They played “keepy uppy” or kemari in the Asuka period (through till today)

A game of kemari being played at the Tanzan Shrine (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Kemari played in Kyoto – ancient Japanese keepy uppy? (SourceMainichi Daily News, 5 January 2011)

Members of a kemari preservation society recently dressed up in colourful Heian Period aristocratic robes and hats to play their annual game of kemari for a crowd assembled in the Shimogamo Shrine, Kyoto. They played using a deerskin ball, which players passed to each other and tried to keep off the ground using various parts of their bodies. Kemari was played by aristocrats during the Heian Period (AD 794-1185) and somewhat resembles ‘keepy uppy‘.


The origin of kemari

The sport kemari (lit. kickball, also called shukiku) was thought to have been introduced around 600 AD during the Asuka period … although the first evidence is of kemari having been played was in a village at Hokoji Temple in Nara in A.D. 644 (as recorded in the ancient historical chronicle the Nihon Shoki). 

During the Heian Period (794-1192) the kemari game was compulsory for court nobles. The female novelist, Murasaki Shikibu commented on the game as follows:

“Kemari is hardly a stately sport, being quite boisterous and rough, but much depends after all on where it is played and who plays it.”
– Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji, 11th Century

The game became a highly developed sport with standardized rules from the 13th century. In the Kamakura period (1192-133) kemari was popularized by and for the samurai.

The sport is, however, widely believed to have originated from the Chinese sport of Tsu Chu, alternatively, Cuju (the characters for kemari are the same as Cuju in Chinese [Tsu means “to kick the ball with feet” and Chu may be directly translated as “a ball made of leather and stuffed.”] and as first recorded in ancient texts, “Warring States” and “Historical Records”  although the rules appear to be completely different from the Chinese game. Tsu Chu literally means “football”, and it was played to celebrate emperors’ birthdays and by emperors and courtiers for entertainment. Tsu chu is said to have emerged in ancient China as early as 2500 BC. The goal of Tsu Chu was to kick a ball through an opening (measuring about 30 to 40 cm or 1 foot in diameter) into a small net fixed onto erected bamboo canes. Considering that the opening was small and elevated at about 9 meters (30 feet) above ground, it is presumable that a high level of skill was needed to play. During the Ts’in Dynasty (255 BC – 206 BC) the Chinese game of Tsu Chu was used by soldiers for martial arts training or as physical exercises, in which all body parts except the hands could be used to drive the ball into the goal. The earliest record of Tsu Chu was found in a military manual of the Han Dynasty, Tsu Chu was known to have been played by the 3rd – 2nd century military soldiers. Players kicked a leather ball stuffed with feathers and hair through a goal measuring only a foot wide. This is thought to be the earliest form and origin of the sport of soccer in the world. The first international game of football was thought to have been played between Chinese Tsu Chu players and Japan’s Kemari players in 50 BC, according to a recently discovered ancient text.

There is, however, some suggestion of a different origin for the game kemari. Some researchers suggest that the rules of play of the game kemari resemble most the Southeast Asian game of takraw (as found in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Myanmar and Laos) where players keep airborne a ball made from woven rattan reeds. The takraw game is said to have originated in Thailand (where takraw means rattan) or in Malaysia (where the game is known as sepak takraw). However, the Southeast Asian game can only be traced as far back as 11th century for most of southeast Asia and to the time of the fifteenth century Melaka sultanate.

The Korean version of Ch’ukku, said to have been imported from China and to date to the Samguk era or Silla period (BC 57- AD935) — it was played by the nobility and soldiers with a ball made of rice straw.  Given the close connections of the Asuka period with Korean immigrants and royalty, it is likely that the first appearance of kemari during the Asuka period came with the Korean immigrants.

Rules of the game

The game of Kemari was played by any number of players between 2 and 12 and was played like a game of “keepy-uppy” or “keep it up”. It involves a 130-gram ball, 8 inches in diameter that was made of deerskin patched together with horse hide “tape” and stuffed with sawdust.

The ball was kicked between players, the goal being to keep the ball in the air. To do that, team play was vital. It is said that the game was not competitive but ‘..a more dignified and ceremonious experience..’ requiring great levels of skill.

Only the feet were allowed to touch the ball and a player was allowed to kick the ball in the air as many times as he liked in order before passing the ball to another player.

To coordinate movements between players, three kinds of calls were made:

  •  when receiving the ball, a player called “ooh” when the ball was at the peak of its arc and if more than one player called out, the one with longest call was to receive the ball;
  •  for his second kick, the player would call out “ari” and send the ball straight up;
  • on his third kick passing to another player, he called out “ya!”

Hence, during a game of kemari, you would hear cries of “ariyaa, ariyaa, ariyaa, ari!” until he got the ball back.

From the beginning of the 10th century, they began to keep records of the number of kicks. The record number of kicks was 520 at a game in 953.

Players were evaluated for these “three virtues of the ball”:

  • proper posture (players are supposed to have an erect posture and to keep their arms glued to their side);
  • swiftness and skill;
  • mastery of the strategy, ancient “traditions” (kojitsu) and etiquette of the sport.

There were also three techniques that were the hallmarks of a skilled player and following plays that players were judged upon:

  • nobiashi was the skill of reaching for the ball coming down from a great distance
  • kaeriashi was the art of not playing with one’s back to the center of the court, so one had to catch the errant ball coming down on one shoulder, turn quickly and manipulate the ball to roll down one’s body facing center.
  • mi ni sou mari was the act of absorbing the full force of the ball with one’s upper body and controlling it so that it would roll down to one’s foot.

According to the Daily Yomiuri, a kemari player was reported as saying “An ideal flick of the ball contains a moderate spin, makes a clear sound like a tsuzumi spin and should not be too low or too high.”  The skill level of the player is indicated by the color of the costumes worn by the players.

Proper attire

In the 9th century, the players have been depicted to have been playing in hariginu or hunting gear. But the attire underwent refinement, so that by the 13th century, styled ceremonial attire in coded colours for kemari players had emerged, complete with the distinctive Heian courtier tall black hat. Special shoes made of leather and bound to the calf by cords were required. Tucked into the player’s belt was a fan, the more ribs, the higher the rank of the courtier. The player holding the highest rank stood closest to the pine tree.

Spring was considered the most suitable season for playing kemari although the sport was played throughout the year. Kemari was played on a square earthen pitch (called a kikutsubo) marked out by trees to the size of between 6-7 metres. By 980, the mention of kakari no ki “specific trees on the court” appeared – the aristocrats would grow trees in specific areas in their gardens so as to have a permanent pitch. Trees were also grown in pots as pitch markers. The four trees used to mark out the pitch were normally a cherry tree, a maple, a willow and a pine. A pitch marked out by four pine trees was reserved only for palace use. The trees were pruned in ways to allow the ball to fall through the tree’s branches in different and challenging ways.

The ball, 8 inches in diameter made of deerskin and stuffed with sawdust, was coated with egg white albumen, and additionally coated with white face powder mixed with glue or smoked a darker colour over a pine needle fire. The smoked ball represented the sun and the white-coloured ball, the moon (i.e., the yin-yang concept). Ancillary equipment that were used included blinds for blocking the sun; poles for retrieving the ball that got caught up in the branches of trees; and nets for retrieving balls from under verandahs or off the roof.

Did women of ancient Japan play kemari?

Possibly. In the memoirs “The Confessions of Lady Nijo” (1307), the priest Sukesue said, “Let’s select eight court ladies … and dress them in the attire of kickball players.”

Kemari is the first Japanese sport to become highly developed.  From the 13th century, formal kemari ball games were attended by reigning and retired emperors and the noble courtiers.

Kemari is said to have played a role in politics and to have changed the course of history.

From the Nihonshoki (Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to 697 AD):

“(Nakatomi no Kamatari) happening to be one of a kemari party in which (Imperial Prince) Naka no Ohoye played…he observed the Prince’s leather shoe fall off with the ball. Placing it on the palm of his hand, he knelt before the Prince and humbly offered it to him…from this time they became mutual friends.”

“In the mid-7th Century, Japan was dominated by the powerful Soga clan. Although they had strengthened the Imperial presence over the various ancient clans of Japan, the Soga did so for their own benefit. They finally went too far when they began building palaces and tombs that were more kingly than they deserved. They even went so far as to kill one Imperial prince who opposed them. It seemed nothing could stop the Soga from assuming the Imperial title for themselves.

Nakatomi no Kamatari was a guardian of the Shinto religion and his clan was hostile to the Soga for introducing Buddhism to the country due to the Nakatomi being a priestly clan charged with certain national rituals of the native Shinto faith. He looked for a member of the Imperial family that he felt could rise up against the power of the Soga. He found such a man in Naka no Ohoye however he found it difficult to meet with him until Kamatari saw his chance at a kemari match. He retrieved the Prince’s shoe and from that moment the two became friends. They soon found they had similar views on the Soga. They plotted together until one day they struck and effectively removed the Soga clan forever.

Naka no Ohoye later became Emperor Tenji and Nakatomi no Kamatari was allowed to take on the surname Fujiwara which was to become a powerful family in its own right a few centuries later. Both men worked on a number of laws and reforms known as the Taika Reform that had long lasting influence on Japanese government and culture. All of this due to a chance meeting over a lost shoe at a kemari match.”– excerpted from Kemari – Ancient Japanese Soccer/Football

The Golden Age for kemari is said to have been the period between the 10th and 16th century, it is a sport that has inspired poets and writers. Originally played by the aristocrats, the game eventually spread to the samurai and then to the lower classes. Today, the ancient sport of Kemari is still played in Japan, though in its ancient form, it is played as a traditional institution at Shinto shrines such as Shimogawa Shrine, Shimogamo Shrine and the Tanzan Shrine during festivals.

Football sprites and the patron saint of kemari: Fujiwara no Narimichi 

The patron saint of kemari is Fujiwara no Narimichi and players ritually shout out the names of the gods who visited Fujiwara no Narimichi. The game is accompanied by a number of religious rituals such as placing the ball in the forks of the trees and saying prayers with it at an altar.

 Original Chikanobu (1838 – 1912) Japanese Woodblock Print  depicting Fujiwara no Narimichi at kemari kickball under the cherry blossoms (FUJI ARTS)

The Journal of the great twelfth century footballer from Noh Plays of Japan (Sacred Texts), Fujiwara no Narimichi, contains the following story: “I had brought together the best players of the time to assist me in celebrating the completion of my thousandth game. We set up two altars, and upon the one we placed our footballs, while on the other we arranged all kinds of offerings. Then, holding on to prayer-ribbons which we had tied to them, we worshipped the footballs.

That night I was sitting at home near the lamp, grinding my ink with the intention of recording the day’s proceedings in my journal, when suddenly the football which I had dedicated came bouncing into the room followed by three children of about four years old. Their faces were human, but otherwise they looked like monkeys. “What horrid creatures,” I thought, and asked them roughly who they were.

“We are the Football Sprites,” they said. “And if you want to know our names–” So saying they lifted their hanging locks, and I saw that each of them had his name written on his forehead, as follows: Spring Willow Flower, Quiet Summer Wood, and Autumn Garden. Then they said, “Pray remember our names and deign to become our Mi-mori, ‘Honourable Guardian.’ Your success at Mi-mari, ‘Honourable Football,’ will then continually increase.”

Kemari nowadays

In the Asuka-Nara area, a competitive version of the ancient game has been revived—in which two six-member teams kick the ball over a rope without letting it hit the ground on a volley-ball size court. To be as authentic as possible, as in ancient times, the contemporary players use a leather ball stuffed with deer fur that produces a dull whack when kicked hard and wear Nara-era clothes.

Sources and references:

Japanese sports: a history by Allen Guttmann, Lee Austin Thompson

The Japanese and kemari (

Wikipedia: Kemari

Sport in ancient times by Nigel B. Crowther

Fujiwara no Narimachi by Chikanobu 1886 ukiyo-e (Source: Fuji Arts)

Sports and games of the 18th and 19th centuriesby Robert Crego | International Sport Management  by Li, Ming,MacIntosh, Eric,Bravo, Gonzalo (on sepak takraw)

Games in Japan: Go, shogi, kemari and children’s games

Kemari– the Predecessor of Football

The History of Soccer

Japan, Korea and the 2002 World Cup by John Horne,Wolfram Manzenreiter

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s