Janken (じゃんけん) – Rock, Paper, Scissors in Japanese: All You Need to Know

Have you heard “Janken” before? Do you know what it is? When you come to Japan, you will hear this word in many situations. If you have ever needed help making a small decision, like who gets the last slice of pizza or who gets to ride shotgun, you are probably more than familiar with the game of rock, paper, and scissors. But you may not know how big rock, paper, and scissors are in Japan.

It turns out that Rock, Paper, Scissors – or as it’s called in Japanese, “Janken” – was big in Japan before anyone in the West had even heard of it. In this article, I would like to share all you need to know about this very interesting game, please keep reading on!

1. What is “Janken (じゃんけん)”?

Janken” is played similarly to how most people in the US play rock, paper, scissors: You use one of three moves to hit your opponent. The rock breaks the scissors, the scissors cut the paper, and the paper covers the rock. In Japan, of course, they use different terminology. Here is a handy chart. Obviously, in Japan though, they use different terminology. Here’s a handy table.

EnglishRomanJapanese
RockGuグー
PaperPaパー
ScissorsChokiチョキ

The differences don’t stop there. There is a very special ritual for “Janken.” Both players begin with the words “Saisho wa guu” (さいしょはぐう) or “Starting with rock” and extend a closed fist. Everyone says “Janken pon!” and throws out their turn, whether it’s rock, paper, or scissors. In case of a tie (both players choose the same move), both players say “Aiko desho!” (aiko あいこ), or “It seems to be a tie!” And so it goes on in rapid succession until finally, someone wins. But that’s not all. There are tons of variations of Janken. In Japan, “rock-paper-scissors” is called “Janken (じゃんけん)”.

Although it is called differently in different places, the rules of the game are generally the same in each country. In Japan, “Janken” is used to settle disagreements, select participants, and determine the order in which people should do things.

Source: O-DAN

2. Rules of janken

The rules and gestures of the Japanese rock-scissors-paper game are the same as in the “English” version – a closed fist is the rock, two spread fingers are the scissors, and a downward open palm is the paper. The stone smashes the scissors, the scissors cut the paper, and the paper covers the stone.

In the Japanese version of the game, rock is called “Gu-” (グー), scissors are called “Choki” (チョキ), and paper “Pa-” (パー). Just like how you play “rock scissors paper”. When playing “Janken”“Gu- “beats “Choki”, “Choki” beats “Pa-” and “Pa-” beats “Gu-”. “Gu-”, “Choki” and “Pa-” refer to rock, scissors paper respectively. When it is a draw, it is called an “Aiko” (あいこ).

Example of How to Play “Janken”

Interestingly, these are not the literal names of these objects, but the sounds assigned to these actions. For example, guu is the sound you make when you squeeze your hand, choki is the sound scissors make when you cut something, and paa is the sound you make when you open your hand. While the principle is the same, the chant is not. Start with the rock gesture and pump your fists while saying “Saisho wa guu” (さいしょはグー).

Translated literally, it means “First is Rock “. You might also hear it being played without the “wa” and so becomes “Saisho Gu- “. This line is then followed by “Janken pon!” (じゃんけんぽん!). On “pon” both players show their hands, displaying either “Gu- “, “Choki” or “Pa- “. 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.

Then, in the case of another draw, this final line is repeated until a winner is crowned.

Saisho wa guu

Janken pon!

When it’s a draw, say:

Aiko desho!

3. History of janken

“Rock-paper-scissors” apparently originated in China (or at least the first historical mention of the game comes from there). The first documented mention of a similar game called Shoushiling is found in the book Wuzazu. According to this book, the game began in the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD). A similar type of game to Shoushiling is mentioned again and again in Japanese history and became known as sansukumi-ken, meaning “triple standstill”, with ken meaning “fist”.

There are several versions of the Sansukumi-ken, the mushi-ken being the first and taken directly from China. In the mushi-ken, instead of rock, paper, and scissors, there was a frog, a snail, and a snake. The three animals were represented by extending the little finger, thumb, or index finger from the fist.

In Western cultures, it is occasionally used to make mostly trivial decisions, but it is probably the Japanese who have elevated “Janken” to a permanent form of social interaction, beginning with a variant called “kitsune-ken” that uses a similar set of rules.

4. Janken as a useful solution

“Janken” is a simple and fair solution to many of life’s social problems that continue into adulthood, where rock-paper-scissors contests take place to decide everything from who should pay the dinner bill to who gets the shiny new iPhone at the year-end party at the office. It’s even not uncommon for extremely expensive transactions to be decided with rock-paper scissors, such as this auction house that broke a tie by playing a game of “Janken” between bidders.

Source: O-DAN

5. Japanese school children and janken

Children in Japan learn “Janken” at a young age and it is a quick and easy way for parents to resolve sibling disputes through the impartial hand of Lady Luck. The Japanese usually used “Janken” in the classroom to decide who was first or in what order we would do something. In this way, the children respected the decision because they saw that it had been made in a fair way and that it was their decisions in the game that led to it.

In addition, “Janken” is essential for both those who teach in Japan and those who want to learn more about Japanese culture. If you teach a foreign language, show your students how to play the game in the language you teach, and it instantly becomes a culturally engaging language exercise and fun game.

Source: O-DAN

6. Japanese janken for adults

You may think that the Japanese rock-scissors-paper game, like other versions around the world, is merely a children’s game and that once children get a little older and realize that life is not always so easy, they stop playing this game of chance. This is wrong. “Janken” is played throughout Japanese society.

Then, even though adults do not play it all day long as children do, they use it to decide things like who gets to pay for the next round of drinks, who gets to go on the business trip, and who gets to give the presentation, who gets to tell the boss about the mistake in last month’s budget, all the way to important business decisions.

7. “Janken” in the business world

“Janken” is so ingrained in Japanese culture that it pops up everywhere. Restaurants and bars often hold promotions where patrons must play a game with waiters and waitresses to receive a free drink or discount. It’s also a popular drinking game among friends and so ubiquitous that there are countless variations in the rules on how to break a tie or win the game. At least one university has even put considerable manpower and resources into developing a robotic arm that wins “Janken” games 100% of the time.

A much-cited case of rock-scissors-paper 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 famous artists. We are talking about Cézanne, Picasso, Van Gogh… Not wanting to split up the collection and unable to decide between two major auction houses competing for the contract, he asked the two houses to play Janken to decide. The winning house later sold the collection for $20 million, collecting millions of dollars in commissions.

Source: O-DAN

8. Janken in a different region

Interestingly, the name “Janken” is different in different regions of Japan. I would like to introduce you to an interesting way of calling “Janken.” There are various exclamations, but I would like to introduce some of the most commonly used rock-paper-scissors exclamations.

 

EnglishJapaneseRegion
Jan ken ponじゃんけんぽんTokyo
Chi ke taちっけったChiba
Chi chi poちーちっぽGunma
In jan hoiいんじゃんほいKansai Area
Jan ken shoじゃんけんしょHokkaido

9. Janken nowadays

As in some other countries, there are many games in Japan that use janken in play. What are some popular games that use this janken? Please read below.

Popular Games used “Janken

In Japan, there are a lot of games that use “Janken”. I would like to introduce some of them. The most famous game using “Janken” is “Acchimuite-Hoi” [Look Away Challenge]. In this game, you point in one of four directions: up, down, left, or right. At exactly the same time, your friend also looks in one of these four directions. If your friend looks in the same direction as you, you win! In addition, “Glico” and “Tataite-Kabutte Jankenpon” are also famous in Japan.

“Otokogi-Janken”

It is a game of “play rock-paper-scissors and the winner treats your opponent”. Instead of paying for food and drink or products, the winner paid the full price and appeared in the variety show “Thank you to everyone in Tonnezu”, which was broadcast in September 2011 and attracted much attention among young people.

What was that? “Janken” is so ingrained in Japanese culture that it appears everywhere. “Janken” is a simple and fair solution to many of life’s social problems that continue into adulthood. It is not just a game, but it is influenced by Japanese culture and has a lot of meanings. Now you have already mastered Japanese “Janken”, so let us try it out!

Source: O-DAN

Summary

  • “Janken” is a simple and fair solution to many of life’s social problems, and indispensable for anyone who wants to teach in Japan or better understand Japanese culture.
  • “Janken” is used throughout Japanese society and is so deeply rooted in Japanese culture that it appears everywhere.
  • Rock-paper-scissors apparently originated in China and grew out of a “three-way stop.”
  • How “Janken” is called varies in different regions of Japan.
  • In Japan, there are many popular games using “Janken”, such as “Acchi Muite-Hoi” and “Glico”.

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About Yuri Sensei 25 Articles
I am Yuri. I have worked for several companies, involved in assisting foreigners and teaching Japanese. I have also worked in Vietnam, teaching Japanese. I would like to help students abroad and teach Japanese culture. My hobbies are traveling abroad and sports, like tennis. Following excitement and discovering new things inspires me a lot. My joy in life is to help people overseas so that I can pass on the charm of Japanese culture.