Looking for a fun activity involving food for your next summer get-together? Then look no further than the Japanese game of suikawari!
Involving juicy watermelon and lots of laughs, it’s assured to make your summer gathering that much more lively.
In this article, we’ll explain what suikawari is, how it’s played, the “official rules”, as well as theories about the origin of this interesting summer pastime.
What is suikawari?
Suikawari (スイカ割り, すいか・わり) or “watermelon splitting” is a traditional Japanese group game played in summer that involves trying to split open a whole watermelon with a wooden stick or sword (bokken), often described as a Japanese version of a piñata.
The watermelon is set some distance away and then participants take turns to try their luck at cracking it open. First they are blindfolded before spinning around at least three times (often using the stick as a pivot) to disorient themselves.
Then they start making their way blindly towards the watermelon with the aid of the others who help them find their bearings by calling out the direction they need to go. The stray wandering and false footing as they try to course correct is all part of the hilarity.
Once they believe they are in the best position, they take a swing at the watermelon. Only one swing is allowed, with the first person to crack it open declared the winner. Afterwards, the refreshing watermelon is shared amongst everyone, a delicious way to end this fun summer game.
Suikawari is typically played at the beach or a park, and it can also be found at some Japanese festivals and events. To prevent the split watermelon from getting dirty, the watermelon is usually placed on a plastic sheet or cardboard box.
Official rules of suikawari
While it is in general a casual game simply played for fun with loose rules or rules defined by the group playing, many people are surprised to learn that there are indeed “official rules” to suikawari.
The official rules were set out in 1991 by the now-inactive Japan Suika-Wari Association (JSWA), an organization established by the Japan Agricultural Cooperative (JA), in an effort to increase the consumption of domestic watermelon.
The official rules of suikawari according to the JSWA are as follows:
- The distance between the player and the watermelon should be 5-7 meters.
- The stick should have a circumference of 5cm and a length of 120cm or less.
- JSWA-recognized blindfolds should be used to ensure that the player truly cannot see. Observers are encouraged to drop a 10,000 yen note in front of them to verify.
- A well-ripened watermelon (domestic only) to be used.
- A time limit of 3 minutes per player.
- Judging is based on a points system from 0-10.
- Judges should have eaten at least 10 watermelons in the current year (they weren’t kidding about trying to increase watermelon consumption!).
The guideline for awarding points:
- 0 Points: No hit
- 1 Point: Hit (Simple hit)
- 2 to 4 Points: Crack
- 5 to 10 Points: Split revealing the flesh
A watermelon that is split open in more or less equal halves would receive the full 10 points, whereas unequal and messy splits would result in a lower point allocation.
The origins of suikawari
While we know that watermelon itself is native to Africa and that it was introduced to Japan via China sometime in the Edo period (1603-1868), the origin of suikawari is a whole lot murkier.
Some say that the practice stems from its African origins where watermelons were cracked open to pray for an abundant harvest. However, there are plenty of other stories, all-be-they unverifiable and unsubstantiated, that make claim to the origins of suikawari.
Some theories on the origins of suikawari include:
- In the legendary (possibly fictional) beachside duel of 1612 between two rival samurai swordsmen Musashi Miyamoto and Kojirō Sasaki, some believe the defeated ghost of Sasaki (his head specifically) appeared in the form of a watermelon. Miyamoto returned to the beach and smashed the watermelon with his wooden bokken, thereby driving the vengeful spirit of Sasaki away.
- Samurai apparently used watermelon as target and sword practice, along with wooden training swords. They would close their eyes and hone their technique by using watermelon and other fruits and vegetables, eventually leading to the game of suikawari enjoyed today.
- Feudal Lord Hideyoshi Toyotomi supposedly started the game to boost morale in the summer heat during the building of Azuchi Castle in Shiga Prefecture in the late 1500s. Others say it was for entertainment upon completion of the castle. This story is factually unclear as the castle was built during the reign of Nobunaga Oda and while Toyotomi was his eventual successor, there is no historical evidence that he rebuilt the castle, rather setting his sights on creating bigger and grander projects to outdo his predecessor, such as Osaka Castle. It may be a case of misattribution (either to the wrong person or the wrong castle, or both), but it wouldn’t be the first custom credited to have arisen out of the drunken revelry of castle completion festivities, making it not outside the realm of possibility.
While we’ll never know exactly where it came from, suikawari is now an engrained social and cultural summer pastime that is fun for all ages.
So if you’re looking for some cross-culturally appealing activities this summer, gather a few friends or family members, a stick, a whole watermelon and something to place it on, and enjoy some laughs before diving into this refreshing summer treat.
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Jessica Korteman is a seasoned travel writer from Melbourne, Australia. She has spent a decade living, working and traveling in Japan, and specializes in Japanese culture, festivals and events, and travel destinations both on and off the beaten path throughout the country.
She is the Founder and Editor of Japanese Food Guide.