Most soccer fans worldwide are probably unaware that the Japanese (and the Chinese) have been playing different forms of football for more than a millennium. That’s entirely understandable, however—most Japanese are probably unaware of it too.
The game the Japanese play is called kemari, and it dates from the Heian Period (794-1192). It was once wildly popular among all classes of society, including everyone from the Emperor and the samurai to the commoners, and this popularity continued for several centuries, until the Muromachi Period (1333 – 1573), when interest shifted to sumo. In fact, a list of people reputedly skilled at the sport reads like a Who’s Who of Japanese history–it includes several emperors, Oda Nobunaga, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
The idea is similar to hacky sack—a ball is kicked among several people, with the idea being to keep it from hitting the ground. The brief explanation given here on the Imperial Household Agency’s website says that there are no winners and losers; the idea is just to kick back and have a good time, so to speak.
That’s not what the Japanese-language version of Wikipedia says, however. They claim that there is (or was) competition, both in the team version and the individual version. The objective in the team version, which has eight kickers, or keashi, to a side, is to see how many times the mari, or ball, can be kicked consecutively without letting it hit the ground. In the individual version, the person who lets the mari hit the ground loses.
That’s not the only issue at dispute. Even the Japanese think it came from China (along with most everything else), but others seem to think that the Chinese game and the Japanese game developed separately. Indeed, the Chinese game, called tsu chu, involved kicking the ball into a container suspended from a rod, which is significantly different from the Japanese game. Nevertheless, the Football Network site claims the Chinese and Japanese squared off in the year 50, making it the first recorded international football match. I wonder about that date, however. That would make it one of the first, if not the first, recorded contacts between the Chinese and the Japanese, but they don’t provide further information on the document.
People who want to see a vintage performance of the sport can visit the Konpira Shrine in Kagawa Prefecture. The photo accompanying this post is a shot of the action on the shrine grounds. Performances are given three times a year, in May, July and December. In addition to the colorful period costumes, you’ll get to hear the keashi shouting Ariya, ariya, ariya! as they control the mari, and Ari! as they pass it on to the next player.
Hey, don’t laugh. I’d rather watch kemari than paint my face, get drunk, and scream Oreh, oreh! at a soccer match. It’s probably a lot cheaper than a soccer ticket, and the spectators are closer to the action besides!
Postscript: This is a video of a kemari demonstration. Keep in mind these are old guys who probably got the costumes out of the dry cleaners that morning. Here’s the website for the Kemari Preservation Society, and the Shinshu Kemari Association, for those of you who read Japanese.