Interview with Kiyomoto Ogasawara: The Etiquette of the Samurai



Interview with Kiyomoto Ogasawara: The Etiquette of the Samurai

The ancient art and etiquette that stretches back over 800 years since the Kamakura period, Japan’s most revered family of mounted archery, Ogasawara prepares to face the uncharted world of globalization. The direct descendant of samurai, who taught yabusame (mounted archery) and etiquette to Japan’s shōgun has been preserving the family tradition and has passed on this tradition from person to person for over many centuries. However, in today's increasingly globalized world, how can the Ogasawara family pass the ways of samurai to the next generation, accepting Western ideas without changing the fundamental ideology and values? Kiyomoto Ogasawara, son of the thirty-first-generation leader of the Ogasawara-ryū tradition is a modern-day samurai living in this new era who “gallops” to aim even higher bringing his family tradition across the globe.

  • 01

    Tradition Meets Western Influences

    Unlike reading off a textbook, the ways of the samurai are imprinted in the minds and it is better experienced than explained. As Kiyomoto would put it, “There is a difference between what you know and what you can do. Also, there is a difference between what you can do by thinking and what you can do unconsciously. I aim to do what I can do unconsciously".
    The history of the Ogasawara family dates back to the late Heian period (794-1185). When Nagakiyo Ogasawara, the first generation of Ogasawara family and also, the ancestor of Kiyomoto was invited by Yoritomo Minamoto as a teacher of Kyuho (mounted archery), he combined the military arts of the Minamoto clan and the etiquette of the court nobles into a form suitable for the new organization of the Kamakura shogunate. Since then, the family has served to teach the shogun and preserved the tradition for over 830 years. When one thinks of samurai etiquette, many would imagine that it is only for men, instructing feudal lords and senior samurai on how to behave in the palace and the rituals. However, the essence of the samurai etiquette is to learn how to use the body and handle things in a natural way that does not violate muscle movements and is basically applicable to both men and women, such as how to bow, walk, open a fusuma door, and stand. These behaviors are not practiced only in places where they are taught, but they are acquired naturally in daily life. As the age of samurai ended along with the end of Tokugawa shogunate, and the Meiji era proclaimed, the Ogasawara family opened its doors to people from all families, giving them the opportunity to learn such noble etiquettes of the samurai.

    The scrolls with the etiquette written are displayed at a family dojo in Setagaya, Tokyo

    The scrolls with the etiquette written are displayed at a family dojo in Setagaya, Tokyo

    However, until this new era, these etiquette were only taught to men in the families of the samurai. In the Meiji era (1868-1912), Seimu Ogasawara, the head of the Ogasawara family at that time, began to focus on the education of women who would be responsible for the future education of their children as stay home mothers and began to teach etiquette to women in schools. His proposal to the government to educate women in etiquette was realized, and as a result, these etiquette spread widely to women over time. In addition, a number of books on etiquette were published under the supervision of Seimu Ogasawara. Just like Kiyomoto’s ancestors, and so did his family for over many centuries, accepting new changes that meet the era of the time, but keeping the core value led the family tradition to last for so many centuries. From only to Japanese men to opening doors to women and then now to anyone regardless of gender, age and nationality, the fine art of samurai is ever facing globalization. As Kiyomoto said during his interview,

    “What has been handed down to us is not so much "techniques" as “fundamental ideology and values”(some things can be understood in any era). It is not a matter of "this is how we did it in the past and this is how we do it now.” In the future, there will be no more boundaries between Japan and other countries. As this happens, our Japanese culture will greatly be influenced by Western cultures. Even so, while accepting them, we must also think, "This is what we have been doing. To some extent, we should not just pass on what has been handed down to us, but we should also incorporate our own way of thinking together with western values and move in a way that best suits the Japanese way of thinking and culture at each era.”

    Kiyomoto Ogasawara, son of the thirty-first-generation leader of the Ogasawara-ryū tradition

    Kiyomoto Ogasawara, son of the thirty-first-generation leader of the Ogasawara-ryū tradition

    Now that anyone is able to experience, the school has even opened up an online classes which can be pre-booked directly from their webpage. From etiquette to archery to mounted archery, there are various classes offered.
    However, to be able to join the apprenticeship and be able to learn needs way more than curiosity. According to Kiyomoto, he said that it takes at least one year of continuous and diligent practice before a person can be accepted as an apprentice, as the apprentice's personality and enthusiasm are carefully assessed.
    The breathtaking beauty of the traditional hunting outfit with the galloping of the horses across the 250meter racetrack, yabusame is a sight to behold. It certainly draws crowds both local and visitors alike. These rituals are held across the country in different seasons and in most cases, it is open to the public free of charge. If time and day allows, anyone visiting Japan should check out the schedule here to think about taking a visit.

  • 02

    Yabusame (Mounted Archery)

    The Ogasawara family has passed on until today, the "ceremonial methods" of mounted archery, such as yabusame and kasagake, ground archery, such as Ōmato and Kusajika (shoot at the deer shaped target) and etiquettes. Dressed in a hunting outfit from the Kamakura period, known as "Age-shozoku”, unlike other, the Ogasawara family wears a standing eboshi hat on a twill rush hat, with a yoroi hitare (armor robe), an igote (arm guard), and a mukabaki (hip cover) with summer deer hair. These outfits are heavily armed, and come along with a sword and a quiver on the back with a bow and arrow. Once all are worn, then yabusame is performed.





    Yabusame is a traditional Japanese mounted archery performed while riding a horse. Because during the Heian period (794-1185), yabusame was held as a court event, so its significance as a ritual has been strongly passed down to the present day. Even today, the families and disciples of Ogasawara-ryū are still called to perform ceremonies and rituals at shrines like Tsuruoka Hachimangu Shrine, Nikko Toshogu Shrine, and Ise Jingu Shrine. There are many theories about the origins of yabusame as a samurai ritual, but one theory said that it is recorded in 1187 when Minamoto no Yoritomo held a yabusame ceremony at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura under the supervision of Ogasawara Nagakiyo as a ritual for the new samurai era.

  • 03

    Ideology and Values

    Kiyomoto explained in the interview, “Our (Ogasawara-ryu) core ideology and values must be properly passed on from person to person. If you know why you move the way you do in etiquette, you will be able to recognize your mistakes when you move differently. Even if you only teach how to move in a particular situation, the method and techniques cannot be applied to other things. The important thing about our way of thinking about etiquette is not to learn how to move in a particular situation, but to move with an understanding of why you are doing that particular movement in that situation. I think the most important feature of Ogasawara-ryu is that our ideas are thoroughly inherited in our movements.”

    According to the book “Ikinuku Tame No Ogasawara-ryū Reiho (Ogasawara-ryū Etiquette of Survival) written by Kiyomoto, he has elaborated more in detail about their family ideology and values and on why such were laid down. He has written that it comes from his family background of being teaching the shogun who stands above others. When teaching such a person, the Ogasawara family must always think “So what is a shogun and how should he act?” As a leader, shogun must always remain calm and make appropriate decisions. A shogun must be able to do what is natural in the same way no matter what, without being influenced by temporary emotions. Therefore, each and every etiquette is a matter of course, and that doing such a simple thing is the hardest. When the mind is distrubed, it affects the posture and the movements. In order to train mental toughness, being able to do things obvious unconsciously is the key. “Rather than cherishing the knowledge, it is better to understand the movement” as Kiyomoto added on his idea during the interview. The practicality, efficiency, and rationality that are learned through Ogasawara-ryū etiquette is the basis of what we apply in our daily lives, such as correcting our posture and keeping our actions lean. Learning to cultivate these beautiful behaviors will be the first step to mastering yabusame and kyujutsu.

  • 04


    In order to master yabusame (mounted archery) and kyudo (Japanese archery), it is necessary to master the most important basics: daily posture and movements such as standing, walking, and sitting. According to Kiyomoto’s book, “Ikinuku Tame No Ogasawara-ryū Reiho (Ogasawara-ryū Etiquette of Survival) , these movements seem simple and obvious, but the most difficult part is to build a strong core that allows you to unconsciously maintain a straight posture. This may sound unrelated to mastering the techniques of yabusame or kyudo. However, as you master the basics, naturally thighs, abdominal muscles, and back muscles are strengthened. Furthermore, it is said that through repeated training of these basics, everything becomes relevant and meaningful.

    To be able to visualize more in the sense of yabusame, in yabusame, you do not sit in the saddle on horseback, but must maintain a stable posture with just your feet on the stirrups. This requires a lot of leg muscles and core musles which needs to be trained well. In order to train, the etiquette comes in handy as students will walk on the tatami mat for hours to train their body through correct posture and movements. By doing so, naturally, thigh, abdominal, and back muscles will be strengthened. Since the Ogasawara-ryū etiquette was taught to the shoguns, their manners were targeted only for samurai (men). In modern days, women were gradually allowed to be trained. However, with different muscle strengths and skeletal structures, typically, women had a harder time getting accustomed to riding on the horse doing archery since this is a systematical techniques made specially to fit for men.

  • 05


    In Kyudo, the target is 28 meters (31 yard) away. This 28 meter was a rough amount of the distance between the archers from the enemy side to the allies. Kyudo is a Japanese martial art that has been used for hunting and warfare since ancient times, and this distance is said to be a matter of life and death if the target is not being hit. In recent years, Kyudo has been increasingly known through anime and manga, and its popularity is growing across the globe. However,unlike it looks, this requires proper posture, etiquette, and procedures. Not to mention, the training is tough. One of the main features of kyudo is the use of a longbow. When compared to archery (Western-style bow), which is an Olympic sport, there is a clear difference in the length of the bow. The use of the longbow can be traced back to ancient times. History tells that there is a picture of a longbow that has been found on a bronze bell that is said to have been made around the Yayoi Period. Since ancient times, the bow has been used to exorcise evil spirits and to assess a person's moral character through the way they handle the bow and their approach to hitting the target. From this philosophical point of view, the bow has come to have a strong ceremonial and ritualistic meaning, and thus, a unique Japanese archery culture has been created and developed.

    The color of the yugake used mainly by archers of the Ogasawara school of walking archery (Kyujutsu) is a special glove used to distinguish the licensed rank of the archer. They start out plain brown, and as they move up, the string that wraps the yugake, then the ring finger, then the middle finger, become purple. After that, the type of bow you can hold will change.

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