The Japanese game of Kemari is football in its oldest form. Some of the most ancient documents dating back to the Taika Reform (645), points to Kemari having been introduced to Japan by China during the 7th century. Games were held in places such as the Asukadera Temple.

Governed by strict rules, Kemari was played in teams of eight and the object of the game was to keep the deerskin ball from touching the ground for as long as possible. Particular clothing requirements applied to the higher nobility, who wore formal headgear, colourful kimonos and special shoes that may have been the precursors of today’s modern football boots. During the Kamakura period, Kemari was very popular amongst the samurai and it became deeply embedded in the warrior culture.

By the Edo era (1603 – 1867), the game’s popularity had extended beyond the samurai to also include townspeople and wealthy landowners: Kemari had become a sport of mass appeal.

However, by the middle of the 19th century it had, for unknown reasons, lost its appeal to the general public, much to the displeasure of Emperor Meiji, who hoped to keep Japan’s noble court traditions alive by founding the Kemari Preservation Association. Today, the tradition of Kemari is kept alive through two special events; the New Year celebration of “Kemari hajime” (first kick) in the “Shimogamo Jinja”, a Shinto shrine, and the annual Kemari festival, held each November in the ancient Japanese capital Nara ("Danzan jinja") (see photo).