Who played the sport of kemari?

The ancient Japanese ball game of kemari involves keeping a 'mari' ball in the air. But who plays this traditional sport today? BBC History Revealed explains

Men play kemari ball game

One beauty of football is that it can be played by anyone regardless of wealth or status. All they need is a ball. That was not the case with the ancient Japanese ball game of kemari.

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The aim was simple: players worked together to keep the deer-skin ball, the mari, in the air using any part of their body except hands or arms. Yet the first players of this noncompetitive keepie-uppie during the Heian Period (eighth to 12th centuries AD) had to be noblemen only, wearing their full flowing robes and hat. When the sport’s popularity spread further, it was to the samurai. As kemari required agility, speed, strength and reflexes, it was a fitting test for a samurai warrior. Today, kemari is kept alive at several events in Japan every year, where it is played by Shinto priests.

Beyond their sporty duties playing kemari, the main roles of Shinto priests are to maintain approximately 80,000 shrines in Japan, while performing rituals and ceremonies. There are only around 20,000 priests today.

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This article was first published in the September 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed