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The History of Kemari: an Ancient Japanese Game Played by Aristocrats

In the realm of traditional Japanese sports, one game stands out for its elegance and exclusivity: Kemari. With a history dating back over a thousand years, Kemari was a game reserved for aristocrats and played in the imperial court. This article delves into the captivating history of Kemari, shedding light on its origins, rules, and significance in Japanese culture.

Origins of Kemari

Kemari, which means “kicking ball” in Japanese, is believed to have originated in China and was introduced to Japan during the Asuka period (538-710 AD). Initially played by the nobility, Kemari quickly gained popularity among the aristocrats of the Heian period (794-1185 AD). It was during this time that the game began to take on a more formalized structure and rules.

The Game and Its Rules

Kemari is a non-competitive game played by a group of people who form a circle. The objective is to keep a ball, made of deerskin filled with barley or hair, in the air for as long as possible without it touching the ground. The players use various parts of their bodies, such as their feet and knees, to keep the ball aloft, showcasing their agility and gracefulness.

Unlike modern sports, Kemari is not about winning or losing. Instead, it emphasizes teamwork, harmony, and the pursuit of perfection. The players strive to maintain a smooth flow, passing the ball to one another in a seamless manner. Each movement is executed with precision, as any mishaps or fumbles are considered a disruption to the game’s aesthetics.

Significance in Japanese Culture

Kemari holds a special place in Japanese culture due to its historical association with the aristocracy. In ancient times, the game was considered a symbol of refinement and elegance, reflecting the refined nature of the nobles who played it. It was also a way for the aristocrats to showcase their physical prowess and social standing.

Moreover, Kemari was not only a physical activity but also a means of cultivating mental and spiritual discipline. The game required intense concentration, focus, and coordination, which helped develop the players’ mental and physical abilities. Additionally, Kemari was often played in gardens or other serene settings, further emphasizing its connection to nature and tranquility.

Revival and Modern Influence

While Kemari gradually lost its popularity after the Heian period, it experienced a revival in the late 20th century, thanks to efforts by enthusiasts to preserve and promote traditional Japanese culture. Today, Kemari is still played during special occasions and festivals, showcasing its enduring legacy.

Furthermore, Kemari’s influence can be seen in various aspects of modern Japanese culture. The aesthetics and principles of the game have inspired contemporary art forms, such as dance and theater. Additionally, the focus on harmony and teamwork in Kemari resonates with the values upheld in Japanese society, where cooperation and unity are highly regarded.

In conclusion, the history of Kemari provides a fascinating glimpse into an ancient Japanese game that was once the domain of aristocrats. Its origins, rules, and significance in Japanese culture make it a unique and captivating sport. While Kemari may have faded from the mainstream, its revival and enduring influence serve as a testament to the enduring beauty and cultural richness of this ancient game.