"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
Kemari is an ancient Japanese sport originally from China which is a mix of soccer/football and hacky sack. Players try to keep the ball in air by using various parts of their body except the hands. The ball called "mari" is made of deer and horse skin.
The players were a type of clothing reminiscent of the style of the Asuka Period or 6th-7th century Japan when Kemari was first introduced to the country. They wear a specially designed leather shoe which they can even wear on wooden floors where usually normal footwear is removed.
Kemari is a unique sport in that there aren't any winners or losers but rather it's a group activity where the individual players' skill and dexterity adds to the ability of the group to keep the ball aloft as long as they can. Thus kemari is a community sport not a competitive one where each player contributes to the group.
Although the sport came from China, kemari is different - not so much in the way of playing but in who plays and the purpose of playing. The Chinese game known as cuju initially was for the warriors to develop their martial skills. It was only sometime later that cuju was adopted by the upper class as a form of entertainment. In Japan, kemari was always the domain of the upper class and was seen as a refined game of skill and grace. It was played by aristocrats known as kuge. Once in the 10th century a group of kuge in the presence of the emperor were able to make 260 passes without the ball hitting the ground.
In later centuries when the samurai became the dominant class, Kemari still retained its place as an elegant non-competitive sport. One samurai lord preferred the gentle arts of poetry and kemari to the martial arts required of the samurai. Unfortunately he lived in the highly competitive age of the Sengoku Period or Warring States Period where numerous warlords vied against one another for power and control. His name was Imagawa Ujizane. His father almost succeeded in uniting Japan under his banner; however, when his father fell in battle, Ujizane's kemari skills did little to save his domain. He eventually was forced to flee and went to Kyoto where apparently he became a renowned kemari player. Although he never regained his old territory, Ujizane and his descendants due to their knowledge of the cultural arts became koke or masters of ceremonies to the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1867).
A Chance Meeting at a Kemari Match Changes the Course of Japanese History
"[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."
- Nihonshoki (Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to 697 AD)
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 chief 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.
I caught this kemari event one spring about a year or two ago at a small shrine in Kyoto. Kemari is often held around the New Years particularly in Kyoto.