You may speak Japanese like a native, have heard the sound of one hand clapping, and be able to eat natto and umeboshi without pulling a face — but can you beat a salariman at Janken? The Japanese are masters of the game we call Rock-Paper-Scissors (RPS) in English and generally kick foreign butt, leaving us to pay the bill at izakayas, lose out on the last stick of yakitori, or deprive us of the first choice of presents in a tie at bounenkai Bingo games. But while the world has caught up to Japan in Judo, learned to make sushi, can now use chopsticks with reasonable dexterity, and has even produced a few Sumo champions, we have yet to master the subtle art of Janken.
Newcomers to the land of the rising sun are invariably surprised to see grown men and women using Rock-Paper-Scissors in everyday decision-making because in the west, the game is considered to be a children’s pastime. In Japan, however, it enjoys widespread acceptance as the most equitable form of resolving conflicting interests, and it also offers hours of knee-slapping enjoyment as well. Janken is played in place of the coin toss at sporting events, by doctors deciding which leg to amputate, and even by engineers at TEPCO deciding who’s going to inspect those pesky cracks in the nuclear reactor.
While using such a haphazard device for making everyday decisions may seem strange at first, the longer you live in Japan the more you understand how useful Janken is. The simple beauty of the game is rooted in its ability to remove blame and make decisions without all the muss and fuss of soul-searching or addressing opposing opinions. After a while it is possible to see how Janken is perfectly suited to situations where avoiding the blame associated with difficult choices helps make everyone a winner.
For example, you and your buddies are conflicted as to whether to tell your pal that the “woman” sitting on his lap at the bar used to be a “Hiroshi” instead of a “Hiroko”. Do you give him a warning or sit back and imagine how he will deal with the situation later on at his apartment? Admittedly, this is a tough call, but letting Janken decide for you takes the guilt out of what should otherwise be an entertaining evening.
Janken is also a fair and equitable method for dealing with tense social obligations. Say that same buddy of yours is now drunk beyond belief and incapable of movement. Someone has to make sure he gets home safely. Do you put him in the taxi alone or let “Hiroko” go with him? Here again Janken is able to resolve the issue with little, if any, moral soul searching.
The History of Janken
Many foreigners tend to think that Janken was introduced by bored G.I.s during the occupation, but nothing could be further from the truth. While we know that chewing gum and sexual disease are not the only gifts the G.I.s bequeathed the conquered populace, it is certain that Janken was not among them. This is because the earliest known record of the game comes from Japan, and dates from 200 BC. Surprisingly, the name has not changed since then. According to the authoritative Kojien Dictionary of the Japanese Language, 5th edition, the word Janken probably originates from the Chinese characters for rock, which can be pronounced as jan, and the character for fist, which can be pronounced as ken.
Although there are few written records from before the birth of Christ, Janken is probably nearly as old as civilization itself. As serious scholars of the subject will tell you, Janken has been found depicted on the walls of Egyptian tombs and similar finger games have also been found represented in cave paintings all over the world. And while early matches in caves were most likely by necessity a draw of rock vs. rock, the game has evolved over time as rocks slowly found themselves competing with newfangled interlopers like paper and later the dreaded scissors.
Perhaps more titillating is the rationale behind why wimpy old “paper” can beat a macho guy like “rock.” The answer, as with most things the Japanese have embraced whole-heartedly (such as kanji and ebi chili) may lie in ancient China. Apparently, paper was a symbol of the emperor and when a proposal came before him, it was represented by a rock. If he approved the proposal, he would put his paper under the rock, signifying that it would become law. If he rejected it, he would cover the rock with his paper. Therefore, paper can be thought of as defeating rock. Sadly there is not much in the historical record about how the wily scissors interjected themselves into what must have become a cozy little relationship paper had managed to set up for itself.
By the mid-1700′s Janken had traveled to Europe where it became known as Rochambeau. It was named after Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, the Comte de Rochambeau, but again here the record of one of the great ancient Asian arts is silent. What part did he play to become associated with Janken? Unfortunately, we will never know.
Janken has spread world-wide and is known as Muk-Chee-Bah in Korea, Bao Ying Choob in Thailand, and is sometimes called Roshambo (not to be confused with the “I kick you in the nuts as hard as I can. Then you kick me in the nuts as hard as you can,” made famous by the TV show South Park) in the United States. It is also the subject of an important artificial intelligence competition for computer programmers every year known as The International RoShamBo Programming Competition and official tournaments sponsored by – and hold onto your hats for this one – the World Rock Scissors Paper Society. (A bunch of party-hard guys if there ever was one)
The Japanese game of Janken is very similar to Rock, Scissors, Paper, but there are a few minor differences. First, there are just two primes (up and down movements of the fist before your throw) and instead of “Rock-Scissors-Paper 1-2-3!”, players say, “Jan Ken Pon!”. In the case of a stalemate, say, “Aiko deshou” (It was a tie). The three throws in Japanese RPS are guu (stone), choki (scissors) and paa (paper).
Additionally, Japanese people play Janken much faster than westerners, sometimes not even priming in the case of draws. If you want to master the art, you will have to do a lot of practicing until throwing and computing your next move become instinctive actions.
Japanese often participate in mass Janken games, which appear complicated at first but are actually very simple if you know what is going on. Let’s take a game of three-man Janken as an example. In round one, players A and B both choose rock, while player C chooses paper. Player C is the winner because paper beats rock. If A, B, and C all make different throws, there is no winner, because each person’s throw cancels out every other player’s throw. If A and B both choose rock while C chooses scissors, C is eliminated and A and B have a play off round, following the normal rules of two-man Janken.
If there are five or more people playing, a majority of the contestants have to throw something that beats the throws of the minority. For example, if two people choose rock, two people choose paper, and one person chooses scissors, there is no winner and the game continues into the second round. If two people choose rock and three people choose scissors, the ‘scissors’ are eliminated and the ‘rocks’ play off against each other. In the case of three rocks and two scissors, the ‘scissors’ are eliminated and the rocks go into a three-way playoff. Because it can sometimes take five or ten minutes to produce a winner this way, in many cases, the game is sometimes played with only two choices (eg. paper and rock) and the one chosen by the most people is the winner (without regard to the traditional rules). When enough people are eliminated, the game continues in the usual manner. The sheer drama and exhilaration of all of this sometimes overtakes a group and the hilarity can continue for hours and hours on train rides and while waiting in line for SMAP concerts, until carpal tunnel syndrome sets in.
If you want to practice your Janken skills alone, check out: http://www.worldrps.com/trainer.html. It is part The World RPS society, which has a lot of good information about Janken strategies and is hilarious to boot.
Tired of getting your butt kicked by some school girl? No? Well, anyway, here are a few strategies in case you find yourself faced with the possibility of paying Mr. Suzuki’s bar tab.
The Bart Simpson
This strategy became famous with the broadcast of the “Front Door” episode of The Simpsons, where we heard Bart thinking to himself, “Good old rock. Can’t beat rock.” Then we heard Lisa thinking, “Poor predictable Bart. Always picks rock.” Bart threw rock. Lisa threw paper. Lisa won. The “Bart Simpson” is probably the worst Janken strategy of all time.
Stories abound of martial arts masters who are unbeatable in Janken because of their incredible dexterity and knowledge of body mechanics. They are said to be able to predict, on the basis of the way the opponent’s hand is moving, what the person is going to shoot, and have such highly developed reflexes that they can counter the opponent’s move and win every time.
The Triple Scissors Gambit
If you can get your opponent to a best of three series, this strategy is nearly a guaranteed winner. No one ever expects the Spanish inquisition or the Triple Scissors Gambit.
Not to be confused with the slightly unfair Psych-out strategy (see below), The Psychologist embodies scientific principles and was first elaborated by Japanese psychologist Hiroshi Amano, a lecturer at the Japanese College of Medical Care and Welfare. It revolves around a strategy of suddenly starting the game so that your opponent has no time to think. When people are surprised, their muscles tense and once people have fallen into this cataleptic state, they will almost inevitably throw rock because they don’t have time to come up with a strategy. 50-60% of people choose rock in the first round of a Janken game, even when they are not pressured, making paper a very good choice if you want to increase your chances of winning.
The single predictor strategy involves simple logic like, “He played rock last time and I think he’s going to play it again, so I’ll throw paper.” It is probably the most common of all Janken strategies.
The Double Predictor
If you believe your opponent is using the Predictor strategy, you can achieve an easy victory using the Double Predictor. Just think one move ahead of him.
The Triple Predictor Strategies
As Sun Tzu once said, “The common warrior thinks but one step ahead. Shall we not, then, think three?”
The Meta-Predictor Strategy
In the International RoShamBo Programming Competition for Janken-playing computer algorithms, the winner was a program called Iocane powder. It used the strategy from the movie, The Princess Bride, in which the hero had to decide which cup of wine had been poisoned by his enemy. He said, “Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool. You would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me…”
It’s creator, Dan Egnor argues that most people will use the same level of prediction all the time, and if you can figure out what level of prediction your opponent is operating at, it will be easy to defeat him by anticipating his moves. You will have to observe your opponent’s playing style, psychology, and intelligence level to gauge their Predictor level. Few people rise above the level of single predictor however, making that a safe assumption.
This is a good strategy if you are being beaten by one of the aforementioned predictor strategies. Just start throwing at random and the predictor will lose his confidence. It is useful against opponents who are more intelligent/skillful at Janken than you, but if you feel that you can out-think your opponent, the Meta Predictor is always a better strategy.
This strategy requires observation. Watch your opponent in matches against other people and observe his playing strategy. Challenge him to games when there are minor things to be decided and observe his playing style, so that when that really important match for who’s going to pay for the beer comes up, you’ll be familiar with his tactics and beat him easily.
This strategy involves backing down from your original plan at the last second. Start to throw paper and then suddenly pull in your fingers to form rock.
The Psych-Out strategy involves the use of taunts or sly comments to throw the opponent off his game or influence his throws. The World Rock-Scissors-Paper Homepage offers these suggestions for taunting your opponent:
“I knew that would be your next move”, “Rock? Hmmmm… Frankly I’m surprised that Paper obviously didn’t even occur to you,”, “I don’t suggest using the Avalanche gambit on me; I did invent it, after all.” When you win, use your best Darth Vader voice and say, “All too easy,” thereby damaging your opponent’s confidence for the next match.
An even more effective Psych-Out strategy can be used on novice opponents. Just say something like, “I know you’re going to throw scissors, aren’t you?” in a challenging voice with a confident expression on your face. Don’t give them time to think and start priming immediately. They will get flustered and most people actually end up throwing scissors because they have just enough time to think, “He said that so I wouldn’t throw scissors, so I’ll throw scissors just to surprise him,” and actually end up throwing scissors, making your opponent look like a complete chump when you throw rock.
The Wolf In Sheep’s Clothes
When you’re playing against someone who’s highly intelligent or more experienced at Janken than you are, pretend to be a novice. They will automatically play paper to counter the perennial newbie favourite, rock and at the last minute play scissors, beating them easily.