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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Japan's First Sport - Kemari

Did you know that once upon a time when samurai were lethal killing machines that they, along with practicing the martial arts, doing the tea ceremony, playing go and shogi (Japanese chess) would play a game called kemari (蹴鞠).

Kemari was the gentleman's game of football.

No... not what you American's are thinking of. this game actually uses the foot predominately.

And no... it's not quite what the rest of the world knows as football (US and Canada's soccer).

It's probably closer to hacky sack.

Coming over from China, kemari was a game that was popular amongst the aristocrats of the Nara and Heian periods (710 AD - 1185 AD).

The game is non-competitive and is between two to eight players who pass a ball between one another while keeping it in the air.

The eight-inch diameter ball (mari) is made of deerskin - not leatherized, but rather just deerskin filled with sawdust or barley and sewn shut.  

From what I understand, when you get the ball, you are allowed to kick it up into the air as many times as you like to show off your skill. Apparently each time the ball is kicked up, the kicker says Ariya! When the ball is passed to another player, you shout Ari!

Players known as Mariashi (ball legs or foot ballers) were allowed to used their head, feet, knees, back, and arms to keep the ball in the air. Obviously the greater number of times one could keep the ball up in the air, the greater the skill of the player.

Needless to say, some great hand-eye coordination, as well as a deft touch with the ball was required to play and play well. 

This image from a 17th century painted scroll shows the game of kemari. Note the trees.
Now, a samurai would not just play hacky sack, I mean kemari just any place... it had to played on a specific field of play that is about six meters (19.7-feet) squared called the kikutsubo. It is a grass field with four corners, with a different tree in each of the corners: a Japanese black pine, a willow, a cherry and a maple tree.

The field size varied depending on the number of participants, so some samurai who had their own kikutsubo would their four corner trees in pots that could be moved to create an expanded or contracted field as required.

By Andrew Joseph
Photo above is from Wikipedia Commons and shows the game played at the Kemari Matsuri (festival) at the shinto Tanzan Shrine (Tanzan Jinja) in Sakurai, Nara, Japan. And yes... the clothing worn in the top photo - the kariginu - is an official kemari uniform. 

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