This topic came up in a discussion with one of my teachers who has many years experience in the kokutai national tournaments, as well as the big tournament, tennohai.
In the kyudo world there’s a really big difference between what we call kokutai senshu (national tournament competitors) and everybody else, I guess. Most kokutai senshu stand out in normal non-national tournaments because it’s rare that they miss, and they’re generally much younger than everyone else (20s and 30s). I’ve watched a lot of the local kokutai senshu in Oita for a few years, and one of my best training buddies used to be one about 20 years ago. There’s something very different about them, but I’ve never really understood exactly what it is. I’ve always thought there has to be something different about the way they train. Of course they’re probably going to be naturally really good at shooting, but it’s not like they have super powers or anything.
When I’ve asked some of the kokutai senshu about what is so different about how they train, the common answer is that they train to hit the target no matter what. That’s the first and last most important thing in their training. When I watch my training buddy shoot, he shoots a lot of arrows in one training session, doesn’t shoot at the makiwara much, and doesn’t fuss over a lot of small details. My current training, and I’d say most of my time with the bow, has been the complete opposite. I spend a whole lot of time and effort on each arrow, and analyze each one carefully, spending a lot of time at the makiwara, which means I probably don’t even shoot half the number of arrows that he does.
A lot of people could claim that many kokutai senshu focus too much on hitting the target, and thus their form is limited, and lacking a lot of the “art” that is kyudo. I would agree to some level, but I think a lot of people are probably jealous, because you know what … these kokutai senshu are really fricken good at what they do, and they are going to be the ones who evolve and advance to become the future hanshi teachers. And why is that bad? They spend a whole lot of time training, with really skilled teachers, and participate in the biggest competitions in the world, which are the magic ingredients that forge excellent archers.
Anyway, I had this question in my mind, “What is so different about the way kokutai senshu train?” when I went to visit my teacher who was a kokutai senshu and has competed at the highest level. I asked him:
“Do kokutai senshu train differently than normal people?“
“Yes! They’re completely different.”
“What do you mean?“
“Well, they don’t miss.”
He could sense that that answer wasn’t very helpful, especially since I’m not a kokutai senshu, and quickly continued.
“Kokutai senshu shoot just like everybody else, but they focus on hitting the target more than anything else to the end. No matter what. It’s sutemi.”
He drew the kanji characters in the air and I picked up the last bit, “mi” which means simply means “body.” (身)
“Can you draw the characters for me?”
He drew them out for me on a white board.
“Oh suteru no sute! It’s so simple!”
The sute part of the word simply means “to throw away” or “abandon”. (捨て) So put them together, 捨て身, and you get very simply, “throw away the body.”
“Yes, that’s right. You put everything into each arrow at the expense of your body. What’s the worst that can happen? You’re not going to die from shooting a bow and arrow too hard! You put everything you possibly can into each arrow and do whatever it takes to hit that target.”
Wow. Kyudo hasn’t sounded so cool in a long time. This really is a budo martial art isn’t it? Not just some flimsy hobby.
“It’s the same in tests. You only have two arrows to shoot, and at the higher levels you can’t afford to miss even one. So what do you do? You put everything you can into each arrow. Who cares about your body or anything else other than that arrow you’ve aimed at the target? You shoot each arrow like it’s your last, and if you miss, well, who cares, cause it was the best arrow you had.”
Yes! I’ve never been to the national tournaments, but I’ve always felt this to a certain extent in tests. We shoot the best arrows we can, and if we miss, we’ll, we did the best we could.
“At that point, it’s really all just left up to the gods. That’s where fate comes in.”
I had kind of given up on looking for religious links to the gods and kyudo, but here it was! It reminds me of a quote from the famous swordsman, Musashi Miyamoto, who said something to the effect of, “Pray to the gods, but don’t count on them.”
“Zac, you want to know what the difference between kokutai senshu and others is? It’s konjou.”
“Konjo? How do you write that?”
He wrote 根性, which I vaguely understood at the moment.
“It’s about konjo. That’s all shooting is. And you know what, you don’t have to go to the national tournaments to have it. I don’t care who or what you are, but you’ve got to have konjo.”
After I got home I looked up konjo and the simple translation is, “guts”, or a kind of “will power.” And it clicked in right away. It reminded me of a saying from the famous archer Awa Kenzo who said, “Shoot with your guts.”
I looked up konjo a little further and I found other meanings like, “nature; disposition; spirit; mind; willpower.”
The “kon” part of the word 根 basically means, “roots; foundation; basis.” The “jou” part of the word 性 ”nature.”
So I guess you could also call konjou your “root nature.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about these ideas of “sutemi” and “konjo” and last weekend went to a big tournament in Fukuoka at the Hakata-no-Mori dojo to celebrate the Gion festival. Being on the border of Fukuoka prefecture, a lot of people from my dojo go to a lot of tournaments between here and Kitakyushu City, but I’ve never had a chance to shoot in the big city of Fukuoka at this particular dojo which often hosts a lot of high level tests. It was also a big tournament with around 600 people, which is also really fun and a good learning experience. This was my first tournament after becoming renshi, and so I made a promise to myself to not care about hitting the target, but just shoot the absolute best arrows I could and embrace “sutemi.”
I was fortunate to watch a beautiful yawatashi shooting ceremony at the opening of the tournament. Yawatashi ceremonies are performed by one archer and two assistants called kaizoe before events like tournaments, tests, and seminars. The archer for this yawatashi was Hisatsune Sensei, a hanshi sensei from Fukuoka. I’ve seen him around at a lot of tests, but this was my first time seeing him shoot.
The first thing I thought was, “This is probably the oldest hanshi I’ve ever seen.” Even walking seemed like a huge task. You could tell a lot of people were worried, “Is he going to be able to shoot?” Standing up and sitting down took a few extra seconds, and suspense from the viewers. Regardless of his ageing body, Hisatsune Sensei was able to perform a strong and beautiful yawatashi ceremony.
He was assisted by some amazing kaizoe (assistants), who really impressed me with their balance and care throughout the ceremony. Especially the No. 1 assistant (dai-ichi-kaizoe) who paused an extra few seconds after handing the arrows back over to Hisatsune Sensei, waiting to make sure that Sensei was going to be able to stand up again.
After the ceremony I heard someone say, “You know at Sensei’s age, maybe he should have let someone younger do the ceremony.” I didn’t say anything but felt aggravated inside. I don’t now Hisatsune Sensei very well, but what I do know is that he has had an entire life dedicated to the bow, and is in some way a walking national treasure. Who knows when his last yawatashi will be? Who knows for sure if he will be able to complete the shooting ceremony until the very end? That’s what’s so amazing and beautiful! Sutemi. The body may break or fall, but the spirit won’t.
Maybe we’re getting closer to the center of the dark and mysterious bushido, way of the warrior.
As for my performance, I have never been so embarrassed and never have I ever wanted to run away from the dojo as I did after my shooting. I missed all four arrows, which isn’t even the point. I just had my kake (glove) fixed and hadn’t had much time to practice before the tournament. I was super relaxed and perfect before shooting, but when I started to draw the bow my arrow tip floated above my hand and it freaked me out. I adjusted my right hand, which put all of my strength and attention there, tensing my entire body and stopping nobiai (expansion), so that when I released the arrow flew way far in front of the target in the dirt. I told myself “whatever” and went naturally to the next arrow, and the same exact thing happened except my arrow went way over the target. “What the hell is happening!?” My legs started to shake uncontrollably. I tried to put more pressure in my lower body to make them stop and relax my upper body but it only made it worse. My next arrow floated up again, forcing me to adjust with my right hand, and the next arrow went in the dirt. “Holy crap, let’s at least do one arrow right!” I thought. I decided to lean back taking all the pressure off my legs, and at the same time giving me zero support and stability for my shot, I released with the opening of my hands, and the arrow went super high again. My faced flushed red, and I did my best to hide my shame and leave the shooting area properly without letting my failure affect me.
Moral of the story: You never know what’s going to happen! And practice shooting with new gear before big tests and tournaments. I’ve had so much extreme luck lately, perhaps it’s the gods slapping me back down to humility. It was a great learning experience, as painful as it was. I told one of my teachers afterwards about this and he laughed and said, “Fail a lot! The lessons you can learn from failure are boundless.”
Throw away your body. Fail a lot.
In the darkest lows where you wouldn’t ever expect to find light,
that’s where the answer is.
It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t need to.
This is one side of budo.