Kemari (a type of football played by courtiers in ancient Japan) (蹴鞠)

Kemari is one of the athletic sports that became popular during the Heian period. It is a game in which players compete for the number of times he/she can kick a kemari shuttlecock made of deer skin to a certain height.

Moreover, soccer started to be called 'shukyu' in Japanese when foreigners who came from Europe during the Meiji period and were seen having fun with the game in a foreigners' residential area, and it is said that at that time, Japanese people called it 'foreigner's kemari.'

The history of kemari of China can be traced back to military training by Densei earlier than 300 B.C. (Warring States Period in China). In Han Dynasty, it was established as a competing game in which 2 teams of 12 people were striking the shuttlecock in order to kick it into the 'kyumon (goal),' and large-scale games were held in the Court. In the Tang Dynasty, the rules became comprehensive, that the goal was put on a net between both teams, and became a single structure at the center of the playground. During this period, the shuttlecock changed from a one with attached feathers to an animal's bladder filled with air so that it bounced well. It is also said to be introduced into Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia with the Mongolian expeditions. In Southeast Asia, SepakTakraw (meaning kicked shuttlecock), which is said to be the origin of kemari, is still popular nowadays.

Subsequently the kemari game in mainland China gradually became phased out, in the Song Dynasty, team competitions were few, and it became a one-man play or group play in which the ball was kicked to keep the ball from falling to the ground. Soon, aristocrats and bureaucrats became so enthusiastic about kemari that duties were neglected, and prostitutes who learnt men's favorite kemari and used this as an excuse to invite customers to their shops became so conspicuous that during the early Ming Dynasty, the Chinese government issued a prohibition ordinance against kemari; this prohibition continued into the Qing Dynasty, and kemari almost disappeared completely from China.


In about 600, kemari was introduced from China to Japan together with the Buddhism etc. Emperor Tenji and FUJIWARA no Kamatari became intimate because of kemari, and it is widely known that, this brought about the Taika Reform in 645.

Because kemari developed independently in Japan, many experts on kemari have emerged (The following is an introduction to the experts of kemari). During Heian period, as an athletic sport at Court, kemari was popular among noblemen, therefore nobleman built a private practice ground called "mari-ba" (ball ground) on their own residences, and they spent the whole day practicing, every day.
Even SEI-shonagon, who was well-known for her harsh criticism, praised kemari highly in her book '"Makura-no-soshi' saying that 'Kemari is interesting.'

Not only aristocrats, but also the emperors, Court nobles, shogun, samurai, Shinto priests, and the general public, irrespective of age or gender, also liked kemari. Rules concerning kemari underwent various refinements and were finally systematized in the Kamakura period, thereafter, the popularity had never declined.

However, in late Muromachi period, because Nobunaga ODA encouraged sumo wrestling, it is said that the popularity of kemari was gradually brought to an end. However, different from China, where the culture of kemari has disappeared, Japan still has kemari games held as traditional events in various places even in the present day.


Kemari was played inside a playground enclosed by motoki (elementary trees) standing at the four corners. The playground was called kakari or maritubo and was about 5.5 square meters. One team may be composed of four, people, six people or eight people, that might be a team competition in which a ball with diameter of about 21cm to 24cm was kept in the air by kicking using "footwear," or it might be an individual match in which the person who dropped the ball lost.


Kakari, a playground for kemari

Motoki (Elementary trees): garden trees planted in the four directions of a Kakari: willow (southeast), cherry (northeast), pine (northwest), maple (southwest). A height not exceeding 4.55m became the standard for kicking the ball up.
It is also called 'kiritate.'

Mariashi, player of kemari. A good player is called a "meisoku," while a bad player is called a "hisoku".

Nobushi is an assistant who kicks a ball that goes outside, back inside.

Witness, referee

Agemari is an analog to the kickoff in a soccer game. Basically, it was a big honor to start the "kickoff."

Ukemari is an unavoidable interruption of the game due to sunset, weather changes, etc.


The kemari ball is made of leather, and it is hollow inside.

Two numekawa (leather tanned with tannin) of deer are joined together, and the overlapped part is called, koshikawa (waist leather), or 'kukuri (bundle).'

Also, another thin murasaki-kawa (purple leather) called torikawa (attachment leather) is attached.

The 4 types are shiromari (white ball), kijimari (material ball), kusubemari (smoked ball), and karamari (Chinese ball). A white ball is painted with hakufun (white powder).

Contrary to the white ball, a material ball is not painted.

Kusubemari is made of kusube-gawa (smoked leather).

The Chinese ball is made of leather sewn up in five colors, and it is said to be the original shape of the ball when it was introduced from China.

It says in 'Imagawa-ozoshi' that, 'for marikawa (ball leather), a big doe with 2 colors in their fur during spring gives a white and high-quality leather and that pressing fingernails on the leather will cause wrinkles.'

Concerning the sewing method of the leather and tokawa (attached leather), in 'Yuteihisho' (Secret Book of Garden Games), it says, 'in Kyoto City, Kawara-in House and Amabe are the best except for these two, no one can make kameri balls. Balls made by Kawara-in House are really superior with 2 leather holes. Balls made by Amabe also have 2 leather holes. The ball is sewn in such a way that five sections can be easily seen. Or in a way that seven sections can be seen. A soft leather with the same color as shoe leather, is cut exactly into two thin parts. It is stretched and extended. In the part of the leather used for a global shape, a hole is made. From that hole, a piece of leather is pull out and tied at the side. Left of the leather hole, make 2 holes. In the right hole, make 2 holes. The leather attachment goes into the big hole and comes out the small holes and is tied. Then, it should be inserted into the leather hole to the forehead of a stepchild. Both leather holes are done like this with about 1.5cm of the attached leather put into the place for this leather. To the ends of both leathers, a hole is made. From each end, leather is inserted and crossed the other. They are stuck by sokui (paste made of glutinous rice) and the ends are cut by the head part of a sotoba. A ball without the attachment leather is a ball in mourning at present.
Thus, one can know the meaning.'

Experts of kemari

There were a lot of great Kemari players throughout each era, however, FUJIWARA no Narimichi of the latter Heian period was said to be an especially unprecedented expert, who, in later Kemari literature, was called the 'saintly kicker.'

In order to excel in kemari, Narimichi made an oath to practice kemari every day for 1000 days. It is said that at the night of the day when the oath was taken, three kemari spirits appeared as three monkeys playing kemari in his dream, that were called as Geanrin (ari), Shunyoka (yau), and Toen (ou) became the shouts when kicking a kemari. As the guardian gods for kemari, these three monkeys are at present enshrined in Hirano-jinja Shrine of Otsu and Shiramine-jingu Shrines of Kyoto. From the names, there was also a legend that made Sarutahiko the guardian god, as was written in the book "Setuyoshu."

A family with kemari as the family business

The Nanba family (the Nanba school)

FUJIWARA no Yorisuke - Grandfather of Munenaga NANBA and Masatsune ASUKAI
Munenaga NANBA - the founder of the Nanba school

The Asukai family (the Asukai school)

Masatsune ASUKAI - the founder of the Asukai school
Masatsune ASUKAI

The Mikohidari family, the Reizei family (the Mikohidari school)

FUJIWARA no Tameie - the founder of the Mikohidari school

Among the schools of the nobility, the Nanba and the Mikohidari schools had declined by the early modern age, afterwards, only the Asukai school continued. The Sei-daimyojin (Energetic Great Gracious Deity) in Shiramine-jingu Shrine in the remains of the residential site of the Asukai family, was a patron saint of kemari, therefore now it is regarded as the god of sports and public entertainment centered on soccer. On April 14 and July 7 every year, kemari is held as a dedication offering.

The Kamo clan, Kamo-jinja Shrine (the Shake school)

KAMO no Narihira - the founder of the Shake school

On January 4 every year, 'first kemari for the New Year' is still held in Kamomioya-jinja Shrine. Shimogamo-jinja Shrine also enshrines 'Yatagarasu' (a holy crow leading Emperor Jinmu), which is also the motif of the emblem of The Japan Football Association.

[Original Japanese]