Photo/Illutration“Meisoku kemari" masters show off their skills at Shimogamojinja shrine in Kyoto’s Sakyo Ward. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

While it may have looked like a group of players in traditional clothing playing an ancient game of hacky sack, the ball-passing game of “kemari” is much more, reflecting the Japanese “wa” of harmony.

A Kyoto-based Shukiku (kemari) preservation association showed off their skills during the recent annual Kemari Matsuri festival at Tanzanjinja shrine in Sakurai, Nara Prefecture.

Spectators were mesmerized by the members in traditional attire who were shouting “ari,” “ya” and “oh” as they kicked a white deerskin ball back and forth in the air.

A player who can kick and pass a ball so that the receiver can easily return it and keep it airborne without it hitting the ground, while working in tandem with a teammate, is considered a skillful one.

“The idea of attempting to keep the ball above the ground by collaborating with each other during the no win-no lose game is great,” said screenwriter Yoshiko Morishita. “It is almost like, ‘Let’s set a Guinness World Record.’”

Members of the Shukiku association practice at Shiraminejingu shrine in Kyoto, which is dubbed a “soccer shrine" as it has been strongly associated with kemari. Numerous soccer fans wrote comments on a humongous wooden "ema" (votive plaque) placed to support the Japanese national team prior to the kickoff of the World Cup in June.

An exclusive kemari practice space in the shrine compound has been set up for the 39 men and women of the Shukiku association. The members, who are in their 20s to 80s, are company employees, shop owners, priests, medical doctors and students.

Their way of playing kemari follows the style of Asukai court aristocracy where players can only kick with the right leg and are required to straighten their knees. They also need to boot the ball when it is as close to the ground as possible, requiring a high level of skill.

The kemari ball-kicking game reflects the Japanese “wa” harmonization spirit.

“Kemari’s concept of focusing on teamwork is consistent with ‘wa is the greatest of virtues,’ one of the items written in the 17-Article Constitution, Japan’s earliest laws, compiled by Prince Shotoku (574-622),” said Yugo Kitamura, 32, a priest of Shiraminejingu shrine.

Kemari master Tsunehiro Ueda, 72, who joined the Shukiku group at the age of 18 and is an executive of the association, said, “Young players should focus on having a large area where they can kick, while it is acceptable for the elderly to have a smaller area to kick if they can keep the ball above the ground without making a mistake.”

Osamu Ike, another executive of the association, published a book about kemari, which says famed swordsman Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645) was a skilled kemari player. Miyamoto is said to have believed that martial arts and kemari had much in common, and both require the best path to seeing things when fighting or performing.

WARRIOR WON THROUGH KEMARI

In "Onna Joshu (female castellan) Naotora," a Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) historical TV drama series depicting the Warring States period, whose script was written by Morishita, Imagawa Ujizane (1538-1614), a kemari master, said, “We, feudal lords, should decide the outcome of winning or losing through kemari.”

“People were spending all their time fighting each other in that era, but I believe that was not what they wanted to do. However, they had no choice but to do it,” said Morishita. “I wrote that line aiming to reflect Ujizane’s chagrin and feeling of resignation toward such a society in that era.”

According to Morishita, Ujizane did not have political ability or charisma, but was gifted in cultural pursuits including kemari and creating “waka” poems. Although his father, Imagawa Yoshimoto (1519-1560), was killed by Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), the Imagawa family prospered and become a high-ranking clan in the Edo Period (1603-1867). Therefore, Ujizane ended up winning in the end without having to use a sword or defend a castle.

NECESSARY SKILL FOR NOBILITY

Kemari, which is believed to have been borrowed from China and accompanied by Buddhism about 1,400 years ago, was transformed into the unique Japanese form of the game to keep kicking and passing the ball without it touching the ground. It was formerly played only by nobility in the Heian Period (794-1185).

Along with waka, it was a cultural item that high-ranking people needed to become proficient in.

Fujiwarano Narimichi (1097-?), a high-ranking politician in the late Heian Period government, was called a “meisoku,” meaning a kemari master. Narimichi is believed to have shown off his skills by juggling a ball with his legs while making a complete circuit of the railing along the wooden stage built off the main hall of Kiyomizudera temple in Kyoto. Audience members are said to have been in awe watching him perform.

The ancient sport became popular among samurai warriors in the Kamakura Period (1192-1333), and it was even a commoners’ pastime in the Edo Period.

Kemari was nearly lost amid the nation’s rapid Westernization in the Meiji Restoration. But Emperor Mutsuhito (1852-1912), posthumously called Emperor Meiji, who also liked playing kemari, set up the association of Shukiku preservation.

HISTORICAL TURNING POINT

The enshrined entity of Tanzanjinja shrine, Fujiwarano Kamatari (614-669), is believed to have become close to Prince Naka-no-Oe, the future Emperor Tenji (626-671), through kemari. Their friendship led to Taika no Kaishin reform that followed the coup that overthrew a powerful clan.

In some theories based on the word “hit a mari (ball)” written in the “Nihon Shoki” (The Chronicles of Japan), the format of two political figures playing was similar to polo where players hit a ball with a stick or mallet while riding on a horse.

A COMPETITIVE SPORT

Meanwhile, kemari is also thought to have been a competitive sport where several players were divided into two teams kicking a ball around. The style of kemari, called "Manyo Kemari," was revived based on such an interpretation.

The nonprofit organization Nara 21st-Century Forum recreated Manyo Kemari in 2002 when the World Cup was co-hosted by Japan and South Korea.

In Manyo Shukiku, players compete through attempting to land the kemari ball on the opponent team’s side over a 2-meter high net installed on a court.

Kanekatsu Inokuma, 80, an archaeologist and professor emeritus at Kyoto Tachibana University, checked whether the outfits for Manyo Kemari players were faithfully recreated. Inokuma, who is knowledgeable about ancient culture and the military, serves as chairman of a preservation association of the annual Aoi Festival.

“Kemari, which had originally been a competitive boisterous sport, probably has been transformed into its current elegant style while changing to fit an aristocratic lifestyle,” said Inokuma.

“Both (peaceful) kemari and Manyo Kemari, which is fun as a game, are enjoyable. Each style has its own charm,” he added.

In the modern era, kemari events are held at Shiraminejingu shrine in April and July, at Tanzanjinja shrine in April and November as well as at other shrines throughout the year.