Mmm… delicious watermelon. The only problem with watermelons is that they’re much too impractical. Personally, I’d eat nothing but watermelon for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, if only they weren’t so darned round and ungainly. Once again, the Japanese have the solution.
Grown in glass boxes
In the 1980s, a farm in Shikoku started doing things differently. By growing watermelons in specially-made glass boxes, they forced the melons into a cubic shape. Leaping to worldwide attention, the square watermelon became a potent symbol of Japan’s appetite for novelty and innovation. The foreign media were captivated with Japan’s latest technological oddity, so much so that they greatly exaggerated the popularity of the square melons. In fact, the market for the succulent cubes is very small indeed, partly because they are prohibitively expensive, costing at least 10,000 yen (around £50 or $100).
Square watermelons as gifts
Square watermelons appeal mainly to wealthy Japanese people needing an impressive gift. Gift-giving is an important part of socialising in Japan, and beautifully-presented fruit is very popular. The usefulness of a gift is not nearly as important as its expense and the extravagance of its packaging. In fact, impermanence is usually more appropriate – beautiful gifts which doesn’t last, like food or flowers, appeal strongly to the Japanese sense of aesthetics.
Besides their curiosity value, square watermelons have some genuine practical benefits. They are easier to stack and package than the round fruit, and less likely to be damaged in transit. Reaching the customer’s home, the carefully-chosen dimensions of the melons allows them to slot easily into a standard refrigerator compartment. The flat base also prevents the angular fruit from rolling around when being cut. These advantages hardly seem to justify such an extravagant product, but practical concerns of space and convenience are extremely important in urban Japan, where there is a pressing need to use the limited space efficiently.
Having said that, practicality is hardly the point, is it? Realising how profitable novelty can be, farmers have since developed pyramid-shaped varieties. These don’t get so big, and they aren’t allowed to mature property – they’re candy, but only for the eye. They’re are also much more difficult to stack, so we’re almost back where we started. Other versions, including melons shaped like gourds and bottles, are in the pipeline.
Despite the intrigue surrounding square watermelons in the rest of the world, the sheer expense of the fruit seemed to make it unlikely for it to spread outside Japan. However, in August 2006, UK supermarket chain Tescos announced their own, cheaper line of square watermelons. The melons are grown in Brazil, using cases made of wood instead of glass.
- Square fruit stuns Japanese shoppers (BBC News, June 2001)
“Japan has again shown off one of its greatest innovations – square watermelons.”
- Japan corners the market on square fruit (CNN.com, June 2001)
“The square boxes are the exact dimensions of Japanese refrigerators, allowing full-grown watermelons to fit conveniently and precisely onto refrigerator shelves.”
- Square melons on the way (Daily Mail, August 2006)
“Tesco has developed a new square watermelon which can be sliced like a loaf of bread.”
- Odd Innovations: Geometric Fruit
“Now in a complete twist, comes the completely opposite problem, the pyramid shaped watermelon. Good luck stacking these things!”
- Pyramid-shaped watermelons (Pink Tentacle)
“Each melon is cultivated inside a hand-made acrylic box from a very young age.”