Edo game show

In solidarity with the booth attendants at this weekend's Tokyo Game Show, this post represents the No-Sword Guide to Kemari.

The word kemari, since it just means "kick-ball" (蹴鞠), has been applied to all kinds of Japanese ball games over the past thousand-plus years. Nowadays, though, when most people say kemari, they mean the Heian-period version, which can be summarized as "hackeysack with funny hats and floppy sleeves instead of Che Guevara t-shirts and trust funds". It was so trendy at the time that even Sei "Pillow Book [of Petty Grievances and Ceaseless Snobbery]" Shōnagon called it wokashi. Here's how to play:

The kakari

Kemari was played in a square area called a mariniwa (鞠庭, "ball garden"), with sides twelve to fifteen meters long. The corners of the square were marked by trees: an all-pine array for the very rich, and a pine-sakura-willow-maple set for everybody else. (I think each tree there is supposed to symbolize a different season, starting from "pine = winter".)

Jumpers and schoolbags had not been invented yet, and so were not used. But they would not be practical in any case, because the trees also served as a handy way to check that you were kicking the ball high enough: at least four of five meters in the air.

The mari

The ball or mari (鞠) was constructed of two hemispheres of deer hide a little under a foot wide. It was made spherical through a gruesome process of stretching and drying which I will not go into, for your comfort and protection.

The rules

Seriously, it's just hackeysack. Traditionally, there were four, six, or eight players known as mariashi (鞠足, "ball-feet") who stood more or less in a circle. The one closest to the pine tree (in the northwest corner) kicks off to the mariashi opposite him or her, and things proceed from there.

Various sources list variations on the basic concept (number of times you can kick the ball before passing it to someone else, set orders for passing, etc.), and the truth is that all of these rules were probably used at some point by somebody. So, go nuts.

Since this game was popular among Heian nobles, the goal is clearly not just to not be the one who lets the ball drop. You will also want to ensure that the ball sails in a beautiful arc, makes a lovely noise when connecting with your foot, and so on. If you can improvise a short poem about the tragic beauty of the deer whose skin you are kicking around, that's good too.

Oh, and apparently, after fifteen or twenty minutes, the ball gets passed back to the first kicker (the noki, 軒) and then everyone sits down.

What to yell when playing

Saying "yo, dude, over here" was considered a faux pas in Heian Japan, because English was still a contemptible and barbaric tongue favored only by a few swineherds off the European coast. What the mariashi said instead was:

  • /ari/
  • /yau/
  • /ou/

The hundred-year-old Kemari Preservation Society, among other sources, claim that these are not just exclamations along the lines of "dude!" and "yo!", but actually the names of the three patron gods of kemari who appeared in a dream to Fujiwara no Narimichi. Taking the forms of either children or monkeys (is there really a difference?), they had their names written on their foreheads: 夏安林 (Ari), 春陽花 (Yau or Yakwa), and 桃園 or 秋園 (Ou).

I find this etymology unconvincing to say the least and strongly suspect that things actually happened the other way around. But, either way, they were the things to shout when kicking a ball in imperial Japan, and they remain the things to shout today. Good luck.

Popularity factor: 3

Paul Davidson:

"Ari" was spelled with three kanji? That makes my head hurt.


Don't worry, only the last two are part of the pronunciation! Same goes for "yau". "Ou" is anyone's guess.


"Taking the forms of either children or monkeys (is there really a difference?) ...": Well, yes, there is a difference, but that was still the funniest aside I've read on the internet today.

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