Kingyo Sukui: A Game of Skilled Fish Scooping

Traditional games have been played all around the world for ages, as humans – children and adults alike - have evolved to enjoy keeping themselves busy and entertained. But what is a traditional game, exactly? A traditional game uses a combination of at least a couple of the following aspects, namely using creativity, forming a strategy, repeating patterns, relying on chance, withstanding vertigo, and mastering a physical skill.  

It is also something that can usually be easily played by children without having to formally learn it but isn’t as simple as just playing with a toy doll. These games can be taught by kids to other kids (or adults to kids) by mere example. Many of these games are unique in nature, depending on their origin, while some of them have similarities to other games around the world. Japan is notorious for their traditional board games, are they are more one-of-a-kind than usual. One example of a Japanese traditional game that you will find difficulty finding similar to other traditional games is Kingyo Sukui.

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What Is Kingyo-Sukui?

“Kingyo-sukui”, written in Japanese as “金魚すくい,”, is translated into English as “Goldfish scooping”. “Goldfish”, in Japanese, is “Kingyo”, while the term “scooping”, in Japanese, is “sukui”. Other terms for the game include “Goldfish Snatching”, or “Dipping for Goldfish”. It is a Japanese game that requires you to scoop as many fish as possible from a larger container into your own smaller container. 

A Quick History of Kingyo Sukui

It was during the early 1800’s, when Japan was facing the last few decades of the Edo period, that kingyo sukui came to be. During that period, actual nets were used instead of paper. The game as it is popularly known today was popularized during the Taisho period (1912 until 1926), well into the 40's and 50's, and the rest of the 20th century. It was only in the Taisho period when paper replaced unbreakable nets and stalls were set up during festivities.

By 朝日新聞社 (『アサヒグラフ』 1948年6月30日号) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When Is Kingyo Sukui Played?

This traditional game is played during specific festivals that the Japanese celebrate during summer. If not during summer, it is also played during “Ennichi” (縁日) – literally translated to “related day” a day that the Japanese celebrate a specific deity’s date of birth, or date of death (thus the connection to the word “relation”). Because there are many different deities; both Kami (Shinto gods) and Buddha, Several Ennichi events are held at different dates throughout the year, with locals celebrating by setting up food stalls and fun games.

The Rules of Scooping Goldfish

While the title makes the game self-explanatory, there are some points to remember. The regular way the game is played is by an individual person, however, some variations of the game allow you to compete as teams. Each player has his or her own small bowl filled with water and stands in front of a pool with many goldfish. They are given a “poi”, which is a scooper with a thin layer of paper as a net. The point of the game is to scoop as many fish as possible into the small bowl using the poi, careful to not break the paper. 

If the paper does rip, the player is still allowed to use whatever is left of the clinging paper to continue trying to scoop the goldfish into his or her bowl. Players can continue to use their ripped poi until there is no more paper left on the poi. Once everyone’s pois are fully non-functioning, whoever has the most goldfish in their bowl wins. There is no time limit in this competition, as the paper naturally breaks (though tournaments sometimes do have time-based contests). In essence, participants must be quick not to miss the goldfish, yet careful enough not to break the paper. 

While there are kingyo sukui tournaments held during some Japanese festivals, during Ennichi, it is non-competitive. Instead, you pay a certain amount (usually 100 yen), and you are loaned a poi to catch fish. Your prize usually becomes all the goldfish that you successfully caught with your poi or a special gift awarded via the points you incurred by counting the amount of goldfish you won. Though a person of any age can play this game, kingyo sukui is often enjoyed by small children, who may find it difficult to catch the goldfish. Nevertheless, the person hosting the kingyo sukui stall may opt to give them a fish or two as a consolation prize. 

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Not All Rules Are the Same

Take note that there is no uniform set of rules for kingyo sukui, and the National Goldfish Scooping Championship has rules of its own as well. As for casual playing of kingyo sukui, each stall (especially during Ennichi) is free to create its own rules. Some stalls, for example, offer extra prizes if a player achieves enough fish scooped, using a points-based system.

Others opt to make the game a bit more challenging by adding Japanese rice fish (also known as “Medaka”), as these fish swim much quicker than goldfish do. Because of the difficulty that catching Japanese rice fish entails, they add more points if you score them. If a goldfish is worth 1 point, for example, catching one Japanese rice fish would give you four points. To make the game easier (and to incur more points/fish), poi with sturdier, thicker paper is offered, often for a higher price than thin paper.

Supplies Used to Play Kingyo Sukui

The product set used for a game of kingyo sukui are as follows: a poi, pool filled with water, goldfish, a bowl, a container/plastic bag (to keep the goldfish that was won, if ever). The pool usually measures about one square meter and is 8 inches deep. The goldfish used are of 3 different varieties; namely “Anekin”, “Koaka”, and “Demekin”.

The poi is an item that possesses a circular frame; a ring that holds a similarly circular sheet of paper. Each paper is numbered based on their durability and strength. Poi paper number 5 is stronger, while poi paper number 7 is weaker. As for the bowl, it is often shaped as a semi-sphere and can contain as much as up to 1 gallon of water

Where to Buy Papers and Poi for Scoops in Kingyo Sukui

In most stalls or events that hold kingyo sukui, you don’t have to bring your own poi and paper, as it is provided to the customer. Most often, you can buy or rent it there to use on the spot. However, kingyo sukui can also be a fun game to play in a children’s party, or if you plan to host your own personal game. You can purchase a box of 100 kingyo sukui scoops to stock up.

Each scoop usable only once, at Japan-zone online. It comes in 3 colors; red, blue, and yellow, and 3 strengths; No. 5 being for the beginner (the paper is toughest), No. 6 for intermediate, and No. 7 for experts.

Visit Yamata Koriyama in Kyoto and Play Kingyo Sukui

One small town - Yamato Koriyama (or “Yamatokoriyama) - is considered the ultimate kingyo sukui town. It is only a little shy over under hour from Kyoto by train, and it is a town famous for cultivating goldfish. In fact, as each town in Japan has its own mascot, the mascot for Yamato Koriyama is a goldfish holding its own poi. 

If you want to participate in the game, you can come to this town and enjoy a round of kingyo sukui no matter what season of the year it is – even the dead of winter in early February. To do so, you can head over to Kochikuya, which is a local souvenir shop. Pay 100 yen, and you will be given two pois to catch fish with. 

It is also in this town that the yearly National Kingyo Sukui Championship is held, usually on the third weekend of August. 

By Yamato Koriyama City Office (Yamato Koriyama City Office) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

More About the National Goldfish Scooping Championship

Spelled out in Japanese as “全国金魚すくい選手権大会”, the National Goldfish Scooping Championship is an eagerly-awaited official competition for those living in the city, which is located within the Nara Prefecture. 

While this championship started in 1995, an increasing amount of people attend every year. In 2007, 1,116 people recorded to have participated. In 2011, the championship had 2,400 players competing. In 2011, 173 goldfish was the highest amount that was scooped, with 3 people successfully winning top titles.

Usually, the championship is split up into 3 sections; the children section – for players younger than 15 years old, the general section – for players 15 years old and older, and the group section, for players who gather into teams of three and scoop the most amount of goldfish together. To make it to the National Championship itself, participants must pass the area trials.

Other Variants of Kingyo Sukui

It’s not only the goldfish that get to be scooped into different containers; turtles get to join the fun too. This is called “kame-sukui” (かめすくい) in Japanese. Other variants use inanimate objects to scoop, such as rubber balls that feel like jelly (puyopuyo-sukui), super balls (supaboru-sukui), and small-sized figurines made out of plastic (kyarakuta-sukui), resembling popular characters from brands, anime, or manga. 

While the poi is sometimes regarded as a toy, it technically isn’t one. However, many actual toy sets have been patterned after kingyo sukui. 

Tips on How to Master Kingyo Sukui

While catching as many fish as you can is a high priority, it should be an even higher priority of yours to make sure the paper on your poi doesn’t tear quickly. The best way to keep your poi’s paper intact is to move delicately in the water, sliding at a slightly tilted, horizontal angle into the water. 

Don’t try to wet only one part of the poi and not the other. This will erode half of your paper while leaving the other half dry – the wet half will weigh on the drier half, and it will break off your paper. Go for the goldfish that are near the surface and the wall. In fact, it is best to catch them nearest the wall because it gives them less of a room to escape. It is even better if you can corner them. 

One final trick is to keep a shadow steady on the water. It doesn’t matter whether you angle your arm or another body part to create the shadow, if it’s in a fixed, still position where it won’t move so much. Goldfish take shade here, especially if the shadow doesn’t move. If your shadow moves often, goldfish run away from that shadow.