Ball games are popular all around the world and Japan is no exception. During the Heian Period (9th till 12th century AD) a non-competitive sport known as ‘kemari’ was extremely popular. It was so popular that it has even been revived in the modern times. The objective of the game is to have the ball in the air for a long period of time. Nowadays the sport is played during some Shinto events and festivals. It is now known as ‘Kemari Matsuri’ or the ‘Festival of Ancient Ball-Kicking’.
Kemari’s history dates back to 600 AD. It is considered to be the earliest form of football in Japan. 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. It actually became a compulsory game for the court nobles during the Heian Period. By the 13th century, it was highly developed and given standardized rules.
The origin of the sport is believed to be influenced by the Chinese, as the Chinese characters used to write ‘kemari’ are the same as the way the name of Chinese sport Cuju is written. From 1192 till 1333 the game was a popular sport amongst samurai.
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The ball, known as the ‘mari’, weighs 130 grams and is 8 inches in diameter. It is made of deer skin. The rule is to keep the ball in the air, and just like in soccer, players are allowed to use any body part except for the arms and hands. The number of players is usually between 2 to 12, with all of them cooperating to keep the ball up. Anybody can kick the ball in the air as many times as he likes before he passes it to the next player. The person who kicks the ball is called ‘mariashi’. It takes great skill to become one, as it is important to make it easy for the ball receiver to keep the ball in the air.
The Kemari Matsuri is held in Nara on November 3rd. Priests are seen wearing traditional aristocratic attire while carrying out the whole ritual. Some rituals include placing the ball in the forks of the trees while saying one’s prayers in front of an altar.