Kemari or Mari Koju (Japan)
Name of sport (game)
Name in native language
Place of practice (continent, state, nation)
The first evidence of kemari was found in the city of Nara (a former capital city) and dates from around 644 AD. It has been recorded in the Nihon Shoki, an ancient historical chronicle. (documents dating back to the Taika Reform). From 1192 till 1333 the game was a popular sport amongst samurai. The rules were standardized from the 13th century. The game was influenced by the Chinese sport of Cuju (the very earliest form of football). The characters for Kemari are the same as Cuju in Chinese. The sport was introduced to Japan about 600, during the Asuka period. Nowadays, it is played in Shinto shrines for festivals. It actually became a compulsory game for the court nobles during the Heian Period. By the Edo era (1603 – 1867), the game’s popularity had extended beyond the samurai to also include townspeople and wealthy landowners: Kemari had become a sport of mass appeal.
A work by Ritō Akizato from 1799 depicting a kemari game during Tanabata
It is a non-competitive sport. The object of Kemari is to keep one ball in the air, with all players cooperating to do so. Players may use any body part with the exception of arms and hands – their head, feet, knees, back, and depending on the rules, elbows to keep the ball aloft. The ball, known as a mari, is made of deerskin with the hair facing inside and the hide on the outside. The ball is stuffed with barley grains to give it shape. When the hide has set in this shape, the grains are removed from the ball, and it is then sewn together using the skin of a horse. The one who kicks the ball is called a mariashi. A good mariashi makes it easy for the receiver to control the mari, and serves it with a soft touch to make it easy to keep the mari in the air.
The ball, known as the ‘mari’, weighs 130 grams and is 8 inches in diameter.
Kemari is played on a flat ground, about 6–7 meters squared. The uniforms that the players wear are reminiscent of the clothes of the Asuka age and include a crow hat. This type of clothing was called kariginu and it was fashionable at that time.
Particular clothing requirements applied to the higher nobility, who wore formal headgear, colourful kimonos and special shoes that may have been the precursors of today’s modern football boots. During the Kamakura period, Kemari was very popular amongst the samurai and it became deeply embedded in the warrior culture.
However, by the middle of the 19th century it had, for unknown reasons, lost its appeal to the general public, much to the displeasure of Emperor Meiji, who hoped to keep Japan’s noble court traditions alive by founding the Kemari Preservation Association.
Some rituals include placing the ball in the forks of the trees while saying one’s prayers in front of an altar.
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (Japan, 1839-1892), Tokugawa Yoshimune Playing Kemari
Today, the tradition of Kemari is kept alive through two special events; the New Year celebration of “Kemari hajime” (first kick) in the “Shimogamo Jinja”, a Shinto shrine, and the annual Kemari festival, held each November in the ancient Japanese capital Nara ("Danzan jinja").
Sources of information
Allen Guttmann, Lee Austin Thompson, Japanese sports: a history. University of Hawaii Press, 2001
Richard Witzig, The Global Art of Soccer. CusiBoy Publishing, 2006