In this series of posts I want to talk about why taihai is so important to kyudo. On the one hand it’s one of the most basic aspects of kyudo, and yet on the other it’s one aspect that is mostly ignored. Great taihai is what separates good from great archers, and it’s also what perplexes most when they first look at kyudo. I firmly believe that the better we can understand and perform taihai, the better we can hit the target, better express ourselves in our shooting, and better learn from the practice of kyudo.
This series of posts was sparked when someone asked me something that went like this:
“When researching about kyudo, there is a lot of information about the shooting and everything you do once you’re at the shooting mark, but what about all the stuff getting up to that point?”
That is taihai, all the stuff you do before and after you’re at the mark. In that sense, we can divide kyudo into the things we do at the mark (shooting), and all the stuff we do before and after we shoot (taihai). But really, most all the things we do in taihai we should be doing while we shoot, and most all the things we do while we shoot we should also use in our taihai. In that sense, we should look to taihai not as something separate from shooting, but rather as a very important part of the process of shooting.
You could say it’s “shooting without shooting.” I like that, but for the sake of gaining a deeper understanding of taihai, we’re going to have to get a lot more specific.
Like, what does the Japanese word “taihai” mean in English?
From all the English writings I’ve read, I don’t believe I’ve ever found a single translation of the word “taihai”. What you usually find is a description of the process: “Entering the dojo, performing the right steps in the right order and timing, and leaving the dojo.” or “The formalized movements based on etiquette.” or “Taihai involves five archers entering the dojo, approaching the target and preparing for shooting in harmony, with precise timing and rhythm.”
Even in the Japanese version of “the Kyudo Manual” (Kyuhon), I don’t think there is the use of the word, “taihai”. There are lots of description of different types of ceremonial shootings using terms like, “The movements of three person shooting” or “the movements of removing the kimono sleeve” or “ceremonial shooting for the makiwara”. Taihai is involved in all of these, and yet the term itself isn’t mentioned.
That point aside, the two words that seem to come up the most are “ceremonial” and “movements”.
How about we call taihai, “ceremonial movements”?
Well, I don’t like this because the term “ceremonial” makes it sound like it’s something special we do only on certain occasions, when really it’s something we should be doing all the time when we’re shooting. The term “movements” is certainly accurate, but it’s not just any movements, but very specific predetermined ones.
I’d also like to mention that taihai is a word that relates specifically to kyudo. When I ask a Japanese person who doesn’t practice kyudo what taihai is, they don’t know. Even if they look at the written characters, the meaning of taihai doesn’t translate. You can explain the motions of taihai in Japanese, or show someone the movements and say, “this is taihai”, but there is no single term to explain to people who aren’t already familiar with the word.
That aside, let’s take a look at the Japanese characters for taihai ourselves and see if we can find anything.
Taihai looks like this: 体配.
体 (tai) most simply means “body”. I don’t think it means much more in the full word of taihai, but if you look up 体 in a kanji dictionary it will also show it as, “style; form; substance; center appearance”.
配 (hai) is a little trickier because it doesn’t have much of a defined meaning if the character is all by itself. Only when linked with other characters does it gain meaning, but then it has a slightly different meaning with each different character it’s linked with to make a new word. Anyway, in a kanji dictionary 配 means “distribute”. With other characters it often conveys the meaning of “distributing”, “alloting” or “arranging”.
So … taihai could be translated as “distributing the body”?
Considering the Japanese characters abstractly in the mind, it kind of makes sense, but as far as English translations I don’t think we’re getting any closer to an agreeable term.
Let’s get away from the words for a second and look at exactly the taihai are for a moment.
Taihai is the determined sequence of movements of walking, standing, sitting, and bowing that one does before and after shooting an arrow which one is required to perform in any kind of official ceremonial shooting or tournament. The three instances in which we use taihai that come to my mind are tests (shinsa), tournaments (taikai), and the sitting form (zassha) [which is used in shinsa, some taikai, and any other ceremonial shooting (sharei)]
In tests, one is graded on their taihai as well as their ability to hit the target. In the early levels one doesn’t have to do perfect taihai to pass, but as one rises higher on the ranks more importance is put on taihai, and it isn’t rare that someone will fail for improper taihai.
In tournaments taihai is more of just the way in which the shooting is conducted. In all the tournaments I’ve participated in, mistakes or sloppiness in taihai are not related to competition results, and taihai itself is seen just as a formality.
In other instances of ceremonial shooting or doing the sitting form in a group in front of others, taihai reveals one’s “way” of shooting. By looking at one’s taihai we can see whether they care only about hitting the target, only about having beautiful form, if they’re really nervous or calm, or be able to gauge what level they are, etc. But then I guess that’s my own biased opinion.
So now we come to perhaps the biggest issue in taihai: We have to do taihai when taking tests, participating in tournaments, or doing other ceremonial shootings, but what about our daily practice?
Ah-ha … what do you think?
When I first learned kyudo in an official two month course where there was constant supervision by a teacher, we were taught that when we entered the shooting space and went to the mark we do proper taihai. This being the case, everyone always did taihai when they went to shoot.
But when the two month course ended and people began shooting on their individual time, most people stopped doing proper taihai, and just walked up to the mark to shoot, or did a kind of half-taihai walk to the mark. Given, it does take extra attention and care, and could easily be donned “annoying”. At times when I’m frustrated and really concerned about hitting the target, the last thing I care about is doing proper taihai.
I think I mostly did proper taihai in my time at the first dojo, but when I moved to another prefecture in a new dojo, I wasn’t sure how they all did things, so I always did proper taihai to be safe.
Looking at others in the dojo, especially in the morning times when there aren’t any other teachers around, nobody did anything close to proper taihai. At night when there are a lot of teachers present, most people do some kind of half-taihai, but even then a lot of high ranking teachers will pay little attention to it and move to the mark as they please.
What’s interesting is that when I looked at the top ranking hanshi sensei in our dojo (eighth-rank, master), he does the best taihai of all, and does it every single time. I thought that was strange because if he was at the top of the dojo, he doesn’t have to do silly taihai right? But someone told me that because he is at the top there is a lot of pressure on him to show a good example of kyudo with proper taihai.
So later I went straight to the source and asked the hanshi sensei about taihai. He said that no one will get angry with you or tell you you have to do proper taihai during casual practice time, there are no rules about that. However, your usual practice time is a great time to practice the taihai. That way, one doesn’t have to worry about practicing taihai before tests because one’s body already naturally does it. Furthermore, it’s a part of how you want to practice. Do you care only about hitting the target? If so, then perhaps you don’t need to worry about taihai. But if you’re considered about doing proper kyudo, then you should also be concerned about doing proper taihai. This being the opinion of the highest ranking teacher, I naturally deem it the most correct.
Personally, every time I go to the mark I enter doing taihai as if I wasn’t omae (the first to enter in ceremonial shooting. [That may not make sense to people unfamiliar with kyudo, but I will explain the movements in one of the following posts.] People commend me for my attention paid to taihai, and so that’s enough for me to keep doing it. Perhaps there’s others that are annoyed by it. I don’t know.
There are no rules about doing proper taihai in your personal practice, and most everyone I look up to in the kyudo world doesn’t do the proper taihai in their personal practice. Also, I think there is little worse for the kyudo world than Taihai-Extremists who require everyone to do proper taihai all the time. Kyudo doesn’t need that.
After a few years though, I realize I like doing taihai, and that I believe practicing it in your daily routine can make you a better archer. In the following posts I will try to outline what I practice and believe is “proper taihai”. Hopefully if people have conflicting opinions they can voice them through comments to let me know if they do things differently. Through the process of these next posts maybe we can deeper our understanding of kyudo and become better archers.
Maybe we can even find a concise and accurate term for taihai!
That’s all for now.
Onward and upward.