Kids use it every day. They use it to make decisions. They use it to solve disputes. They use it to practice English, pass the time, and to pick who goes first. What is this mystery thing? Janken. In English: ‘rock-paper-scissors.’
Now while janken in America is something played on occasion, and with much confusion as to when to show your hand (do you show on ‘shoot?’ On ‘scissors?’ Do you count to three and then show?), in Japan it is very clear. First, find your opponent. It could be someone you’re arguing over the last piece of squid in school lunch with, someone you’re racing against in a game in an English class, or just a random person on the street. Next, you prepare for the janken battle. You raise your fist high, and at the same time, say, 「さいしょはぐう、じゃんけんぽん！」 (saisho wa guu, janken pon!) Some kids get really into this part, striking a battle stance and everything. They scream the battle cry and throw their fists forward as if their lives depended on it. Finally, you throw out a rock, paper, or scissors. Luckily, the gestures and rules are the same. The loser walks away in defeat, or, when we use it in English class, must either ask or answer a question; the winner gets to decide. If there’s a tie, you say, 「相子でしょ！」 (aiko desho!) and you keep going until someone wins.
One important point: The outcome of janken is sacred. No one argues over the results. If you lost, you lost. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.
Here are some common times the kids will play janken:
- To settle who gets leftovers during lunch.
Especially when there’s something particularly delicious in the lunch for that day, half the class might stand up, and a massive janken battle will take place for possession of the last bits of food. Bread, and meat are common favorites.
- To pick who goes first.
In any game (in English class at least) involving more than one person, everyone participating will janken to decide the order of play. At sports events, too (informal ones at least), a representative from each team will janken, and the winner decides if their team will go first or second.
- To solve any dispute ever.
This is one of the most common uses for janken. If two kids start arguing over who raised their hand first (or other trivial things), they will janken to decide once and for all who gets to answer the question (or do whatever it is they’re raising their hands for).