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.