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Japanese Rock Paper Scissors: How ‘Janken’ Rules Life in Japan

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, Japanese rock paper scissors, known as janken (じゃん拳) or janken pon (じゃん拳ぽん), takes on a whole new level of meaning and importance in daily life.

Children are taught janken 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.

While teaching at an elementary school in Tokyo, my janken day usually began from the train station on my way to campus where a first grader would undoubtedly run up to me with anticipation and the request “Janken?” It continued in the school halls between classes and of course during lunch time when the leftovers were 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.

Image courtesy Jerich Abon

How to play rock paper scissors in Japanese

Rules and gestures of Japanese rock paper scissors are the same as the “English” version – a closed fist is rock, two splayed fingers is scissors, and a downwards facing open palm is paper. Rock smashes scissors, scissors cuts paper and paper covers rock. In the Japanese version of the game, rock is called “guu” (ぐう), scissors are called “choki” (ちょき) and paper “paa” (ぱあ).

Interestingly, these are not the literal names for these items, but the sounds given to these actions. For example, guu is the sound of squeezing your hand, choki is the sound scissors make when cutting something, and paa is the sound of opening your hand.

While the premise is the same, the chant is not. Start with the rock gesture and pump your fists while saying “Saisho wa guu” (最初はぐう). Translated literally, it means “First is rock“. You might also hear it being played without the “wa” and so becomes “Saisho guu“.

This line is then 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 show the same hand gesture), both players immediately chant “Aiko desho!” (あいこでしょ!), which means, “It's a draw, isn't it?” 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.

Main chant of Rock Paper Scissors in Japanese:
Saisho wa guu
Janken pon!


When it's a draw, say:
Aiko desho!

Watch this video to hear the Japanese and to see a demonstration of the game.

Multiplayer Rock Paper Scissors in Japan

Japanese rock paper scissors is also played with three or more players and the rules get a little more complicated.

I once remember seeing a group of about 10 students vying for the three extra bottles of milk that were leftover from school lunch one day. I was really confused about how they were deciding who won or lost as they didn't seem to be playing against a central player. There were many rounds played in quick succession (I couldn't keep up!), and oftentimes no one went out, until finally the last three standing were crowned the winners.

For the sake of simplicity, let's look at how a three-player janken game would work.

Example:

A
Player 1: Rock
Player 2: Scissors
Player 3: Scissors

Player 1 wins (rock beats scissors)

B
Player 1: Rock
Player 2: Paper
Player 3: Paper

Players 2 and 3 win (paper beats rock)

C
Player 1: Rock
Player 2: Paper
Player 3: Scissors

Tie, do over.

Four Japanese school students play janken at their desks over lunch. Two went for rock, one for paper and the other scissors.
Aiko desu – a draw

In multi-player rock paper scissors if all three gestures are thrown in a round, then it is a draw. This applies no matter the group size. So, for example, in a four-player game if it's two rocks, one paper and one scissors, or a five-player game and two rocks, two papers and one scissors, both would result in a draw.

This is because if all three gestures are used, everyone simultaneously both wins and loses, and a winner cannot be decided. Generally this version of the game is only played with smaller groups of 2-5, as the more players there are, there is a higher probability that all three gestures will be thrown almost every round and therefore the game would never progress.

To get around this, large groups will usually split off into smaller groups of around 5 and then the winners of those groups will come together to form a final group to play off against one another.

The other alternative for multiplayer rock paper scissors is to play against a central player, meaning everyone plays against the one person at the same time, just the same as if it were a two-player game.

This version can be played until the end with the final person left standing playing off against the central player, or it can be played until there are just a handful of people left, and they then play multi-player against each other. Generally the latter is considered to be fairer, as otherwise the central player always ends up in the final two.

The winner often gets the privilege of becoming the central player for the next game.

A group play multiplayer janken outdoors by a river. The central player can be seen energetically holding up scissors with his left hand. We can see the backs of four players in the group, holding up their chosen gestures.
Multiplayer janken against a central player.
Photo courtesy katsuuu 44.

How is Japanese Rock Paper Scissors different?

The difference between rock paper scissors 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 that they should 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 in 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.

Japanese school children and Janken

Japanese school children often find it perplexing and amusing when their foreign teachers aren't as adept at them at rock paper scissors. They'll always be eager to play with you and don't be surprised if they make comments about how slow or poor you are at it! “Don't they have janken where you're from?” Haha

I usually used janken in the classroom as a means to decide who went first or the order we'd do something. That way, the children respected the decision because they saw it as having been come to fairly and that it was their choices in the game that led to it.

Everyone in the end enjoyed the same level of involvement – the same amount of time to present or the same amount of goes at a game, and all the activities still got done.

As I was the English teacher and taught every class at every year level, and hence didn't have a homeroom, I joined a different class for school lunch each day. Usually when I arrived they had already janken‘d and had 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.

Janken pon is essential for those teaching in Japan as well as those wanting to understand more about Japanese culture. 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.

Japanese janken for adults and in the business world

You may think Japanese rock paper scissors, like other versions around the world, 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 of rock paper scissors being used in the Japanese business world 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. We're talking Cézanne, Picasso, Van Gogh…

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 collection for $20 million, 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”.

Janken research, tech, and on campus

Universities are also busy trying to incorporate janken into their research. Check out this Japanese rock paper scissors robot developed by Ishikawa Oku Laboratory of the University of Tokyo that has a 100% winning rate.

Janken robot by Ishikawa Oku Laboratory, University of Tokyo

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 once taught a university student who 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 smiled to myself when I occasionally heard a student skipping janken and saying “I got the extra milk last week, you have it this time.”

Interested in more posts about Japanese culture?

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Japanese Dates: How to Read a Japanese Calendar

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Rem Tanauan

Thursday 23rd of August 2012

Love this! Filipino kids play Janken very well!

randomwombat

Wednesday 22nd of August 2012

I found Janken was used at the Tsukiji Markets when buyers couldn't be separated dring the auction process. The final purchaser of dollars worth of sashimi tuna was being decided by paper-rock-scissors. Fascinating. Thanks for the more detailed insight.

Jessica Korteman

Thursday 13th of September 2012

Thanks so much for reading and commenting! That's so interesting! I wonder in what other situations people have noticed janken being played? If you have a story, please comment below!

thedoctor16

Tuesday 21st of August 2012

Reblogged this on Space, Time, and Everything in Between.

Jessica Korteman

Thursday 13th of September 2012

Thanks so much for the reblog!

blacklilly101

Monday 20th of August 2012

I used to play janken all the time when I taught at elementary school. The kids thought my lack of janken skills to be quite amusing. I use janken in my business classes now. My students sometimes chuckle at having to do it, but it gets things done pretty fast.

Jessica Korteman

Thursday 13th of September 2012

Sure way to get things done quickly at any age! Thanks so much for stopping by!

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