The Gohan Society

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Flavors Past: Tidbits from Japanese Food History

by Josh Schlachet

“Cleaved in Two with a Single Stroke: The First All-Japan Suika-Wari Championship”[1]

In honor of summer, this month’s installment of Flavors Past takes us into a more recent history than usual. In July of 1991, one hundred and ninety three teams gathered in a riverside park in Tokyo for what was billed as the largest and most comprehensive event of its kind ever attempted: the All-Japan Suika-Wari Championship. Synonymous with summer, watermelon splitting (suika-wari) is a game that reminds Japanese young and old of the flavor of their childhood and of beating the midsummer heat. Part piñata, part dizzy bat, and part orange slices after a soccer game, suika-wari is a tasty staple of Japanese school field days (undōkai). Blindfolded contestants assemble at the starting line, armed with a sturdy stick, opposite a ripe, and ideally iced, watermelon across the way. Their teammates spin them around in disorienting circles before letting them loose to run up and give the watermelon a whack, and everyone celebrates by feasting on the melons they manage to crack open. As you can imagine, the rules are loose. Or at least they were.

Suika matcha-jp dot com

Suika, or watermelon, from matcha-jp.com

 

In 1991, the influential logistics and promotion group Japan Agricultural Cooperatives (known more commonly as JA) founded the Japan Suika-Wari Association (JSWA) as part of a lighthearted attempt to revitalize shrinking watermelon sales. As part of the fun, the JSWA released a comically over-specific yet delightfully carefree rulebook codifying every possible watermelon splitting regulation, down to the length and girth of the stick and the proper qualifications for officially sanctioned umpires. And to inaugurate a new era of watermelon splitting, they assembled a never-before-seen display of talent and iconic summer flavor. A recap of the event appeared in the July 29th, 1991, Tokyo morning edition of the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper:

Cleaved in Two with a Single Stroke:

The First All-Japan Suika-Wari Championship—193 Teams from Across the Country

On the 28th of July (1991), the inaugural All-Japan Suika-Wari Championship, officially sanctioned by the newly formed Japan Suika-Wari Association (JSWA), took place in an Edogawa Ward Park in Tokyo. Pushed from the spotlight by other melons, a shadow has fallen on the popularity of watermelon. Until about ten years ago, the annual per capita consumption, which had been roughly one large melon, has slumped to about half that size. The Association was established as a public relations campaign, dreamed up by the National Federation of Agricultural Cooperatives (JA), to once again secure watermelon’s status as the champion of summer flavors. 193 teams assembled at the venue in Shinnagashima River Park in high spirits, ready to beat the heat. Befitting the first All-Japan Championship, watermelons rushed from famous growing regions like Yamagata and Toyama Prefectures showed their faces with pride.

The Rules: 1. The distance between the watermelons and the contestants must be 9.15 meters [about 28 feet]. 2. The bat must be 1.2 meters in length by 5 centimeters in diameter. 3. To qualify as a referee, you must have eaten ten or more watermelons in the past year. And, “if you split the melon perfectly in two, you receive full points.” The tournament was held under these official rules of the JSWA, with fun local rules like “when you savor the fruits of victory, sprinkle them with specially produced natural salt from Izu Island” added as well. The crowd was even livelier than expected, with cheers of encouragement and shouts of joy filling the air.

Each team consisted of three members: one watermelon striker and two supporters to point them in the right direction. The opening round narrowed the field to ten teams each in the “Junior” and “Open” Divisions … All in all, 207 watermelons were consumed at the event. From here on, will watermelon’s popularity rise as the organizers hoped?

 

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Food culture comes in all forms, and sometimes it takes a little exercise to earn something delicious. The obscure history of the JSWA reveals how local communities, family pastimes, farmers, and their advocates can come together in unexpected ways to inject new creative energy into foodways. It also shows us that flavors and practices that we think of as timeless aspects of a food culture actually rise and fall. They drift out of fashion only to return again down the road as if they never left. As much as we relish Japanese cuisine for its traditional flavors, we can also savor in its dynamism, its changing with the times, even for foods you need to pick up off the playground floor. Whether thanks to the Suika-Wari Championship or not, watermelon is very much back in the summer spotlight in Japan, both at field days and in summer meals.

And in case you were wondering, the team headed by hometown favorite Shōji Kobayashi, age 34, took home the top prize in the Open Division at the inaugural All-Japan Suika-Wari Championship, and the Junior Division went to the family team of Hiromi, Akira, and Harumi Tamiya. Stay tuned for the next edition of Flavors Past, coming soon.

Josh1 PigsJosh Schlachet is a Ph.D. candidate in Japanese cultural and culinary history at Columbia University, with a focus on the history of food and health in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He got his start in food at the Culinary Institute of America and followed his passion to Kagoshima and Tokyo, Japan. The Gohan Society’s mission is dear to Josh’s heart, and he wants to thank every one of you for your interest and support.

 

[1] Original story appeared under the title “Ittō ryōdan: suikawari hatsu no zen Nihon senshuken, zenkoku kara 193 chiimu,” Yomiuri Shimbun, July 29, 1991.

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