Kemari is a highly ritualised game indigenous to Japan that has been played for over a millennium. It is one of just two ancient ball games, along with cuju from China, that we know were played with the feet.

The game of kemari enjoyed a high social status, the legacy of which is a historical record that has been passed down through the centuries. It is the only ancient ball game for which we have accurate details as to its exact nature.


As a child, Diego Maradona often entertained crowds before matches in Buenos Aires with his incredible ball-juggling skills. Little did he know that, in some small way, he was paying tribute to a cultural tradition practised for centuries in Japan – for at its core, kemari is a highly developed and ritualised display of ball juggling.


Kemari is played outdoors on a square court of earth. Each side measures six or seven metres in length.

Trees feature prominently on the kemari court, with a different type placed at each corner: pine in the north-west, cherry in the north-east, willow in the south-east and maple in the south-west. Keeping the ball off the ground with your feet is difficult enough. Controlling it after kicking it into a tree, where it is impossible to predict how it will bounce off the trunk and branches, is even more challenging.


The ball used in kemari is hollow and made from two pieces of deerskin sewn together. It measures roughly 20 centimetres in diameter.


Kemari games usually feature eight players – two in each corner.


Tradition dictates that the player with the highest rank starts the game by kicking the ball into the air and passing it to the player with the second-highest rank. The aim is to keep the ball in the air, i.e. without letting it touch the ground, for as many kicks as possible. Players can move freely around the court, but return to their original positions when play is interrupted. A score is kept of the number of successful kicks.

The ball is kicked with the right foot only. An individual player can kick multiple times in succession, but three kicks is considered ideal: one kick to receive and gain control of the ball; a second kick straight up in the air over one’s head to demonstrate one’s skill; and a low, slow third kick to pass to another player.

To signal their intentions and coordinate their movements, the players make one of three calls. To signal his intention to receive a kicked ball, a player calls “Ooh” when the ball is at its highest. If more than one player calls out “Ooh”, the one who calls the longest receives the kick. For his second kick, the player shouts “Ari!” and when passing to another player on the third kick, the kicking player calls “Ya!”

An 18th-century illustration by Akisato Ritō of samurai warriors playing kemari as part of a summer festival day. The eight players are in traditional kemari costume and play on a court with a tree in each corner in front of spectators. The writing on the illustration is a poem that celebrates the festival and the role of kemari in it.


Formal kemari meets were known as marikai. They had three stages. Firstly, the warm-up – players kicked the ball among themselves and into the trees to see how it fell. In the second stage, players demonstrated their individual skill to the spectators.

In the final stage, as evening approached, they moved away from the trees and closer to the centre of the court. This stage was called kazumari, where teamwork was emphasised over individual skill and the number of kicks was counted.

Kemari is a game of three parts.

  1. Warm-up
  2. Individual skill
  3. Teamwork


The uniform plays a significant role in kemari rituals and comes with four main elements. The hat is known as an eboshi, while the arrowroot fibre trousers are called mari-hakama, which lead to shoes known as kamo-kutsu. All of this is pulled together by the most elaborate feature of the outfit – the mari-suikan, a type of kimono with long sleeves that is crafted from a rough, unknitted silk that forces the players to stand up straight.

A kemari player in 2016 makes the final adjustment to his shoes, known as kamo-kutsu. This translates literally as “duck-shoes”.

Once the players are dressed, the next part of the ritual can begin. The ball is blessed at a shrine and taken to the garden known as the mariniwa, where the court is. A ceremony called tokimari is held where a man called the edayaku prays for prosperity and world peace. The game can then begin!

Woodcut of two kemari players in traditional costume from the Edo period, by Utagawa Kunisada (1786 – 1865).
Close-up of a mari-suikan, worn by kemari players.


Every sport does it today, but kemari is the first ball game that we know of in which scoring was a definitive feature. It could, of course, be played for fun, but there was an official designated to keep score in competitions.

Unlike the whistle of today’s referees, however, he would count silently until 50 and then announce every tenth kick, with the option of adding a bonus ten when players executed a particularly skilful kick. Generally, meets set a number at which play should be stopped, with one text mentioning limits of 120, 300, 360, 700 and 1,000 – all numbers with a root in astrology.

Watercolor on silk of two kemari players.

Teamwork is absolutely essential in kemari, but meets were also arranged that focused on competition between players. In this case, two teams of eight players were formed. Each team performed a preset number of trials and the team with the most kicks in a single trial was declared the winner.

18th century illustration of women watching kemari.
Detail of a panel from the Kyoto Imperial Palace.


As with the modern game of football, certain kemari players achieved widespread fame – one of whom was the 12th-century court noble Fujiwara no Narimichi. Although an accomplished flute player, poet, and horse rider, he was best known for his kemari skills. He claimed to have played the game for a total of 7,000 days, 2,000 of which were consecutive!

Extract from a collection of biographies of historical figures featuring Fujiwara no Narimichi.

Legend has it that Narimichi walked back and forth across the rail of the veranda outside the main hall of the Kiyomizu-dera Temple in Kyoto, while kicking a kemari ball in the air – a task in which a single misstep would have resulted in a 13-metre fall to the ground!

The Kiyomizu-dera Temple in Kyoto showing the rail on which Fujiwara no Narimichi practised kemari, braving a possible 13-metre drop.
Kiyomizu-dera temple, Kyoto
Woodblock print (1896) featuring Sei Shōnagon, the author of The Pillow Book. The print shows her travelling and wearing the traditional hat and veil worn by women.


Kemari was played almost exclusively by men. In The Confessions of Lady Nijō, compiled in 1307, the author writes about court women being compelled to play kemari for the rarity of the spectacle, to their “acute embarrassment”. And it seems the women at court did not appreciate watching the game either: the female authors of both Makura no Sōshi (The Pillow Book) and Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji) describe the game as an “unpleasant spectacle” and “less than genteel” respectively.

Coloured woodcut of a courtesan holding a kemari ball. The illustration is part of a collection put together by Friedrich M. Trautz (1877-1952), a noted japanologist and director of the German-Japanese Research Institute in Kyoto. The collection featured a number of objects relating to kemari and was bequeathed in his will to the Historical Museum Bamberg. Inv. Nr. 24/2049a, Japanerin mit Kemari-Ball, Farbholzschnitt © Museen der Stadt Bamberg.
Woodblock print (1784) featuring Murasaki Shikibu, the author of The Tale of Genji. Written over 1,000 years ago, The Tale of Genji is often referred to as the world’s first novel. An epic story of intrigue and romance in the ancient Japanese court, it is centred on Genji, the son of an emperor. A game of kemari provides the backdrop to a scene in chapter 34, “New Herbs”, in which Genji’s wife watches Genji and his rival Kashiwagi play kemari from behind a bamboo curtain. Kashiwagi is alerted to her presence when a cat disturbs the curtain, and they embark on an affair.


It is likely that the earliest reference to this ancient Japanese game is contained within the Nihongi – one of the country’s first written histories, which was completed in 720 AD and is known as The Chronicles of Japan.

Volume 12 of a 1610 edition of the Nihongi, held in the National Diet Library in Tokyo. Highlighted is the expression “to hit a ball”, which is often interpreted as kemari. Image provided by the National Diet Library Digital Collections


While a legendary sumo match is said to have won the country of Japan for the sun goddess Amaterasu, there is no impressive myth regarding the origins of kemari. The Nihongi first mentions it as a game renowned for the participants’ good manners and fair play, as told through the story of Crown Prince Naka no Ōe and the courtier Nakatomi no Kamatari.


Triptych (circa 1792) by Chōbunsai Eishi showing women composing poetry.


Kemari and poetry were seen as compatible, and perhaps even comparable, art forms.

People gathered formally in groups to compose, share and appreciate verses of poetry together, much as they congregated under trees to watch a game of kemari. When enjoyed among the nobility, events featuring either pastime relied on distinctive procedures and protocols.


“If you play kemari under a
cherry tree in full bloom,
the ball will knock the
flowers off the branches.
Better to play on a court
with no trees.”

From an early waka with kemari,
circa 1135

Woodblock print by Hishikawa Sōri (circa 1800). The two wakas on the left of the illustration refer to kemari. Image provided by courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston


By the 12th century, kemari was established as a popular court game, performed and watched not only by the nobility, but also by the emperors themselves.

Illustration of the Imperial Palace in Kyoto.
Woodblock print (1863) by Utagawa Yoshimori showing kemari being played at the palace in Kyoto. Watching in the green robe is shogun Tokugawa Iemochi (1846-1866), the 14th shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate. In the background wearing blue robes, a line of samurai warriors follow the proceedings. Image provided by courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston
Woodblock on paper (circa 1841) by Utagawa Hiroshige showing the Imperial Palace in Kyoto.


The popularity of kemari at court led to the formalisation and refinement of the game, as all activities at the Imperial Palace had to be conducted with proper manners, procedures and deference.

Kemari evolved from a pastime into a finely tuned art, which carried an air of elite culture and sophistication.



From 1185, political power in Japan shifted from the emperor and the court to the warrior samurai class, headed by the shogunate. However, the leading samurai of the shogunate needed to maintain connections with the emperor and aristocratic class, and kemari was one way of doing so.


Woodblock triptych (1897) by Yōshū Chikanobu showing samurai warriors watching kemari. The samurai learned the finer points of kemari from the nobility at court.
Two samurai warriors with their uniform and armour.


The samurai came to prominence following the war between the southern and northern courts. But why, as famous and feared warriors, were they interested in learning kemari? The answer lay in their increased dealings with the aristocrats.

As the samurai increased their contacts with the aristocrats, they had to familiarise themselves with the cultures of Kyoto – the then capital of Japan – and maintain a good relationship with the imperial court.


As with the samurai who tried to connect to the aristocracy by learning kemari, parallels can be drawn with footballers today. Players, like Gareth Bale, can often be seen playing golf, a sport traditionally associated with the elite.

The use of sport and culture
as an indication of social standing
has subtly persevered in the modern day.


This notion of using sport to ascend to or communicate with higher ranks – as the samurai did by playing kemari – is commonplace in modern-day sport.

Participation in or knowledge of sports such as horse racing, cricket, golf or tennis, as well as an interest in art and music, is often a prerequisite, or at least helpful, to successfully occupy a certain standing within society.


The Asukai were the foremost among the aristocratic families controlling kemari. They sent representatives to Kamakura to convey the proper techniques and procedures to the shogunate, even awarding certificates to those high-ranking samurai who were deemed worthy of socialising with the aristocrats of the imperial court at a kemari event.

By the mid-17th century, this control had practically become a monopoly, and the Asukai were acknowledged as the iemoto or “founding family” of kemari.

As the popularity of kemari spread to towns and villages around Japan, the Asukai appointed local representatives to maintain the integrity of the sport and ensure that their influence over the game did not waver. Fees were paid to participate and players obtained licences to convey a certain level of aptitude, not dissimilar to belts or dans in modern martial arts, and this money provided an important source of income.

Woodblock print (1875) by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi showing Asukai Masanori (left) performing in front of the shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune (right).



The Ōnin War between 1467 and 1477 saw the imperial court’s heyday as the focal point of kemari come to an end. Over the following 400 years, the game spread across the whole of the country to become an established part of mainstream Japanese culture.

Feudal map of Japan from the time after the Ōnin War.


Much of Kyoto was destroyed during the Ōnin War and many residents fled to other parts of the country, taking with them aspects of their culture, including kemari. Throughout the turbulent 16th century, known as the Age of Warring States, successive heads of the Asukai family travelled around the country to ensure that standards were maintained wherever the game was played.

Over a period of 400 years,
kemari ceased to be a sport
reserved for the elite, as its
practice was dispersed
across all of Japan.

Illustration showing a horseback Oda Nobunaga, who was known as the “Great Unifier” of Japan. He helped bring the Age of the Warring States to an end.
Hanging scroll from the 16th century showing a spring pilgrimage to the Chōmeiji Temple to the east of Kyoto. On the left, midway down the scroll, a kemari court is depicted on which monks and pilgrims are playing, their kicks dispersing the spring blossom from the cherry trees in the four corners. This image is notable because it shows kemari being played away from the traditional centre of Kyoto, and for the fact that the kemari players are not nobles or samurai. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The 17th century saw the start of an extended era of peace and stability in Japan known as the Edo period. It was named after the new capital of the shogunate in what is present-day Tokyo. It was an ideal environment for kemari to spread geographically, but also across the social classes.

Through local representatives in towns and villages across the country, the Asukai extended their influence among classes of people previously excluded from kemari. A wealthier class of commoner, such as urban merchants, rural landlords and priests, started to enjoy the game for the first time, alongside other elegant art forms, such as the tea ceremony and poetry.

Competitors tried to challenge the authority of the Asukai, but were unsuccessful. In 1647, a commoner was exiled to a distant island for teaching an unauthorised version of kemari – in other words, for playing kemari without a licence. The Asukai thus remained at the head of a unified game of kemari until the end of the Edo period in 1868.

Illustration by Kawamata Tsuneyuki from the Edo period.


Sasaki Sukezaemon was a local official of the commoner class who lived in Mochigase, one of many towns situated along the Inaba Kaidō – the road linking the cities of Tottori and Himeji. He kept a journal, in which he recorded the many times when he played kemari.

Ink and color on silk by Reizei Tamechika (1823-1864). Reizei Tamechika / Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Purchase - funds provided by the Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, F2002.2a-h

Family records contain a certificate issued by a representative of the Asukai house in 1771, designating him as a disciple and specifying the attire he was authorised to wear when playing. This indicated his social status and his place in the hierarchy of the Asukai kemari world. The games were fairly diverse: he played kemari with other locals from Mochigase, but also with samurai from Tottori and visitors from Harima province, at the other end of the Inaba Kaidō.

The license given to Sasaki Sukezaemon in 1771 by the head of the Asukai family. Provided by Tottori Prefectural Archives courtesy of Sasaki Family Archives, Tottori City, Mochigase Town.


Social class had a marked effect on the techniques that players used in their games.​ Those of lower status – servants, clerks and guards at the court, for example – did mainly physical jobs, which required the kind of dexterity and quickness that were also useful in kemari. Achieving a high number of kicks was the most important thing for them. The ball had to be kept from touching the ground at all costs. This led to them developing dynamic, acrobatic moves.

Woodblock print by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858). Image provided by courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

For the aristocratic players, however, achieving a high count was not necessarily the main goal. Maintaining one’s dignity and one’s poise – hin in Japanese – was more important. Bending the knee when kicking the ball was frowned upon and considered undignified.

Woodblock print by Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-1694). Collection of the Honolulu Museum of Art. Gift of James A. Michener, 1991 (21658).

Another feature that distinguished kemari between the different social groups was the degree of attention paid to and sensitivity towards the other players. This was especially evident when receiving a kicked ball. In the common game, players were more aggressive in pursuing flying balls. The courtiers, in contrast, were more reserved.

Woodblock print by Isoda Koryūsai (1735–1790). Image provided by courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston


Although part of the cultural heritage of Japan, kemari is no longer widely practised. It fared poorly in the face of competition from other Japanese sports like sumo, which had been able to develop a mass following.

In addition, imported modern sports, such as association football and baseball, contributed to its decline. So reduced was the status of kemari that it even needed an association to ensure its preservation.

Although the Edo period saw a
new and widespread audience
take to the rules of kemari, the
looming influence of Western
culture foretold a dramatic
decline for the ancient ball game.


The widespread popularity that kemari enjoyed during the Edo period did not survive the turbulent transition to modernity that followed the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

The dramatically changed role of the nobility after the restoration was a predominant factor. They were reorganised into a newly formed peerage known as the Kazoku, which stripped them of their hereditary power and occupations. And so, to put it simply, the social and economic bedrock on which kemari had been founded and prospered was no more.

Japan entered a new political era with the accession of Emperor Meiji in 1867. Determined to change Japan from a feudal and isolationist country, as it had been under the shoguns, he instituted a series of modernising reforms. In a triumphant procession, as shown in this illustration, he moved the Imperial Palace from Kyoto to the city of Edo, from where the Tokugawa shogunate had ruled from 1603. Emperor Meiji changed the name from Edo to Tokyo, thus bringing to an end the Edo period of Japanese history.
Family portrait with Emperor Meiji seated circa 1880.

Given that the Asukai had already eliminated all of their competitors, when it came to enforcing the rules of the game, there was no one left to pick up the ball. The large-scale adoption of Western civilisation and sports, together with the comparatively high costs associated with kemari, saw it reduced to a level of subsistence.

With no one paying the fees, kemari was no longer a viable source of income – a key factor in the survival of traditional Japanese sports. However, sumo and the martial arts were quick to adapt their models to the modern world, with the former becoming a spectator sport and the latter remarketing itself as a form of physical education and fitness.


Sumo’s survival was largely down to establishing itself as a spectator sport in the 17th century. With the help of the mass media, sumo has managed to thrive and survive through its fan base of paying spectators.

Woodblock print by Utagawa Yoshimune from the early 1850s. Compared to kemari, sumo was able to attract large crowds, ensuring its survival even to this day as a spectator sport.Compared to kemari, sumo was able to attract large crowds, ensuring its survival even to this day as a spectator sport.

Martial arts forged a different path. The model was first devised by the educator Kanō Jigorō, when he developed judo as a form of physical exercise that could be incorporated into the education system. The many local training centres, known as dojos, also played a crucial part, not only in popularising judo, but also in serving as a source of income for instructors who could charge their students for their tuition.

Photograph of Kanō Jigorō (1860 – 1938), the revered founder of judo.
Postcard from 1918 showing students practising judo.
An early photograph of sumo from the 1890s in an outside arena at Ekōo-in Temple in Ryōogoku, Tokyo. The first bout at this venue can be dated traced back to 1768.


Had it not been for the Kemari Preservation Association, formed in Kyoto in 1903 by a small group of aristocrats, the game may have disappeared forever. Unlike sumo, kemari was not established as a spectator sport and although it avoided the association with militarism that had stained other sports, it took a small group of enthusiasts to ensure its survival.


Photograph from 2015, showing kemari being played at the Shimogamo Shrine in Kyoto.



The association is founded in Kyoto



The association performs for two princes


Emperor Yoshihito watches a kemari performance


Members of the association perform for Edward, Prince of Wales. In the official book of the Prince’s tour of Japan, the caption reads “Players of an old-time football game known as kemari, in Kyoto”


Kemari makes an appearance at the first post-war National Sports Festival in 1946


Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko watch kemari at the Imperial Palace in Kyoto


A performance of kemari at the Imperial Palace in Kyoto is broadcast live on television by NHK. In January the society opened itself to female members.


Negotiations to hold a kemari demonstration at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics fall through due to a “lack of funds”. However, 20 members take the initiative to go to Tokyo anyway and play kemari on a temporary court on the grounds of the Meiji Shrine a week before the opening ceremony


The association played in front of Queen Elizabeth II.


The association performs overseas for the first time at the Festival of Traditional Arts and Crafts in Paris


The association participates in the World Festival of Traditional Sports in Bonn, Germany and then before American President George H. W. Bush in Kyoto, who surprises his hosts by joining in


The association lists the challenges it faces for the future, all of which still apply today. They include a meagre budget, problems with recruitment and procuring balls, the lack of a practice court and the prohibitive cost of the uniform

Scenes of a kemari game at Kazoku-Kaikan in Kyoto. For a while, the building was used as a meeting place for the nobility. Inv. Nr. 24/1358 und 24/1359, Filmaufnahmen eines Kemari-Ballspiels, Japan, 1932, Friedrich M. Trautz, © Museen der Stadt Bamberg.


Still celebrated and played today, kemari is considered a part of the cultural heritage of Japan. As a ball game in which only feet are used, it can also safely stake its claim among the antecedents of all the modern football codes, but in particular association football.

Although it failed to make the transition from ancient to modern sport, kemari was remarkable for the fact that in its heyday, it boasted many of the seven criteria that historian Allen Guttmann states are necessary for a sport to call itself modern. It was secular and not based on religious beliefs or superstitions; it had a bureaucracy to make rules; it was rational and scientific; and it was obsessed with record-keeping and celebrating those records.

Kemari may have missed out on a place in the line-up of modern sports, but in the ball tricks performed by the likes of Diego Maradona and in new sports such as freestyle football, its spirit and legacy live on.



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