrymen to not drop their bows, quoted stating9:


With a translation done by myself below:

“The roots of our country’s warrior arts is in kyujutsu. It has played an important role in our history for a very long time, …we have to teach and spread kyujutsu to many students. If not then it will become useless, for its effectiveness cannot be preserved just on paper. Archery is the way to battle against the enemy. “

Togo Shigemochi
A picture of Togo Shigemochi. From the webpage Satsuma Heki ryu on the website Heki To ryu

To ensure the future of Japanese archery, Nariakira assigned the task of remaking archery essential on the battlefield to Togo Chozaemon Sanetaka, the 14th successor of Satsuma Heki ryu. Sanetaka, accompanied by Togo Genjiro Shigemochi, traveled to Edo10 for a year to observe military-related drills and procedures. Returning to their hometown, Sanetaka added to Satsuma Heki ryu a new core component called Kumiyumi. New unit formations help with the concept of Kumiyumi, including those that have archers working side by side with spearmen to ensure successful advancement towards the enemyline. With this restructuring came the birth of Satsuma Heki ryu Koshiya Kumiyumi.

This here ends the brief look into Heki ryu Kyujutsu’s history and its settling in the Satsuma Domain. Stay tuned for part 2, which will cover detailed explanation and examples about Satsuma Heki ryu Koshiya Kumiyumi.

1) A translation done by me, of the original phrase “吾国弓術中興始祖也”. The phrase comes from the Honcho Bugei Shoden (本朝武藝小傳) written by Hinatsu Yasuke Shigetaka (日夏弥助繁高). Further information can be found here.

2) The first kyujutsu system in Japan developed by Henmi Kiyomitsu (6/27/1110 – 8/12/1168) in the 12th century.

3) (approx. 1336 – 1573) The period in which the Ashikaga (Muromachi) shogunate had control over Japan.

4) A major battle on 10/21/1600 between the Eastern Army (Feudal lords from Eastern parts of Japan led by Tokugawa Ieyasu) and the Western Army (Feudal lords from Western parts of Japan, loyal to the Toyotomi clan). Outcome marks the beginning of Ieyasu to claiming power over Japan in 1603.

5) Present day western part of Kagoshima Prefecture

6) (1562-1638) Creator of Heki ryu Insai Ha

7) A branch derived from Heki Danjo Masatsugu’s teachings of Heki ryu Kyujutsu

8) A matchlock type of arquebus firearm introduced to Japan by the Portuguese in 1543.

9) Quote is from the webpage “Heki ryu Koshiya Sashiya”, on the website “Furusato Izumi”, which is managed by Uchinoura Akira. Website can be visted  here.

10) Present day Tokyo, Japan

4 thoughts on “A Glance at Satsuma’s Heki ryu Kyujutsu: Part 1

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