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Ultimate Japanese Rock Paper Scissors

Oh, you think you can play rock, paper, scissors? Sure you do, kid; I seen a million others just like you. Yeah, you know a rule, but do you know all of them? Didn't think so.

So there're the basic rock paper scissors rules. Rock breaks scissors, scissors cut paper, paper covers rock. Rethrow in case of a tie.

Sure, everybody knows that. If you've taken some Japanese, you might know that this game is very common in Japan, and is used as a minor decision-making tool much more often than here. In Japan, it's called "Jan ken pon".

Both players chant "jan, ken, pon" and on the "pon", throw down. In case of a tie, the chant becomes "Ai-ko-desho". The game can end here, but if you're playing Ultimate Championship Jan Ken Pon, it doesn't. Instead, the winner of the first stage, (the rock paper scissors part) chants "Acchi muite hoi!" and then points in one of four directions (on the "hoi!"): up, down, left, or right. The same instant that the point happens, the other player has to turn their head in one of the four aforementioned directions. If the looker looked in the same direction as the pointer, then the pointer wins. If not, then the round is a draw and you go back to Jan ken pon.

For a real challenge, play best two out of three. The faster this game is played, the more of an art it becomes. My Friend Chris is a rank 10 grandmaster, and My Friend Beau is even better than Chris - which puts Beau almost even with most Japanese players. But not quite. Yumi is just a hair faster than all of us, which means we get confused and slip up. Unless you can think quickly and calculate the winner of standard jan ken pon instantly, the extended rules are going to be a problem.

Rock, paper, scissors is much more important in Japan than in the west. Since decision-making takes forever in Japanese Schools, it's usually easier to just play this one time to decide who goes first.

How To Play, the Japanese Way

First, you say Saishou Gu, which means "first, rock" while moving your fist down on Sai, up on shou, then down on gu again. Then you pull back and strike the air with the fist again while saying Jan. Then pull back for your big windup on ken- and decide which of rock, paper, or scissors you will make. Do it as you come down on the word pon.

if there's a tie, then say "aiko deshou" and do it again until someone loses.

Japanese kids are great as this - you know how in America, every little kid can do a high five? That's how jan-ken is in Japan, starting at age 2 or so. There are some other variants - the fast version, the version where you don't move your hands. There are also many kids who cheat at jan-ken-pon, by waiting until they see what you pick before they pick themselves.

Not Just Two People Anymore

There are some other uses found only in Japan - while at home you usually play with only two people, in japan you can play with any number of people. So with 5 people, if there are losers they sit out, and the rest do it again. If you're trying to find a winner, it's easy, but if you are trying to find a loser to do some chore, it can be confusing - the initial losers sit out, but the person who loses last is usually considered to be the real loser. I've even seen it played with 8 or more people. It takes a long time.

You can also use it for deciding teams - someone will say "only rock or paper" and then everyone does it until half are one and half are the other. There's no being picked last in gym class phenomenon in Japan, since they always use this to decide scrimmage teams.

A Strange Phenomenon

Sometimes, there are about 10 ties in a row with just two people. There is a certain strategy of doing rock, then paper, then scissors, and if both people employ it, then they will tie for a long time. It's played really fast though, so while this is going on if you want to break out of it, you have to think fast and think what the other guy's going to do next, and then think what beats it.

Finally, jan-ken-pon is used when there is a tie in some other game- so if two people try to grab something at the same time and start fighting, one will start the sai-shou chant and the other will be forced to agree to arbitration.

The most important decision making tool in Japan is janken. It is used in all aspects of daily life, from determining who’s it in the playground to whose turn it is to do the dishes. The chances of you visiting Japan and not seeing janken in action is highly unlikely. The short chant that goes along with janken is heard daily and with the current state of the Japanese economy, one has to wonder if it isn’t used by government officials in determining economic policy as well.

What is it?

Basically, janken is rock-paper-scissors. Rock beats scissors, scissors beats paper, and paper beats rock. Did I mention that most decisions, minor and occasionally major are made with janken? This is true, and the Japanese have a developed a way of using janken not only in pairs, but in larger groups as well. For example, a group of seven boys need to decide which one of them is to the join the group of five girls to make two even groups in English class. As the bemused English teacher looks on, the boys, quickly and loudly janken. The loser (yes, the loser, boys and girls stay as far apart from one another until well into their twenties it seems) joins the girls. He is unhappy with the outcome, but knows that he carries his burden with all fairness.

Group janken

Its taken me some time to get into the fast paced, high action, blood boiling fury that is janken. I’d played rock-paper-scissors before, but the Japanese version is a whole different animal. Several things must be kept in mind. Paper is demonstrated with the open palm facing upwards, not downwards like in the western version. You will get very strange looks from your competitors if you try it any other way. Secondly, the rhyme/chant that goes with janken must be memorized into order to maximize your understanding. It goes as follows:

さ い し は ぐ う
sai sho wa gu

ん け ん ぽ ん
jan ken pon

あ い こ で し
ai ko de sho

で し
sho sho de sho

The first two lines are used at the beginning of every game. At sai sho wa gu, all competitors show rock. At jan ken pon, all competitors put in their choice of rock paper or scissors. In the case of two players, winning is automatic after the first round. If there are more than 2 players, there is a good chance that the game will continue and the next 2 lines are used. If all players show a different element, the line ai ko de sho is used while all the competitors play again. Winners and losers are only determined when only two elements appear. For example, 3 rocks and 4 papers. In this case, the four plays who showed paper are the winners and the three who showed rocks are out of the game. The four remaining players start again, until all but one player remain. The line sho sho de sho is repeted every time after the second.

German Janken

Recently, a German friend of mine here in Japan, told me that rock-paper-scissors occasionally has a fourth element in Germany: fire. Fire beats paper (obviously), fire beats scissors and fire is beat out by rock. Fire is demonstrated by facing your palm upwards and gently swaying your fingers upwards, imitating the flames of a campfire perhaps. I have tried to introduce fire to my students, but they are having none of it. Janken is janken, as it has been for ages and no changes are permitted. I don't know how much to believe in my German friend.

I'd like to introduce one of the dirtiest variations of janken which is used among naughty school boys: "unko" (shit), "chimpo" (penis), "pantsu" (underwear) are called out instead of "gu" (stone), "choki" (scisors), "pa" (paper) respectively. Just imagine the shapes those words represent.

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