It may be surprising to some to find that Heian aristocrats played an outside game strikingly similar to a modern soccer exercise or hacky-sack. It was called “kemari” and was played with a deerskin-covered ball stuffed with sawdust, about eight inches in diameter with a mass of about 130g.
Except for the fact that it seems so modern, this is actually a game that was phenomenally popular between the tenth and sixteenth centuries, and beyond. In fact, there are still kemari players today, who come out especially around spring time to play the game on the grounds of shrines as part of seasonal festivities. These games are widely attended by spectators.
The earliest record of kemari is in the Nihon Shoki, and references a game played at Hōkōji (Asukadera) in Nara in 644. This entry put kemari at the center of politics: Nakatomi (later Fujiwara) no Kamatari and Prince Naka-no-Ōe (later Emperor Tenji) were playing on the same team. When Prince’s shoe flew off, according to the ancient history, Kamatari retrieved the shoe and presented it to the Prince, and the two became fast friends. Together, they instrumented the downfall of the powerful Soga clan, and instituted the Taika reforms.
The strict origins of the sport are unknown, but it may have evolved from a soccer-like game that was found in China, with the same name, back in the Warring States period. Unlike the Japanese sport, however, Cujo was competitive, with teams attempting to score by kicking the ball through two pillars. There are some who believe it may be connected to the Southeast Asian game of Takraw, which is like a combination of hackey-sack and volleyball, often played with woven rattan balls (takraw, in Thailand). However, we can only find evidence of this game in Southeast Asia from the eleventh century onward, though that isn't to say it wasn't played earlier. Regardless, it likely came through connections with Korea to Japan in or around the 6th or 7th centuries. After that, kemari grew in popularity throughout the Nara and Heian periods, and by the Kamakura era it was a popular sport for warriors. Many of the rules seem to have been codified at about this time, including the players’ outfits.
Originally, there was no specific outfit worn by players — that is, they played in the clothes they were wearing when they decided to start the game, generally kariginu, suikan, hitatare, or similar clothes. The illustration here shows a scene of court nobles playing in their leisure robes. By the thirteenth or fourteenth century, however, a distinctive outfit emerged, which was based on the suikan, but with features similar to a hitatare. Called a mari-suikan, it has incredibly large sleeves, as the illustration to the right indicates, and an open front, with hitatare style chest cords (muna-himo) and decorative reinforcing knots (kotsuyu) rather than poms (kikutoji). This is worn with an eboshi and kuzu-bakama, which have large leather tsuyu, rather like those sometimes found on suō. Today they wear special shoes called kamogutsu that are made of leather but have ties to keep them on the players’ feet (unlike those worn by Prince Naka-no-Ōe!)
Kemari continued to be popular with the masses until the end of the 16th century. It became more obscure in the Edo period, though it didn’t die out altogether - although that almost happened at the beginning of the modern era. To prevent it being lost, Emperor Meiji created the “Kemari Preservation Society”, or “Kemari Hōzō Kai”.
The playing field is delineated by four trees, each planted in a corner of the zone. Serious kemari playing nobles might actually have had these four trees planted in their yards to allow for play at any time. Others more commonly had a sapling of each in a large planter that was moved into place when the game was played, and moved out to storage or elsewhere when all was concluded. These four trees were a cherry, a maple, a willow, and a pine (though there are exceptions — for example, at the palace the area is defined with only pines, and at some shrine festivals in modern times they will use bamboo to designate the four points). Today, the size of the pitch is set to 15 meters on a side, though with portable trees this could easily be varied.
A formal game consists of six to eight people, but many illustrations indicate fewer playing. There are typically four primary players (mariashi), and then up to four "assistants".
The four primary mariashi take up positions in front of the trees in the four corners of the pitch (kikutsubo, but also called mariba, mariniwa, or kakari), and the assistants take up positions outside of this. Before beginning, each person gets a chance to kick the ball a few times, apparently testing it and getting a feel before getting into the game. Once the game begins, a player can kick the ball back up as many times as he wishes (to make certain he has good control) before kicking it in a lob in the direction of the next player, who must keep the ball from dropping. The only part of the body that may manipulate the ball is the foot, though the body can be used to stop the ball’s momentum or direct it down the leg and to the foot. The object, of course, is to kick the ball as many times as possible without letting it hit the ground.
The person kicking the ball will say “ariyaaa” each time he kicks it back up, and "Ari!" when he kicks it over to someone; this resulting “ariyaaa, ariyaaa, ariyaaa, ari!” is the equivalent of saying something like “here we go, here we go, here we go, here!” Those who are receiving a ball will call out “Ō!” when it is at the peak of its arc. If several people go to receive then the person calling it the longest is the person who goes after the ball.
Kemari world champions
One amusing kemari anecdote: an emperor and his kemari team were able to keep the ball airborne once for over 1,000 kicks. Poets wrote of the day claiming that the ball “seemed suspended, hanging in the sky.” The emperor was so pleased that he retired the ball, and gave it a high court rank; essentially ennobling the thing and making it a viscount.
Kemari page by Dr. Munehisa K. Yamamoto. Dr. Yamamoto is a research associate at Chiba University and a member of the Kemari Preservation Society.
Kemari Hôzôkai, the Kemari Preservation Society website. Unfortunately, it is all in Japanese.