Kemari, The Ancient Sport of Keeping the Ball Afloat

Though it is a fact that the world-renowned sport of football originated from England, the Japanese were playing their own kind of football (with different dynamics, of course) at least a thousand years before the official sport of football was invented. This ancient sport is called “Kemari” and is now being revived in Japan – as well as accredited by FIFA as one of modern football’s ancient predecessors, alongside Cuju. 

By radBeattie at English Wikipedia (w:en:Image:Kemari Matsuri at Tanzan Shrine 2.jpg) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

What is the Meaning of Kemari?

Kemari, written in Japanese as “蹴鞠”, is a game that was played most often during the Heian period (from the year 794 until 1185) using a specially made ball. The point of the game is to make sure the ball doesn’t drop, which takes both individual skill and teamwork to do. 

The History Behind Kemari in Japan

During Japan’s early years, China had a heavy influence on Japan’s culture, language, religion, and ideas, and this influence encompasses even the sport of Kemari. Kemari supposedly stems from the ancient Chinese football game “Cuju”, which is a much more intense and competitive sport, where the winner was determined based on who made the least number of fouls in a game as they tried to kick the ball into a set opening, also without the use of hands or arms. 

The way word “Kemari” was initially written in Japanese documents was very similar to the way Cuju was written, proving its connection to the Chinese sport. However, Kemari was its own, unique game. 

Early Beginnings to A Sudden Halt; A Quick Summary

Kemari was recognized to be played as early as the Asuka period, in the year 644 AD through documentation in the historical chronicle of Nihon Shoki, but it was only by the 13th century that standards were created to officialize the sport. From the 12th until the 14th century, however, Kemari’s popularity shifted to include the samurai class and mellowed out from there. Once the Edo period rolled in the 1600’s, the sport was widespread, and people from all levels of society began to enjoy playing kemari, especially around the Kansai area. 

By Akisato Rito (秋里籬島) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Kemari Stars

By the time the Heian period was ending, Kemari was slowly becoming a sensation. Those who loved the sport trained well enough to call themselves Kemari professionals. These professionals would gain fame all over Kyoto for their agility and skill in this sport, much like modern-day football players who have gained celebrity status. 

One of the most famous Kemari players was Fujiwara no Narimichi, who earned his nickname, “The Saint of the Ball”. Another famous player was the son of the chief counselor of state, Tadanori, Nanba Yorisuke Nanba, who would soon be called the greatest Kemari player by Emperor Go-Shirakawa. Nanba Yorisuke Nanba would later on found “Marido”, also known as “The Art of Kemari”, which was spread by two clans – the Asuka clan, and the Nanba clan.

The Kamakura period saw no rest for this sport, as Kemari would continue to grow as a favorite among political leaders; both Emperors and Shogun. There were even schools set up to teach the sport. This is where the root of the word “Mariashi” is from, as any court noble hailing from this school would be called as such. 

It was in the Sengoku period that the game was not played as often anymore because Japanese-style wrestling (sumo wrestling) quickly overshadowed it. 

A Non-Competitive Sport

Despite its roots delved into a game developed by a militaristic Chinese team, Kemari developed to possess a much more peaceful and cooperative nature. It is speculated that the reason the sport became more peaceful was due to the players who enjoyed the game. Cuju was designed to cultivate one’s agility and skills in combat, first played by Chinese in the military class. Kemari, on the other hand, was first played by Japan’s elegant court nobles and upper class, known in Japanese as “kuge” (公家).

Thus, kemari became somewhat of a graceful sport for the elite, with absolutely zero competition, except with themselves as a group. It was played for the pure enjoyment of trying to keep the ball in the air without trying to outdo each other individually, rather with the intent of breaking old records – or preserving one’s pride.

The game was sometimes played by the kuge to entertain the emperor, as excitement would rise when the ball would make a top the highest number of passes before hitting the ground. The area that it would be played it is supposedly in the Jijuden Hall’s Eastern Garden, located at the Imperial Court. It is said that during one round of gameplay, the kuge garnered a score of 260 passes before the ball finally hit the ground.

The Mechanics of This Ancient and Traditional Game 

To play the game, you must first acquire a ball that is traditionally created out of deerskin and horse skin; with the hide facing outwards. Barley grains are initially inserted into the ball to give it its spherical characteristic, and then it wrapped around with the animal hide. This ball weighs around 130 grams and is called the “Mari”. Next, you’ll need a minimum of 2 players, a maximum of 12 – though the best numbers to play this game in would be around 6 to 8. 

Next, the arena that this sport should be played in needs at least 6 to 7 square meters of space. It must be played on a level ground for balance. While it is not necessary to enjoy the game, players keep the spirit of the traditional way of playing kemari alive by wearing costumes that players in the Asuka period wore; such as the crow hat, and “kariginu”. 

By BradBeattie at English Wikipedia (w:en:Image:Kemari Matsuri at Tanzan Shrine 1.jpg) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

To keep the ball in the air, players can use any body part except for the hands and arms. Parts of the body that are used in the game to keep the ball from hitting the ground is the knees, back, feed, and head, and if the rules of that specific game permits, the elbows are allowed as well. Though the actual display of the sport is played by grown men and women, there isn’t really an age restriction. Any baby that can kick and any adult that can receive can play on their own time.

The moment a player kicks the ball into the air and tries to make sure it doesn’t fall, he or she is the “mariashi”. The mariashi can kick the ball into the air for as much as he or she wants or needs. It is the responsibility of the mariashi to do his or her best to hand the ball over to the receiver properly, kicking it softly and accurately towards the direction of the intended receiver. The receiver must constantly keep his or her guard up to take care of the ball. 

Small Details

As the ball is passed around, players shout out “Ari”, or “Ou”, or “Ya”. Traditionally, this would be played on a “Shihon-kakari”. It is in this field that each corner is marked with a different tree species, namely one willow tree, one cherry tree, one maple tree, and one pine tree.

Kemari and Footbag: What Are the Differences?

A game most comparable to kemari is the hacky sack, also known as footbag. A variation of hacky sack, called Hack Slap, is the closest game to Kemari, except in Kemari, no one gets eliminated for missing the ball. Other variations of the hacky sack are practiced all over the world. In Japan, it is called “Chapteh” or “Jianzi”, while the Philippines calls it “Sipa”, and Vietnam calls it “Sepak takraw”.

Footbag is a general term and can branch off in many ways to play the sport, from freestyle footbag, footbag net, and circle kicking, among the major variations. Footbag can be played individually, or with one partner, or many. The equipment in footbag is a crocheted footbag. Unlike the kemari, which is made up of barley and animal hide, all that’s inside the crocheted footbag are plastic beads. This is not always the case, as there are many kinds of bags, with different fillings, for different purposes and games.

As for the shoes used in-game, Kemari players use a closed-toe type of shoe that is made of leather. Old accounts even talk about how leather shoes would come off in the middle of the game, while the player would try to kick the ball. Those who professionally play footbag tend to go for tennis shoes; particularly the Adidas Rod Laver kind. Lacing patterns are even recommended to ensure that the ball has more of a broader area to hit, giving a toe box.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Revival of Kemari

Sadly, after the Meiji period, the sport began to fade as globalization ushered in a world of new interests. Emperor Meiji was not happy with this, which inspired the establishment of the Kemari Preservation Society, or “Kemari Hozo Kai”. Through the Kemari Preservation Society, Japan can ensure that this ancient sport will be remembered for many years to come.

Although this game isn’t necessarily played as part of the Olympics, there is an effort to continue the life of the ancient sport by hosting a re-enactment of it during two different events per year, thanks to the Kemari Preservation Society. These two are the Kemari Festival and Kemari Hajime.

Celebrating the Kemari Matsuri and Kemari Hajime

Before the Taisho period, Kemari Hajime was celebrated on the 4th of January as the year’s first match of Kemari, and this event was led by the Asukai and Nanba clans. To this day, this event is still celebrated on the same date, particularly at Kyoto’s Kamomioya-Jinja Shrine. Here, players dress up in traditional clothes (suikan, hakama, and Eboshi) and play the ball as a re-enactment of olden times. 

Other dates that Kemari is performed include April 14th and July 7th at Kyoto’s Shiramane-Jingu Shrine. It is in this shrine that the kami (deity) called Sei-daimyokin is enshrined. This kami is supposedly the guardian of Kemari, as well as other ball games, including football. When football players go for a match, they often stop by here to say a prayer. 

Among other shrines that hold Kemari events, notable ones include Kyoto Prefecture’s Fujinomori-Jinja Shrine, Nara Prefecture’s Tanzan-Jinja Shrine, the Hirano-jinja Shrine at Shiga, and the Korohira-gu Shrine at the Prefecture of Kagawa.

The Kemari Matsuri, or Kemari Festival, occurs during both spring and summer, at the Tanzan Shrine in the Nara Prefecture. Another official Kemari game will be held here, with the earliest one being on the 29th of April 2018. It starts at 11 AM and ends at 12 PM and will cost 600 yen per person to watch. The closest station to walk to this area would be the Sakurai station.