Budo/Martial Arts · Kyudo

Test Reflections


I went to Miyakonojo last week as a renshi godan for a rokudan test, and came back just the same.

I didn’t pass! In case you didn’t get that in the first sentence.

It came with a whirlwind of emotions and feelings, byproducts of all the effort and hopes that went into this test. A week later, I have a much clearer head, and to be honest, I think a lot of those thoughts and emotions have already been forever lost to time. Now I’m just back to where I’ve been the whole time, taking one little cobble-step at a time, and tripping on some roots more often than not.

But I’ll tell you one thing, you learn a hell of a lot more by failing than passing. That’s for sure. In that respect, failing one of these tests can be one of the greatest gifts given down by the judges.

And you know what, the amount which you learn is equal to the amount of effort you put in. If you can put your entire self into your shooting, and prepare yourself to do your best shooting in your upcoming test, then the gems you get from your test are going to be large and plenty. But if you go into the test half-prepared, and without the resolution to put it all on the table, then your results will reflect that. If you fail just to end up saying, “Ah well, my form sucks anyway.” Or, “Well I didn’t try as hard as I could have” Or, “I thought I was going to fail anyway.” Then that’s all you’re going to learn, that you should have worked on those weak parts in your form, you should have tried harder, and that you should have shot with the conviction of passing.

I’m not trying to say you have to take your test a certain way. If anything, I’ve learned that you don’t have to be stuck in one exact way when taking your test. Some people like to wait a long time until they’re 100% ready, and others like to take the test as a challenge and goal for their training, even if everyone isn’t convinced they’re ready to pass. But let’s face it, taking a test takes a lot of time, a lot of money, and a lot of energy. If it doesn’t seem like much to you, then I guess it doesn’t matter much if you pass and fail. For me, just thinking about the time and expenses, I damn well want to pass that test. And how about people coming from abroad to take their tests in Japan? This time I spent three days for the test and tournament in Miyakonojo and paid about $50 in gas. Next time coming from the U.S. I’ll be paying around $1,000 dollars for a plane ticket and probably staying for over a week! I’d love to watch some people taking the test from overseas, because I bet they’re not taking the experience lightly.

What I’m trying to say, is that you need to get rich.

NO! What am I saying!?

I’ve gotten dirty by playing in the mud, I guess.

It’s not all about money. But if you can take time off from work easily and if paying for flight tickets and having fun in Japan isn’t making a big dent in your savings, then I’d say you’re in a really good place to start practicing kyudo. I’m afraid I’ve spent all my prayers on the gods of the bow, instead on those of gold.

Anyway, back to test taking, I felt like mine actually went pretty well, despite failing. I’ve had the experience of taking, and failing the rokudan test before, in the same exact place where I was going to take the test again (Miyakonojo). I’ve been practicing in the kimono doing formal zassha shooting with others at least twice a week for longer than I can remember. I’ve been working intensely on fixing the bad habits in my form, and having recent success. I’ve finally been able to discipline myself to expand in the full draw for as long as I’ve set out to do. I’ve put effort into working on my taihai every time I shoot. I’ve had various opportunities lately doing sharei and yawatashi in front of others to test my nerves. And I even memorized every answer word for word to the 12 questions that may come up on the writing test. All of this effort has been put into this last chance for me to take the rokudan test before I plan to move back home and away from Japan.

So, test morning came and I got ready to shoot as number 1 out of 150 people for rokudan. For anyone who has taken these tests before, this is not necessarily a good omen. I didn’t start thinking about my number until about the renshi test. One of my teachers said that at that level most judges in the tests don’t even look at you until you’re past number 20. I thought that was pretty silly at first. They can’t just fail you for being too early in the shooting, right? If I show up to shoot, I have a chance to pass like everyone else, right? Well, that is true. But I’ll tell you what, in both of my rokudan tests, the first number for a passing person was in the 30’s, and it doesn’t look like it changes much the higher you go in the tests. I was number 1 in my renshi test, and passed on the first try, and probably 70% of the people I told afterward didn’t believe me. Looking back I now realize how simply crazy, lucky, and amazing that was. The first time I took rokudan I was number 1 again, and after failing, I realized how hard it is to take the tests with a low number. This time was no different, as I was still in the number 1 spot.

At first this really got into my head the night before. “Ah man, how am I supposed to pass as number 1?” “Are they even going to consider me?” “I guess I’m just going to have to be really careful not to make any mistakes.” “I’m going to have to do it perfect to pass.

And that’s where the fear and worry came in. The worms crawled into my head and infected my body and mood. In this condition, I was digging my own grave, and had no chance of passing. Timid, hesitant, and afraid. So, I told myself to forget it all. “Screw this, I’m going to do the best damn job I can to shoot like I want to, and if it’s not good enough, well then that’s up for the judges to decide. Focus on what you’ve been working on lately, and that is enough.”

I guess that’s the benefit of the number 1 spot. You know that absolutely no matter what, you’re going to be at the head of the group, shooting before everyone else. In some ways, you have the least chance of passing, so you have no choice but to go in and make the show yours. Go big or go home. Plus, you get the fresh eyes of the judges, for better or worse.

One of the questions on the written part of the test is about the Shaho-Shagi no Kihon 射法・射技の基本 (“Fundamentals of Shooting Principle and Shooting Skill”). The principles go as such, according to the English version of the Kyudo Manual:

  1. Resistance Power of the Bow
  2. Basic Body Form
  3. Breathing
  4. The Use of the Gaze
  5. The Working of the Spirit and Spiritual Energy

When first learning about these, the first 4 were really easy to remember, because they made practical sense. But it’s always been the last one, “The Working of Spirit and Spiritual Energy” (心気の働き) that’s evaded my complete understanding.

Yeah, yeah, `the working of spirit and spiritual energy,` I gotcha, we have to be centered and use ki and all that stuff ...”

Is what I’ve thought for a long time …

but you know what? The other four points are reduced to absolutely nothing, without that magical number 5. Well, I guess that’s not completely true … by properly exercising the other 4 points we learn how to enhance “the working of spirit and spiritual energy”, and by learning how to enhance “the working of the spirit and spiritual energy” we learn how to actually utilize the other 4 points. So in reality these 5 different points work together simultaneously to make for the ultimate goal of our shooting basics.

Isn’t it interesting that the working of the spirit, or heart, is one of the basics of shooting? I’ve spent so long thinking that the basics of shooting and the working of the heart were separate. And so I’ve been lost.

Shooting the bow isn’t just about the gear, and the techniques … it’s about us. Ourselves, flesh, bones, dreams, emotions, motivations and all. No matter what gear we use or techniques we’ve learned, if we don’t have ourselves together, we have nothing. In the face of great challenges, like tests, tournaments, or whatever, when our nerves go to tatters, we need to have the strength of will to get ourselves together and do what it is we have set out to do.

So what do we actually mean by “the working of spirit and spiritual energy”? The original Japanese phrase is ambiguous enough as it is (心気の働き), but the words “spirit” and “spiritual” in English can be even more difficult to interpret, or maybe even misleading.

The Kyudo Manual expands upon the description of “The Working of Spirit (Kokoro) and Spiritual Energy (Ki)” as such (page 58):

The human mind is disturbed by delusions, worldly desires, passions and attachments, which are more often than not the result of the pursuit of experience and knowledge. Also the mind succumbs to the temptation of the eye and ear, which assail and agitate the spirit. To have the correct activity of the physical body and the right fullness of spirit, there must be stability of spirit. This is a fundamental requirement for the shooting.

One of the characteristics of Kyudo is that it demands strict self control and stability of emotions. To acquire this, our practice, or any human behaviour, requires the driving force that is the power of the person’s own will.

You must practise to have stability of spirit, and fullness of spiritual vigour, through the effort of will power and the strength to carry out actions with a sincerity based on the right belief.

I may have some complaints with certain translations in the Kyudo Manual, but this is one point where I really applaud and bow to O-Brien Sensei’s work.

What a beautiful and accurate translation, especially at the part that goes, “One of the characteristics of Kyudo is that it demands strict self control and stability of emotions. To acquire this, our practice, or any human behaviour, requires the driving force that is the power of the person’s own will.” Which is remarkably similar to something I read in a different source, but is probably taken directly from the Japanese Kyohon (Kyudo Manual) from which the quote is translated by O’Brien Sensei, “弓道の如き最も静的な動作ー静の極致から瞬間的に動に転化するーには自己統制と情緒の安定が厳しく要求される。”

What this Japanese section adds, is that the process of shooting in kyudo is a lot of still and slow, carefully controlled silence, that is followed by an instantaneous active motion (hanare – release of the arrow). This is what makes the shooting in kyudo so difficult, and how we learn to deal with this contrast of stillness and motion is with our “spiritual” control and balance.

Furthermore, “人間の心と体は別々のものではない。人間行動の原動力となるものは本人の意志力である。” which says that the human body and spirit are not two separate things. Any human behavior at all requires the driving force that is the power of the person’s own will, just as O’Brien Sensei translated.

The body and the “spirit” are not two separate things.

The “spirit” is utilized in every … single … thing … we do as humans.

Walking down the street, eating ice cream, talking to your family. All of these things require you, which is a composition of your body and spirit. Most things in our daily lives are so easy we may not notice it, but when we have to overcome challenges that require the finest skill of our hands and bodies and concentration while also fighting against outside stimulation that is trying to interfere with us, this becomes the biggest challenge we face: overcoming the self.

If we can realize this in our shooting, then we don’t have to be afraid of what’s going to happen on test day, or whether we can shoot the best we can.

What were we talking about, anyway?

Oh yes! Test day. So, I finally feel like, for the first time, I truly understood what that 5th point of the Fundamental Basics of Shooting was, and understood in the very convenient time before my test. It was a light that lifted me out of the mire of fear I had found in my apartment … with a beer and two glasses of shochu in my hotel room.

So, test day came, and I was ready, regardless of being number 1, to just do my best shooting, composed with balanced emotions and the self-control of my will.

When the judges were introduced before the test, I was shocked, and delighted to find out that Kawamura Sensei (from Aomori Prefecture) was going to be the judge in my shooting area. As he lives on the opposite side of the country at the tip of the Tohoku Region, I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting him in person, but have been watching videos of him for a long time, and he has come to be a kind of personal idol of mine. In a way I feel like he has helped mold me into the archer I am today. I can think of only two other teachers that I feel this way about in the country. And with my newfound understanding of the unity of body and spirit, I wasn’t afraid, but rather excited to have the honor of shooting in front of him.

As a matter of fact, directly in front of him.

The 5 judges sit at a table only a few meters from the shooting mark, and Kawamura Sensei was in the center, dead center in front of me.

Wow, this is getting interesting.” I thought …

So, I stepped into the shooting area, bowed, and began walking to the honza to begin taking off the sleeve of the kimono. My heart was beating out of my chest, but I thought of my belly and vertical line of the spine and my breathing the whole time, kept my eyes half open and where they were supposed to be, and just concentrated on doing my taihai just like I always do. I stood up to shoot and used Kawamura Sensei as a base to line up the vertical line of my spine. I grasped the bow and string, calmly looked at the target, and lifted my arms into uchiokoshi.

Let’s make it high just the way I like it … set daisan just how I have been lately with my hands like this and elbows high, linked to my belly and feet … push myself apart into the hikiwake … approach the full draw expanding, expanding, putting wedges into my arms and shoulders to complete tsumeai, expand the belly, keep eyes half closed, don’t release, count … holy shit I’m actually doing it …” CRACK!

I hit well into the center of the target, making what felt like one of the best shots I could produce, and I probably looked surprised, because I didn’t expect to do what I set out to do so close to the image in my head, but slowly lowered the bow, and sat back down.

I focused only on keeping proper form while I sat, and keep my mind from running around. I stood up to shoot just as I did moments before, all was well … I got into the full draw …

“Here it is, just keep expanding, don’t release, put the wedges in, expand from the belly, the arrow is being pulled into the target, count, there you go … expand …” CRACK! “Shit! I released with my right hand in my bad habit, going down to an angle instead of straight out … but I hit even closer to the center of the target! Maybe this is it. Don’t do anything stupid, just lower the bow and walk out of the shooting area like you’ve practiced … and that’s the best you can do.”

I hit again. In a really good spot. Though I definitely didn’t have a clean release and succumbed to one of my bad habits. I left the shooting area, sat down, and thought, “Maybe I actually did it. Did that really just happen?”

I did better than I ever had before controlling my emotions, I was confident with my taihai, I hit both arrows near the center of the target, my first arrow was the best I could do, the second wasn’t perfect. I was happy with myself regardless of whether they granted my rokudan or not, because I did what I set out to do. In my mind, it was up to whether they were going to forgive my flawed release on the second arrow, or the accumulation of other small flaws in my form.

I went to the written test and wrote everything just as I had practiced.

The waiting time was … very … very … long.

I initially shot at 9:30 a.m., and finally saw the result posted on the wall at 6:30  p.m., and my number was not there.

The resounding silence rang for an eternity.


I had prepared incessantly. I did the best I could. I hit both arrows.

And it wasn’t enough.

Some others said, just go and try again soon, and I might get it.

But I don’t think the reasons for my failing were so small.

It’s not just about showing up in the right clothes, smiling, and hitting the target.

It’s not just about hitting the target.

I think what judges saw were two things:

1. The flaw in my technique. That my release isn’t the honest working of nobiai (expansion) brought about by proper form (tsumeai), but the mere balanced release of the hands at the release as I let up the tension of the bow (yurumu). This may have worked until now, but if I want to move up, I’m going to have to do some serious work on the inside of my body, to make the kind of release we’re searching for, or not searching for, in kyudo.

2. Immaturity and a lack of experience. I showed up, did my best, and fulfilled a lot of the outer requirements. That’s probably what it looked like, and at this level, it’s not enough. Shooting must be a part of ourselves, welling up from within, like the nutrients that trees suck in through the Earth. We need to see the effort in the archer, who has overcome challenges, and endured some scars, backed by skill that is unquestionable a part of the archer.

Or maybe the judges really weren’t ready to consider anyone with so early a number. Maybe they were all in a bad mood. Maybe there was a mistake.

In the end, whether you pass or not depends upon the moods of those 5 judges at that time of shooting. You are not the one who decides.

I kind of thought maybe there was long discussions about who should pass and who shouldn’t, but after watching the judges for the rest of the day, I saw no discussions. I think most of these decisions are made instantly, and in swift blows. There’s no ifs or whys or buts mulling around. It’s either a clear yes, or a clear no. Simple as hitting the target, or not. We’re not shooting for points here.

Actually I recommend watching the judges while other people shoot sometime. They are watching a huge number of archers, sitting down for hours on end, and often after traveling far across the country.  Their job isn’t easy, or even enviable, in my immature opinion.

I don’t care so much about what the other 4 judges thought. But for Kawamura Sensei’s opinion, I would do just about anything. What exactly did he think? I guess I’ll never know.

And so I’m left feeling thankful. I realized I really will have to change my shooting if I expect to move up, and that I’m going to need to roll around in dirt some more if I ever expect to understand the importance of being clean. How am I supposed to know what my current level is if I keep just blowing past it all.

Maybe it’s time to take a jump off the train, and walk around a bit. See what this place I’m in right now is all about. Where I currently am is the only place I’ll ever know. If we just keep knowing exactly where we are, then we’ll always be good, right?

Know thyself.

I wonder if Socrates thought of this while shooting a bow?

Tears almost come to my eyes when I listen to the music that I used to listen to when I was studying for the written test. Goddamn was that a lot of fun. Sure I failed, but I’m glad I did my best. I’ve been knocked down, and humbly accept my defeat. But I’m ready to train, and I guarantee I’ll be a completely different archer the next time I stand at the mark for the rokudan test.

And hopefully be a lot further behind that number 1 spot!

I hope this story was of some use, or at least entertaining. If you made it this far I guess it fits one of those two.

There is a different style and different experience for every archer that holds the bow.

We’re all just little leaves in the forest.

Who’s right?

Who’s wrong?

I don’t know.

Onward and upward.

See you at the top.



4 thoughts on “Test Reflections

  1. First of all, congratulations on being in a position to test for rokudan. That in itself is an amazing accomplishment.

    In the aikido style that I studied, rokudan was synonymous for shihan. Shihan was defined as being able to answer any technical question for any of the named techniques (>3000) in the style. It was knowing the whole system thoroughly, but short of mastery.
    Is it the same for Kyudo?

    1. Thanks Rick!

      There’s certainly some differences between the aikido rokudan and kyudo rokudan, but as far as “knowing the whole system thoroughly, but short of mastery”, it sounds pretty close. In my opinion, rokudan in aikido sounds like a “kyoshi” rokudan in kyudo. As you move up through the dan ranks in kyudo, you also test for “shogo” titles which designate you as a teacher. There are three shogo levels, “renshi” which is generally taken between godan and rokudan, considered “instructor” level, and is described in the kyudo manual as, “The candidate should be firm in character and have the ability to instruct in Kyudo. Moreover, there should be evidence of advancement above the previous levels.” Next is “kyoshi” which is taken after rokudan, considered “teacher” and is described as, “Possession of character, technical ability, and judgement are essential, as well as scholarship and cultivation, which are necessary requirements for leadership in Kyudo. Moreover, the candidate’s eligibility should be proven by meritorious service.” Last is “hanshi” which is achieved after hachidan, considered as “master” and described as, “This level should exemplify the highest degree of conduct, dignity, and perfection of ability, together with the highest quality of discernment.” I once heard that when testing for rokudan, they expect you to be at a level ready to take kyoshi. The description of rokudan in the kyudo manual isn’t super descriptive but goes as, “At this level, excellence of technique should be far more prominent than in previous levels.” Rokudan is also the last test where you have a written part of the test. In higher levels you have interviews or are asked to write essays of sorts, but as far as studying for specific questions on technique, this is the last level, so I guess its fairly akin to “knowing the whole system thoroughly.” So, at this point it’s not just about hitting the target or having solid skill, but being knowledgeable about the techniques, as well as the mental states and philosophies particular to kyudo. Technically and mentally, you should be prepared to teach others with confidence and authority, exemplifying what you say with your form.

      Personally being in the position to test for rokudan while I’m still in Japan is something far beyond what I ever expected. And now being here where I am now, I realize how much further I still have to go! Haha. The path is long and winding. Thanks again for the comment and questions!

  2. Failing – what does it mean and do to you?
    For me it re-evaluates what I am doing, and what I think about it.
    I am doing my best, but that does not mean it is good / good enough.
    I develop a way of doing things that I think is correct / the best.
    It is aligned with my current understanding and I try to do it as good as I can.
    I genuinely believe that this is “it”.
    So when I fail I have to change it.
    And then a new avenue opens up.
    Things that I have not seen before, or not considered to be “the way to go”.
    Something has to change because what I’m doing now is not good/enough.
    It should be discarded and replaced with something else.
    So what is the new way?
    Then I start searching, looking for change, looking for new, better, correct way.
    When I find it I become better. I understand better.
    That is the goal and purpose and reward for failing AND not giving up.
    You try harder, change, overcome, and get better.
    Looking back at the previous way, all its faults are suddenly glaringly obvious.
    It does not look like the best way to do things anymore.
    But you have to give up what you’re doing now.
    Kind of like anonymous alcoholics therapy – the first step is to admit you’re one…
    Or as what Nietzsche tried to say, that to become better person you have to “kill” the weakling that you are now, have to let it go, because you can’t be both at the same time.
    Painful but rewarding process, and really what is the alternative?

    1. Great words! And thank you for the comment on the last post as well. Your words have resonated with me ever since. I agree with you on this completely, and I’m excited to take out the trash and start building again. I remember reading Nietzsche’s quote a long time ago. Maybe it’s time to reread some of his words for some new inspiration. There’s lots of overlap with kyudo. I mean, it’s all the search for Truth, right? Thanks again!

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