Rock-Paper-Scissors in Japan: Can You Jan-Ken-Pon?
A couple of weeks ago, I found myself in a newly established cafe for lunch. One large chicken curry lunch and two coffees later, I went to the register to pay my bill. The manager held her hand out in a familiar manner. “If you win, you’ll get a 100 yen discount on the bill.”
Never one to turn down a discount, I held out my own hand. Together, we said, “Saisho wa gu, jan ken pon!” She threw scissors, I threw rock. I had won my discount.
All of which is to say that the age-old game of Rock Paper Scissors takes on a particular importance in Japan as a way to settle disputes, make decisions, and win discounts on lunch. But why? Where did it come from? While we may never be able to answer the former, we can certainly take a shot at the latter.
San-sukumi-ken, (which Google helpfully translates as “Three Way Standoff”), arrived in Japan through the Chinese community in Nagasaki sometime in the 17th century. Originally a drinking game, it was played in the same way janken is played today, only with different gestures. As the game grew in popularity and moved from drinking houses to school grounds, several sets of gestures became codified into named variants.
By the early nineteenth century, two of the most popular variants were mushi-ken (frog beats slug beats snake beats frog) and kitsune-ken (fox beats village headman beats hunter beats fox). Yet fashions change and for whatever reason, by the end of World War II, the current form of janken had become prevalent and began to spread around the world as Rock, Paper, Scissors.
How to Play
Perhaps the most difficult and singularly frustrating aspect of Rock Paper Scissors is deciding how to play. After all, we all know how to play the game, right? Well, maybe not.
Standard grade school English textbooks in Japan list two different ways to play. Neither of them is the version I learned back in my own elementary school. Add in the cultural and linguistic challenges inherent in translating a game and things become even more complicated.
To play Rock Paper Scissors in Japan, two players face each other and chant “Saisho wa gu.” Translated literally, this means “the first is rock.” Next, the chant continues, “jan ken pon!” Or, “ready, rock paper scissors, pop!” The next part should be familiar. On the sound of “pon” each player throws a hand gesture representing a rock (closed fist), a flat sheet of paper (open palm), or scissors (index and middle fingers extended).
Just like in English, rock smashes scissors, scissors cut paper, paper covers rock. However, unlike in English, when there is a tie Japanese players chant “aiko deshou!,” or, “it’s a tie, isn’t it!” On the sound of “shou” each player again throws a hand gesture. If there is still no winner, “aiko deshou” is repeated and repeated until someone emerges victorious.
It is easy to find examples to demonstrate just how popular the game is in Japan - high level auctions have been decided by Jan Ken Pon; popular cartoon character Sazae-san challenges her viewers to a match at the end of each episode of her titular cartoon; children play it constantly to decide who must do which chore in their classrooms--but it is harder to determine why the game has such a hold on Japanese culture.
As I said above, there is no definitive answer. However, personally, I think it has to do with its simplicity. The game can be played anywhere, in a matter of seconds, and is a simple way to solve decisions that might otherwise require hours of debate and negotiation.
So, the next time you have an important decision or negotiation on the line, even if it is just a 100 yen discount, don’t forget “jan ken pon!”