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The simple beauty of Japan’s 'rock-paper-scissors' culture

18 Comments
By Mike, RocketNews24

In Western cultures, you might go back and forth with someone when deciding who picks up the check at a restaurant, each party becoming increasingly flustered with the whole, “I’ve got this,” “No, no. I’ve got this!” song and dance until someone finally gives in. In Japan, this situation would be quickly and efficiently resolved with a good old-fashioned game of rock-paper-scissors.

Rock-paper-scissors, or “Jan-ken” in Japanese, is a cultural keystone in Japan, with all kinds of disputes, disagreements, and predicaments being resolved through the game’s simplistic mechanics.

Kids in Japan are taught about jan-ken at a young age, and it’s a quick and easy way for parents to let kids resolve common sibling altercations through the impartial hand of Lady Luck. Sure, there are pro rock-paper-scissors leagues that meticulously calculate odds and discuss strategy, but for two adolescents in Japan, "jan-ken" is about the closest thing to a fair and largely luck-based resolution you’re liable to find. Kids learn that the result of a good "jan-ken" game is indisputable, so there are few complaints when a child loses that last piece of cake or whatnot to his younger sister.

The idea that "jan-ken" is a simple and fair solution for many of life’s social conundrums carries on into adulthood, where rock-paper-scissors matches are held to decide everything from who should pay the check at dinner, to who gets that shiny new PS4 at the office end-of-year party. In fact, it’s not unheard of for extremely costly transactions to be decided with rock paper scissors, such as this auction house that settled a tied bid by having the bidders engage in a game of "jan-ken."

Rock-paper-scissors apparently originated in China (or, at least, that’s where the first historical mention of the game came from), and it’s used occasionally in Western cultures to make mostly inconsequential decisions, but it’s arguably the Japanese that elevated "jan-ken" to an entrenched form of social interaction, starting with a variation called “Kitsune-ken” that used a similar rule set. The featured image depicts a trio of women playing the fox (“kitsune” in Japanese) version of the game.

"Jan-ken" is so ingrained into Japanese culture that it pops up everywhere. Restaurants and bars will often hold promotions that challenge guests to play a match with waiters and waitresses for a free drink or a discount. It’s also a common drinking game among friends and it’s so ubiquitous that there are countless permutations in the rules for how to resolve a tie or win the game. At least one university has even sunk significant manpower and resources into creating a robotic arm that wins "jan-ken" games 100% of the time.

While Western cultures may decide things with a coin toss, don’t be surprised if you’re challenged to a game of "jan-ken" when visiting Japan – sometimes even when the stakes are fairly high. Just remember the phrase for initiating a game (“saisho wa gu, jan-ken-pon!“) and enjoy the simple beauty of knowing that, statistically, at least, you’ll win just as often as you lose.

Read more stories from RocketNews24. -- The “doya-gao” phenomenon and where you’re most likely to see it -- 4 Japanese beauty fads that Westerners just don’t understand -- Xbox One finally gets a release date in Japan – We hope you’re not in a hurry

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18 Comments
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sometimes even when the stakes are fairly high. Just remember the phrase for initiating a game (“saisho wa gu, jan-ken-pon!“)

Actually this came about much, much, much, later. Urban legend has it that Akashiya Sanma during a TV broadcast and it caught on from there.

There are many ways to start it and the traditional way starts with a plain "jan-ken-po....."

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I'll never forget first coming here and my girl (who's a blonde American) had to sit away from me on the train to get a seat. A group of college boys got on and started to (extremely and painfully obviously) talk and gesture toward her. First they were whispering and giggling like....well like her and her friends do, then they suddenly formed a circle and broke out into an enthusiastic round of Jan Kens to see who would have to talk to her. Well the loser walked over and tried his best "Haro me fine ok" on her then they all ran off to the corner of the train car. It was pretty funny when she got up to stand next to me after lol.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

My favorite version from when the grandkids were little ...oppai nonde nene shite, dakko shite, umbo shite, matta ashita. saisho wa gu, jan ken pon

But I can never remember the start of it.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

@thepersoniamnow

I first came to Japan in the bubble years, at the height of nationalistic hubris. Several times waitstaff at restaurants and clerks at department stores would janken and the loser would have to serve me. Fortunately I haven't had that experience in a long time.

On a positive note, I do like to see people resolve whatever using janken and the loser willingly accepting the outcome.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

But I can never remember the start of it.

Thats the easiest part.

I like the extension of the game "achi mite hooi" and then bash someones head with a rubberhammer.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I seem to recall Richard Anderson doing paper rock scissors in one of the episodes of Stargate SG1.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

a couple of years ago, I was on a ski trip. some of my friends (foreign guys and Japanese guys and girls) decided to do a different version of the game: the unicorn, the HS girl, and the Chikan.

Unicorn beats JK, JK beats Chikan, and Chikan beats the Unicorn...Don't ask. They were drunk..

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

It's 'cheque', not 'check'. I play jan-ken a lot, with kids in Japan, and it's a blast. I try to make it work for them to win an ice cream cone, and while that doesn't always work out, a lot of them are happy to win one. It's a fun thing, let's not take it too seriously. Certainly, it's not a way to decide whether you launch a nuke.

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

The classic Japanese way of avoiding making a decision and taking any responsibility! Abe decides policy this way too.

6 ( +8 / -2 )

Mike L. thank you for saying this. I bugs the beejeesus out of me when I have to ask for volunteers...sheesh.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I like janken for many things as, apart from bad losers, it generally ends in people accepting their chore or role and my son gets to do the dishes every other day instead of almost never if we didn't do it. On the other hand, there are problems. In, say, a group of five after a short interaction it is usually obvious who is the natural leader. In fact, I always make groups where I know who the leader should be. I then ask the small groups to choose a captain. Sure enough, they will use janken to do this. And more often than not it will decide the most unsuitable candidate for the role. During the activity it will be rectified as the natural leader asserts her/himself and edges aside the janken-chosen one. But it is obvious that it is sometimes an ingrained but ridiculous way of deciding anything and really, as Mike L says, it is often a way of avoiding a decision.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

"simple beauty"? "culture"? That's a bit rich. Maybe there truly is nothing left to say.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

My Partner for a while would say I will pay. I would reply back We go half and she would say you drove here plus petrol and toll so I got this. Ok I would reply. This went on for about 3 months because I would not argue and let her pay. So when we fly somewhere I book on my card and say fix me latter but never tell her the cost when she ask. So it all works out in the end.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

saisho wa gu

I thought it was Ikariya Chosuke and the Drifters who started that. They were certainly doing it back in the very early 80s.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Rock paper scissors isn't 'occasionally' used in Western cultures - you see kids playing it all the time.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

It's 'cheque', not 'check'.......................................... It's a fun thing, let's not take it too seriously.

Check that!

0 ( +2 / -2 )

I thought it was Ikariya Chosuke and the Drifters who started that. They were certainly doing it back in the very early 80s.

I asked my wife, and she says the first time she remembers hearing it used was when our niece taught our daughter how to say it. That would be about 1985 or so. My wife is a fan of both the Drifters and Sanma, but she doesn't remember either of them saying it. (But then neither of us remember a lot of things without a prod.)

Regarding the spelling of cheque/check, I recall that American Express used to print 'Travelers Cheque' on those things, which I thought was some kind of compromise between US and UK spelling. (I don't remember whether there was an apostrophe or not. Please refer to above note.)

0 ( +0 / -0 )

BTW, there's rock-paper-scissors championships. Even aired on TV ESPN:

http://ftw.usatoday.com/2015/08/watch-an-absolutely-epic-rock-paper-scissors-tournament-that-aired-on-espn

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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