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Getting to the Point : Kyudo Archers Meet in East L.A. Not So Much to Hit Targets, but to 'Shoot Themselves' With Discipline


Every weekend for the past five years, Robert Williams has trekked from the Mojave Desert to East Los Angeles to spend an evening fighting with himself.

Williams makes the four-hour round-trip drive to attend a class in kyudo , the ancient martial art of Japanese Zen archery. Through kyudo , which emphasizes the spirit rather than precision in hitting a target, Williams is getting more in tune with himself.

"We used to meet on Friday nights, and I called it the 'Friday Night Fights with One's Self,' " said Williams, 51, who described himself as "an architect in transition to screenwriter."

"It's caused me to look more carefully at everything--not critically, but more carefully."

Those dedicated to kyudo are small in number in Southern California; there are only two kyudo clubs in California and probably about 100 enthusiasts nationwide. Although less popular than other martial arts such as judo, karate and kendo (Japanese fencing), kyudo has a long history in Los Angeles, dating back to 1916 when the first local kyudo kai , or club, was formed.

The kyudo enthusiasts met and practiced at a martial arts center on what was then Jackson Street, a block north of 1st Street. On some weekends, as many as 3,000 Japanese-Americans from throughout the state gathered at the Jackson Street facility to watch and participate in kyudo , sumo, judo and kendo tournaments, said Hirokazu Kosaka, an artist and instructor of the current kyudo club.

But World War II disrupted life in Little Tokyo. Japanese-Americans were relocated to internment camps. The bows and arrows of kyudo loyalists were seized as "weapons" by the U.S. government and the Jackson Street martial arts center was closed and later torn down.

Organized kyudo did not resurface in Little Tokyo until 1975, when Koen Mishima, a kyudo enthusiast and minister at the Higashi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, formed a new Los Angeles Kyudo Kai with the help of Kosaka.

Today the club has about 30 members who travel from throughout Southern California to meet every Saturday night at a Japanese-language school in Boyle Heights.

Kosaka would like to re-establish the Jackson Street martial arts center, both for historic reasons and so kyudo enthusiasts can have a place to call their own.

But Jackson Street does not exist anymore, and a Police Department parking lot occupies the site. Within the year, the 1st Street North development project, which will include a hotel, a child-care center and expansion of the Japanese American National Museum, will begin construction on the property.

Aside from writing a couple of letters to City Council members, Kosaka has not done much in pursuit of his dream. So he acknowledges that with development plans in place already, his is a belated and probably futile quest. But "I'm dreaming still," he said.

There is also another more organized effort by a group of Japanese and Japanese-American businessmen to build a large sports and martial arts center elsewhere in Little Tokyo, and kyudo enthusiasts may eventually be able to meet and practice there.

But for now, the small group of Zen archers is content to meet one evening a week in the small auditorium at Rafu Chuo Gakuen school on Saratoga Street. There, the kyudo enthusiasts don white shirts, black kimono trousers and white tabi socks, and spend several hours meditating and perfecting their archery form.

The evening typically begins with quiet meditation followed by the chanting of a sutra , a Buddhist scripture. The students sit on their knees, Japanese-style, on the hardwood floor. Kosaka hits a chime periodically to set the breathing tone, which is crucial to Zen archery. A feeling of solemnity and serenity permeates the evening.

The archers don special gloves, which wrap around the hand and wrist, and then line up in groups of four. With an arrow in one hand and a seven-foot bamboo bow in the other, the archers take slow, measured steps to position themselves in front of four barrels made of straw bound tightly together.

In slow, ceremonial style, the archers raise their bows and shoot single arrows into the barrels from about three feet away.

Kosaka quietly adjusts the form of his students as they prepare to shoot, placing his fist at their stomachs, or gently pulling or pushing their shoulders and elbows to improve alignment. He utters hardly a word; his instructions are physical, not verbal.

Later, when the group gathers in a circle on the floor for a tea break, Kosaka reminds the students to relax and concentrate on their breathing.

"Just be--don't think," he said. "If you tighten your muscles, you will never be able to keep your breath in. Try to think about nothing."

The Buddhist tenets of Zen archery cannot easily be explained, Kosaka said. However, he said the basic idea behind kyudo is not to hit a target, but to "shoot yourself."

"It's a form of discipline, meditation. Frankly, it's totally different from Western archery," he said.

This is why many would-be students quit the class after only a couple of sessions, he said. "People who just want to hit a target and satisfy their curiosity won't last," Kosaka said.

Kosaka even criticizes German philosopher Eugen Herrigel's book "Zen, the Art of Archery," saying it is "a dangerous idea of kyudo ." Although the book was what inspired some of his non-Asian students, Kosaka said Herrigel, as a Western philosopher, does not understand the philosophy of kyudo .

Williams agreed that those with "Western egos" generally cannot understand kyudo. "In the West, we like to talk about things," he said. "In Japan, we do more."

Kyudo is "a completely new experience that lets you see what you're about," Williams said. "It's a humbling experience.

"(I've learned) you're as good as you can be at the moment, but there's always someplace else you can go. You can always grow. It's a never-ending process."

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