Thursday, August 4, 2011

Rock Paper Scissors

The Subway sandwich chain has a commercial running on television now that always leaves me with a feeling of natsukashii, or nostalgia for the time when two or more Japanese kids playing Janken was a daily sight. A fireman is eating a Subway sandwich when two of his firehouse buddies come over asking for some of the sandwich. A clever touch here is the dubbed children’s voices that squeak from each of the firemen. The big burly guy eating the sandwich tells the other two in his six year-old’s voice to do rock, paper, scissors to see who gets a bite of the sandwich. Interest in Subway is for me a minimal thing, but a combination of the rock, paper scissors game and children’s voices awakens fond memories.

From the time of my arrival in Japan onward I saw children everywhere, day after day playing this game I didn’t understand, but took to be a popular or traditional kind of Japanese play. It was one of those things I never asked about or commented on, but watched and listened to until it began to make some kind of sense. Countless times it was young mothers on trains and in parks teaching their babies the words and gestures; a hundred different times it was students dividing chores by means of Janken. I had a pretty good handle on it by the time I came across an explanation in a pocket-sized book published by Japan Travel Bureau, A Look Into Japan, first in a series about Japanese customs and culture. It was satisfying to discover that observation on my own had taught me as much as the book offered.

Strange indeed if anyone reading this today did not know what the rock, paper, scissors game is all about. In Japan it is called most simply, Janken, though often Jan-ken-pon or sometimes Jan-ken-poi. Listening to teenage boys play the game you might hear them shout out, “Jan-ken-hoi!” Same thing. By whatever name or slangy twist, the explanation given in the picture below is very clear…

This is the simplest possible game for establishing a winner and a loser, and it is the first game that Japanese children learn. No equipment is required to play it. It takes no time at all, and you can see it being played all over Japan at all times of the day and night. Where people in Western countries would toss a coin, the Japanese play Janken.

The two players shout “jan ken pon!” and simultaneously form their hands into shapes representing a stone (), scissors (choki) or paper (). The winner is decided according to the diagram: Since rock will blunt or break scissors, rock defeats scissors; scissors can cut paper, so scissors defeat paper and paper covers rock so paper defeats rock.

When players make identical gestures and the round is a tie, they say, “aikô deshô” (once more) and play again, shaking their fists up and down on each beat and making another gesture on the third beat. There is no rule saying a player cannot make the same gesture the second or third time. Skillful players will go through a half dozen ties and chants of aikô deshô before a win or loss.

The Japanese have been playing the game since the eighteenth century, but it only gained popularity in Western countries in the late twentieth century. Beginning in 2002 there has been a series of international championships, and since 2005 a World Series of Rock Paper Scissors in the US. Nothing like this in Japan’s concept of Janken which seems to be a more natural and unpretentious expression of simple fun and utility. Is the game enhanced by choosing the ‘Best’ or by awarding prize money?

One version of Janken is a familiar sight on Japanese game shows. In the video below Japanese junior high school students are playing the game as they’ve seen it on those television shows.

No comments:

Post a Comment

About Me

My photo
Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America