You may view “Rock Paper Scissors” as just another children's game that, like other hand gesture games or ditties, passes the time and keeps them amused for a while. However, “janken” (じゃん拳), as it is known here in Japan, takes on a whole new level of meaning and importance in daily life.
Children are taught it from the youngest of ages and not only do they play it for fun, it is the means of settling all manner of disputes, disagreements, debates and pending decisions. Who gets to play with that toy? Janken. Who gets the last snack? Janken. Who will present their homework first? Janken.
Teaching at an elementary school, my janken day usually begins from the train station on the way to campus where a first grader will undoubtedly run up to me with anticipation and the request “Janken?” It continues in the school halls between classes and of course during lunch time when the leftovers are up for distribution.
For the teacher, janken is a guaranteed method of classroom control. Kids are getting rowdy? Need to decide who goes first? Students can't decide on something? Janken. Janken. Janken. The difference between this game in Japan and other countries around the world, is not only the prevalence of it but the respect Japanese have for the result. I remember playing this game as a child to settle decisions and no matter who won, there would almost always be a cry from the kid who lost – “Let's play again!” or “Best of three!” In Japan, no matter what the outcome or the prize won or lost, or how many times the same student has been in this position, nobody disputes the result of janken, an unwritten law that has even the most difficult kids simply walking away from a situation. No sulking. No calls for a rematch.
As a result, from a knee-high age Japanese kids are able to micro-manage themselves in many ways, and I respect the level of maturity they show for the outcome. That's not to say that we shouldn't teach children about the complexities of life or to simply accept or settle for something that gets thrown their way. I believe a very important part of our role as educators is to impart good morals and ethics to our students/children, and to encourage them to strive and work hard for what's important, no matter what obstacles they get dealt. However, in the area of everyday decision-making, janken is a useful tool to get things moving.
I usually use janken in the classroom as a means to decide who goes first or the order we'll do something. That way, the children respect the decision because they see it as having been come to fairly and that it was their choices in the game that lead to it. Everyone in the end enjoys the same level of involvement – the same amount of time to present or same amount of goes at a game, and all the activities still get done.
I join a different class for lunch each day and usually when I arrive they have already janken‘d and have cleared a space for me on the table that won. One day, the homeroom teacher had forgotten to tell them I was coming and when I got to the classroom, the teacher, in a hurry to get lunch started, told me to just sit at the table at the front. There was an instant outcry from the students, even tears, not because I wasn't sitting on their table but because in their eyes the decision-making process wasn't fair. Having an equal shot and then losing they can deal with, but not being given the chance to compete is another matter entirely. The chaos that ensued was enough to make me never forget the value placed on this game within the Japanese context.
You may think this is merely a children's game and that once they get a little older and realize life isn't always so simple, they stop playing this game of luck. Wrong. Janken is used throughout Japanese society and while adults don't play it all day long like kids do, they will use it to decide such things as who pays for the next round of drinks, who gets that business trip, who has to do the presentation, who's going to tell the boss about the mistake in last month's budget, right up to major business decisions.
A highly reported case was that of Takashi Hashiyama, the CEO of a successful Japanese electronics company, who in 2005 wanted to sell his collection of paintings by some of the world's most renowned artists. Not wanting to split the collection and unable to decide between two major auction houses vying for the job, he requested the two houses play janken to decide. The winning house later sold the $20 million collection, landing them millions of dollars in commission – all thanks to one round of janken and sticking with the hunch of 11-year-old twins. Apparently auction houses give each sale a code and this one was aptly named “scissors”.
Universities are also busy trying to incorporate janken into their research. Check out this janken robot developed by the Ishikawa Oku Laboratory of the University of Tokyo that has a 100% winning rate. Modern technology means that we don't even need a physical person to play with anymore. We might not have access to our own robot but there's a janken app for that!
Whether in the lab or lecture halls, janken is part of campus life. I was teaching a university student recently and he was telling me all about this upcoming presentation he was preparing for. “When will you have your presentation?” I asked him. “I don't know.” “You don't know?” “Yes, well, we have to play janken first.” “Do you think janken is fair?” “Yes, it's very fair,” he said. “Everyone has the same chance as everyone else so it is a fair way to decide.”
The good thing about this game of luck is that things usually end up working out fairly in the end – everyone has the same odds so over time you'll lose just as many times as you win. However, I always smile to myself when I occasionally hear a student skipping janken and saying “I got the extra milk last week, you have it this time.”
Essential for those teaching in Japan as well as those wanting to understand more about Japanese culture, here's the standard lingo you'll need to know. Please note, there are different versions of janken across Japan but students will be more than happy to teach you their version, I'm sure! For those teaching a foreign language, show them how to play in the language you are teaching and it instantly becomes culturally-appealing language practice as well as a fun game.
Rules and gestures are the same as the “English” version – rock beats scissors, scissors beats paper and paper beats rock. Rock is called “guu” (ぐう), scissors are called “choki” (ちょき) and paper “paa” (ぱあ).
Start with the rock gesture and pump your fists while saying “Saisho wa guu” (最初はぐう) followed by “Janken pon!” (じゃん拳ぽん!). On “pon” both players show their hands, displaying either “guu“, “choki” or “paa“.
If it is a draw, both players chant “Aiko desho!” (あいこでしょ!), and on the “sho!” both players show their hands again. In the case of another draw, this final line is simply repeated until a winner is crowned.