Nihon Zatsuroku
An Online Japanese Miscellany

= Kemari =



     It may be surprising to some to find the 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 which was about nine or ten inches in diameter.  

     Except for the fact that it seems so modern, this is actually a game that was phenomenally popular during the tenth-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.

     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. 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 hitatare (albeit one with incredibly large sleeves, as the illustration below indicates).



     A formal game consists of eight people, but many illustrations indicate fewer playing, so I am led to believe that an eight-person game means two teams of four, competing. Until I can contact some modern kemari players and verify the arcana, this is my best best.

         Players form a circle, and one person tosses up the ball and kicks it back in the air with his foot. Apparently he can kick it 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 touch the ball is 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 some one; this resulting “ariyaaa, ariyaaa, ariyaaa, ari!” is the equivalent of saying something like “here we go, here we go, here we go, here!”

      The playing field, called a kikutsubo, 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. I’m led to the inclination that the portable trees also allowed the players to set the field to a size appropriate for the number of kickers.


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.


Online resources

     A miko’s kemari homepage. This is the home page of a miko (shrine maiden) with an interest in kemari. There are links to images of games and so on. Unfortunately, it is entirely in Japanese.

     Making a mari and kemari boots. This is one of the links from the above-mentioned site. Although the text is Japanese, there are photographs detailing the making of a mari and kemari boots.

     Kemari graphics and .mpg filmclips. This site has a few large images of a modern kemari game and several small .mpg files. The page is in Japanese. The clips are short and interesting.



This page last modified on 3/24/04

This page and all contents copyright ©2001, 2004 by Anthony J. Bryant.
Copying or transmission in all or part without express written permission is forbidden.