A version of football has been played in Japan for over a millenium, but no one has managed to win a match yet, as Jon Watts explains

Half a world away from Wembley, a crowd of about 500 people have gathered in the grounds of a small temple on the outskirts of Kyoto. In front of them a group of seven men and women, dressed in elaborately-patterned and brightly-coloured robes, stand in a small circle facing inwards. One of them, an elderly Japanese man, holds in his outstretched hands a round white football.

Suddenly, with a cry, he throws the ball up into the air, watching it rise and fall with almost trance like concentration. Then, just before it hits the ground, he catches it on his instep, knocking it back up to drop again, this time to be met with a flick of the heel which sends the ball in an arc over his shoulder. Spinning round, he meets the ball with the deftest of touches to lay off a volleyed pass to the player opposite him.
This is Kemari, which literally translated means “kick-ball”, one of the oldest surviving versions of football in the world. Imported from China, the first record of it being played in Japan was in the seventh century, when it was a pastime for the aristocracy. Football then would have been seen as a sign of breeding, ball control a measure of social prestige. At a time when our ancestors were being ruled by a nobility who entertained themselves by knocking people off horses, the Japanese were whiling away their leisure hours perfecting the art of the volley.
So with such a huge head start, what happened to Japanese football? The answer, of course, is that the rough and tumble of jousting was probably better training for Association Football than the technical purity of Kemari, which can also boast the ultimate defensive record: 1,200 years of play and still no goals. This is hardly surprising, considering there is nowhere and no way to score.
Kemari entered Japan at around the same time as Buddhism. In that philosophy striving to score goals would have been seen as a futile endeavour (perhaps it was this reflection that made Baggio miss his World Cup Final penalty). Instead, calm contemplation of life and the changing of the seasons was the order of the day. And so when the groundsmen prepared the pitch for Kemari they didn’t bother erecting any goals at all. They just planted four sapling trees, one for each of the seasons, for use as corner flags and left it at that. With that sort of playing area, goalmouth incident never came into it, the only real drama was if a player tripped over a root or snagged themselves on a twig.
Competition was a non-starter. Not only are there no goals in Kemari, but there is no opposition either. The players are all on the same team, their only aim is to pass the ball amongst themselves, using headers and volleys, as many times as possible. But nobody counts to see if they have broken their previous record.
There is no whistle or red card if they cheat by using their hands (and they do all the time, especially the older ones). If one of the players ruins a promising sequence of passes with a glaring error, there is no recrimination or abuse (not audibly anyway), they just chip the ball back up and start all over again. By comparison with this gentle behaviour, the Corinthians appear ruthlessly ambitious. The ball is a sacred object and the players kneel as a mark of respect before and after each game. The only exclamations are “Ari”, “Ya” and “O”, the names of ancient Japanese Gods, called out by the players when they hit a particularly satisfying volley. The dress code is stricter than any of the playing rules and nobody is allowed onto the pitch unless they are dressed in the sixth century Japanese equivalent of ‘Sunday Best’: purple, pink or yellow ankle-length baggy trousers, blue, green or orange jackets with sleeves that reach the floor, topped off with a tall pointed black hat.
Kemari came under serious threat after 1868, when, following two and a half centuries of isolation, Japan was forced to open up to the West. Kemari, like a lot of traditional Japanese activities, was almost swept away by the flood of imported culture. Suddenly it was no longer cool to don robes and nip off to the temple for a kick around. People wanted competition: gold medals, home runs and, of course, goals.
What kept the sport alive, only just, was the efforts of a few die-hard enthusiasts who refused to move with the times. Today, though, their numbers have dwindled and the game could be on its last legs. There are only thirty people who still play Kemari, an odd mix of doctors, priests, social workers and housewives, who perform exhibitions during their holidays in temples around Japan. Their average age is almost fifty. The oldest at 80 is old enough to be Ray Wilkins’ grandfather. Remarkably he still plays, but the game desperately needs some new blood if this 1,200 year old football tradition is to continue.
Ironically, one of the obstacles to finding new players is the popularity of football. The J League has been a huge hit, precisely because, as a truly international game, it is a break with Japan’s past. For a Japanese child who might one day grow up to work for Nissan or Panasonic, competitive football is bound to provide more of a grounding for the future, but it will be a great pity if the Kemari philosophy, “No winner, no loser, only fun”, is to disappear all together.

From WSC 111 May 1996. What was happening this month

Related articles

Unbeatable Mind: My autobiography by Maya Yoshida
Harper Collins, £9.99Reviewed by Tim SpringettFrom WSC 382, January 2019Buy the book Maya Yoshida’s story was published as the Japan side he...
Japan’s Club World Cup highlights shift from traditional powerbases
Embed from Getty Images Plenty of football-mad cities are yet to host major tournaments or finals, but FIFA and UEFA are increasingly...
Disappointing Japan barely deserve survival chance
Haven't played their "own football" so far 24 June ~ The opening half hour against Ivory Coast aside, Japan have been an utter disappointment in...

Sign up to the WSC Weekly Howl - a small portion of despair and enlightenment delivered to your inbox every Friday