Tales of Bravery: Nasu no Yoichi

In my previous post I spoke about Kyūba no Michi as a systematized martial system used during the Heian period to Kamakura period. There are many stories and tales of warriors who represent this, some displaying remarkable skills against unfavorable odds, or impeccable judgment during critical moments to change the tide in their favor.

An example of this is “Heike Monogatari¹”, which is a written account of the conflicts between the Taira clan and Minamoto clan as they struggled for power to rule over Japan. In it is the heroic tale of a young warrior named Nasu no Yoichi² and his display of archery prowess. The setting takes place at the end of a battle at Yashima³ in 1185, where the Taira had moved out into the sea, and hid then 8-year old emperor Antoku on board of one of 8 boats attached together. These boats were positioned a good distance in the sea away from the shore, where the army of the Minamoto stood out of reach. As a form of a taunt, a crimson red fan with a circle drawn in the center was placed on a pole of a boat many yards away from the shore where the Minamoto army watched from, daring them to shoot it down.

Nasu no Yoichi, an individual known to possess exceptional archery skills within the ranks of the Minamoto army, was chosen among his peers to shoot the fan down. Riding his horse out into the turbulent sea, Yoichi’s fate, along with the pride of the Minamoto army, will be determined by a single arrow.


Drawing of Nasu no Yoichi on a kakejiku (hanging scroll). Yoichi is shown drawing his bow, in preparation to take a shot at a fan.

In the original source, this tale is told entirely in 2 chapters, which are “Ōgi no Mato⁴”, and the other called “Yuminagashi⁵”. Here is the original Japanese text, along with an English translation done by myself, of this critical moment.




Yoichi rode his horse into the sea around 21 meters, as the shooting distance was too far from the shore. Even then, the distance of the fan appeared to be at a distance around 147 meters.

The time was around 6 pm, evening, of the 28th day of the 2nd month. Yet, at the time the wind from the north was blowing strongly, and the waves that crashed upon the shore were tall. As the boat bobs up and down, the fan also waves around on the pole troublesomely. Out in the sea, members of the Taira gather to one side of their boat as they look on. At the shore, Yoshitsune looks on while straightening the bit of his horse. There is no one, absolutely no one, who would not say this moment is grand.




As Yoichi closed his eyes, he prays in his heart, “Praise to bodhisattva Hachiman, god of Shimotsuke Province’s Nikko Gongen⁶ in Utsunomiya. Oh, great god of the Nasu family’s Yuizumi shrine, please allow me to shoot straight into the center of the fan. If I am disgraced by my shooting, I will not face my people again, as I will split my bow, and kill myself. Please, let this arrow not miss its mark, as I want to be able to return to my home country.”

Opening his eyes, he notices the wind blowing in his direction started to die down, while the fan appeared easier to aim at.


Ehagaki (postcard) showing a depiction of Nasu no Yoichi shooting the fan off of the pole on one of the Taira’s boats.


Taking his whistling arrow and nocking it on his bow, Yoichi draws the string back, and lets the arrow fly. While appearing small in frame, he is a very strong archer who can group 12 arrows while pulling a long bow. The screech from the whistling went on for a long time, as it echos off the waves. The arrow did not miss its mark, as it propels straight through the center of the circle just a bit away from the outer edge. As the whistling arrow sailed into the sea, the fan rose skyward. It flutters around in the air for a bit, then is tossed around once, then twice by a spring breeze. Finally, the fan crumbles into the sea.


Yoichi’s miraculous deed is an example of Kyūba no Michi, and how the importance placed upon the bow could near decide victory or defeat. Look out for more tales as such, as I will be adding those that correspond with the different phases of Japan’s martial systems.

1) 平家物語

2) 那須与一. In some sources, such as “Nasu no Yoichi no Katari” (那須与市語), the name is also written as “那須与市”.

3) Known as “Yashima no Tatakai” (屋島の戦い) in Japanese.

4) 扇的

5) 弓流

6) This is a shrine, presently known as Nikkō Futaarasan Jinja (日光二荒山神社) , located in Nikkō City, Tochigi Prefecture.

Phases of Martial Structuring: Kyūba no Michi

This year, an area of interest I hope to cover in its entirety is the different phases of Japan’s martial systems and the different paths they developed on. Throughout the history of Japan, especially when the influence of militaristic rule was at its highest, the names tied to martial combat, as well as how it was approached, changed a good number of times. This also played a significant part in the types of weapons and armor used at certain points.

The first entry to start off with will be “Kyūba no Michi”, which is written with the characters “弓馬の道”. Kyūba no Michi loosely translates as “The way of bow & arrow and horseback riding”. Considered the 1st phase of a systematically formalized martial system, it was under development early in Heian period, and came into full form from Kamakura period onward. To get a full understanding of what Kyūba no Michi is, we’ll look at not only its components and how it systematized how battles played out, but how it was directly influenced by the growth of Japan’s society. Old texts used for information on this includes the following

  • Heike Monogatari (平家物語)
  • Mōko Shurai Ekotoba (蒙古襲来絵詞)
  • Azuma Kagami (吾妻鑑)
  • Genpei Seisuiki (源平盛衰記)
  • Ōshū Gosannenki (奥州後三年記)


Japan, like many countries before the advancement of technology, had a strong adaptation of the bow & arrow in its early civilization. Known under older titles such as “yumiya¹”, it would first be used for combat as early as Yayoi period (300 BCE – 300 CE), having a sense of virtue and honor among warriors at that time. Later it gained influences from China, and certain practices were put into order. This spanned from formal customs & etiquette to the type of materials used for crafting a bow. These influences are documented in ancient texts such as the Shurai², Gokanjo³, and Raigi⁴.

The Imperial family, along with those families of nobility, supported the ceremonial and cultural practices adopted from China, thus spreading this to many aspects of life. Warrior groups and families followed in suit, as they did not have the same form of power or sway to challenge these aristocratic pursuits. With the combination of the above factors, the use of bow & arrow was treated with great respect, like a sacred and honorable art.


For Kyūba no Michi to point towards horsemanship meant that horses were a vital resource. At specific times in Japan’s history, horses gained different roles depending on the development of society. For example, during the Heian period they were primarily used for horse breeding (basan, 馬産) and for racing (keiba, 競馬), while in Kamakura period they were vital for transportation (unyu, 運輸) and farming tasks (nōkō, 農耕). What is similar between the two time periods, however, is that there was an even greater need of horses for military activities (gunji, 軍事).


A picture of warriors on horseback with bow & arrows, accompanied by their retainers. From “Mōko Shurai Ekotoba”.

Areas that raised horses were very important, as they not only provided the means for warriors to develop and hone their horsemanship, but these horses needed to be in top condition. One of the more well known areas for this was named Senma⁵ located in the north-eastern region once known as Ōshū (present day Higashi Iwashi District, Iwate Prefecture). An example of this is the war horse named Tayūguro⁶, the prized possession of the famous warrior Minamoto no Yoshitsune. In 1180, Yoshitsune first acquired this horse from the warlord Fujiwara no Hidehira while passing through Ōshū seeking assistance against the Taira. At the time, his horse was named “Usuzumi⁷” due to its hairs being black in complexion. Yoshitsune would later ride his new horse and accomplish impressive feats, especially during a major battle at Ichi no Tani⁸ in the western region of Japan. Not only was Yoshitsune rewarded for his performances, his horse was honored with a rank as well, and was renamed “Tayūguro”⁹.

Cavalry was an important position in an army during Heian period, and in Kamakura period. Bearing a label such as kibamusha (騎馬武者), warriors were very active with capable horses. Choosing the correct horse in itself was a skill. A common advice from warriors at the time was to choose a horse that was neither too big or too small, not too timid or too wild. As they were ridden for long periods when conflicts between warlords were inevitable, well-trained horses were needed to handle tough conditions, such as long journeys, climbing up and down rough terrains, and dealing with the chaos found in skirmishes against enemy armies.


From the Kamakura period, the establishment of Kyūba no Michi truly took form once Minamoto no Yoritomo took governing power over Japan. Directing the country to operate in a more militaristic fashion, the growth of the warrior class and their activities took off. Military families took precedence in many aspects of life, for example controlling lands and areas, building their army with locals, and ensuring that they are sustained with supplies from farms and artisans that live in their territory.

Delving deeper into the meaning of Kyūba no Michi, it was a label that stood for a system where one understood and/or takes part in martial & military affairs. Usage of the bow & arrow, and skills of riding horseback were the main components, as they cemented the basis of what a true warrior was supposed to know, as well as were involved in their activities. As an example, there were 3 activities they took part in as a pastime, as well as a stake of honor as it tested their archery ability while horseback:

  • Yabusame (流鏑馬) = Shooting targets while on a running horse
  • Kasagake (笠懸) = Riding alongside a strategic course shooting designated targets
  • Inu Oumono (犬追物) = Dog chasing

Collectively, they were known as “Kisha Mitsumono” (騎射三物). Along with this, hunting was also part of a warrior’s lifestyle. They would head out as a pack while on horseback, and split up in multiple directions in search of deer or boars in a forest, and taking their prey down through the use of their bow. This act was generally labeled as “makigari¹⁰”.


A miniaturize ōyoroi (large armor), complete with yumiya (bow & arrows) and tachi (battlefield sword). Taken by Nanahito Wing (ナナヒトウイング) and used with permission from “ShashinAC“.

For their martial training, warriors were expected to be verse at various aspects. Some specialized in certain areas, such as setting up camp or makeshift forts in enemy territory, commanding army formations, and so on. They were also trained to be versed in using many different types of weapons for battle at the time, including swords (tachi, 太刀¹¹) , spears (yari, 槍¹²), (naginata, 薙刀¹³), and war axes (masakari, 鉞¹⁴). High ranking warriors also wore large, box-shaped armor called ōyoroi (大鎧). This type of armor provided significant protection, but hindered mobility greatly. Ōyoroi was deemed suitable while on horseback.


In Japan’s early history, those who possessed a form of power knew about one another one way or the other. Japan being a small island contributed to this. There were many reasons for this, such as by word of mouth from travelers, scouts, or through (in) direct involvement with each other. There were minimal oppositions that were foreign, if at all, in Japan that would’ve posed a surprise in battle tactics. Due to this, those with military power established their strongholds and armies almost the same way.

During Heian period, military families would do as much as they could to occupy land areas, establish their stronghold, and build their army. Their strongholds would either be on flat lands, hills, or up in the mountains. However, during the Kamakura period, those loyal to Yoritomo and his Bakufu¹⁵ (shogunate) could get land appointed to them, while others who were seen as an opposition would be attacked and have their land taken away from them by the Bakufu’s massive army. Since the Japanese earned much of their fighting experience against one another, many military families adopted similar, if not the same, battle tactics and etiquette for engaging in war, with Kyūba no Michi playing a heavy role of how this unfolded.


A section from the “Gosannen Gassen Emaki” (後三年合戦絵巻) called “Gankō no Midare” (雁行の乱れ), where Kibamusha (cavalry warriors) from the Minamoto were notified about hidden enemies in the brush through the sudden flight of wild geese. From Wikipedia.

Here is an example of how the engagement for battle described in historical documents played out. When 2 powerful individuals had a dispute (i.e. over the control of land), in worst case scenario, they would send their armies to clash with each other in a big battle, which is called gassen (合戦) in Japanese. There were certain criteria many followed when confronting an imposing force was inevitable, which is described in the example below:


1. Both sides would set up camps and such away from each other, and prepare for the battle by gathering supplies, weapons, troops, and the like.

2. Scouts would be used to keep tabs on each side and gather intel, such as the size of the army, layout of camp, terrain advantages that can be exploited, and so on.

3. On the day of the battle, both sides take up their formations. Words may be exchanged between the commanders or such regarding the situation at hand.

4. Day of battle begins with each side shooting off a signalling arrow called kaburaya (鏑矢), which notifies to begin ya-awase (矢合わせ), or raining arrows at each other.

5. Infantry from both sides, under the cover of arrows, make their way to clash against one another, which is called kumiuchi (組打). Cavalry, along with their retainers on foot, galloped through the field fighting as well.

6. When 2 elite warriors met face to face¹⁶, each side would exchange their name and title, and fight on horseback.

7. The two warriors attacked first with a bow firing arrows at each other, in a yabusame-like fashion. When this proved ineffective, they would then move on to close range weapons, such as a tachi or naginata.

8. In the event one warrior had gained the advantage over the other, such as knocking the other off his horse, retainers of the losing side would jump in to save their master. This would cause everyone from both sides to engage in battle.


This is how Kyūba no Michi influenced the flow of a battle. This also happened, more or less, when an army went to besiege an enemy castle.


This concludes the discussion regarding Kyūba no Michi. Japan’s development and other influences contributed to it being the way for martial combat. Be on the lookout for the next entry, as it is in the works and will be posted within the next few weeks.

1) 弓矢

2) 周礼

3) 後漢書

4) 礼記

5) 千厩

6) 太夫黒

7) 薄墨

8) Known as “Ichi no Tani no Tatakai” (一の谷の戦い) in Japanese, this battle took place at Ichi no Tani in Settsu Province (divided between present day Hyōgo Prefecture and Ōsaka Prefecture). While the Taira was stationed there with a defensive stronghold, the Minamoto were able to besiege and defeat them, which was a great victory on their side.

9) Minamoto no Yoshitsune and Tayūguro’s feats while on the battlefield is a representation of the phrase “Jinba Ittai” (人馬一体), which means a person and their horse performs as if in perfect unison.

10) 巻狩

11) In some cases, also known as an ōdachi (大太刀).

12) Generally written with the character 槍. Before the yari was its predecessor called hoko (鉾). The spear came to popular use from the Kamakura period onward.

13) While generally written as 薙刀, it is known to have been written as 長刀 in the past. Although the naginata saw great usage in earlier periods such as the Heian period, it went into decline from the Kamakura period onward. This is due in part to the more effective attributes of the yari against armored warriors.

14) Another name for an axe is ono (斧).

15) 幕府

16) These warriors tend to stand out due to their armor, or components on their armor, being a lighter or brighter shade of color.