Kate Elwood takes on the cultural significance of "rock, paper, siccors" (known as janken in Japan) in her latest column:
The astounding prevalence of janken, or "rock, paper, scissors," as a means of determining who will do something, or be eliminated from doing something, or the order of participation if everyone is going to do it, is a conundrum so pervasive that for many initially surprised observers it soon becomes a non-conundrum, and just part of the all-encompassing backdrop of the way things are done in this magnificent and sometimes playfully quirky culture.
In 2005 the hand-positioning game made headlines when a Japanese company decided to sell off its valuable art collection. Unable to decide whether Christie's or Sotheby's should do the honors and garner several million dollars in profits, the president instructed the two auction houses to settle the matter the janken way. Apparently, Christie's took the challenge more or less seriously, seeking strategic advice about which formation to go with, while Sotheby's took the attitude that a game of chance is a game of chance. Christie's won.
The company president could perhaps afford to be whimsical since for him, if not the auction houses, either outcome would be satisfactory. But when the stakes are high and a demonstration of responsibility is called for, not all Japanese people feel that rock, paper, scissors deserves a place in the proceedings.
Recently, Yoshimi Watanabe, president of Your Party, responded with considerable irritation to a suggestion on the part of Toru Hashimoto, acting leader of Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), that when adjusting electoral districts, the last bit could be decided by janken. Watanabe's invigoratingly snappish comment, asking rhetorically whether such a stupid thing could be permitted, was no doubt well appreciated by the janken-disenchanted of the nation.
According to Sepp Linhart, a researcher of Japanese culture, janken emerged around the 1840s as a variant of other, more complex, "ken" hand games which were played by adults and date back 300 years or more. From the second half of the 18th century, sansukumi-ken, which is the type of game janken belongs to, appeared. In sansukumi-ken, A defeats B, B defeats C, and C defeats A. In an old children's version called mushi-ken, a frog outdoes a slug, which conquers a snake, which beats a frog. In a once-widespread two-handed adult sansukumi-ken called kitsune-ken, a fox trounces a village head who trounces a hunter who trounces a fox.
Janken may have appeared relatively late, but it is the version that has stuck and embedded itself deeply into the fabric of Japanese daily life as a resolution tool. Child development researchers Tokie Anme and Uma Segal made a study of all authorized day care centers in Japan, obtaining more than 22,000 responses. Their study reveals that 10 percent of children can make decisions using rock, paper, scissors at 38 months; 50 percent can do it as 46 months, and 90 percent can do it at 57 months. Before the age of 5, janken is in full swing, as it were.
Janken may be fun, but it is also a playground necessity. Educational anthropologists Yi Che, Akiko Hayashi and Joseph Tobin point to the Japanese cultural inclination to let children resolve their own disputes without aid from the grownup in charge. At times, arrangements for discord may even be purposely augmented: The researchers note a principal at a preschool who deliberately did not put out enough toys for the children in order to get them to learn to cooperate. What's a tot to do? In a video taken by the researchers, girls fight over a shovel and eventually settle the problem through janken.
Begun early and practiced intensively, janken plays a crucial role in Japanese children's lives. Perhaps as a result of this, while the less essential "eenie, meenie, miney moe" and "one potato, two potato" are left by the wayside as children mature, janken persists as the method of choice for a quick settlement.
Unfortunately, this may be evaluated negatively in cross-cultural contexts. Kumi Kato, a researcher of "cultures of learning," administered questionnaires to Japanese and Australian high school students in a 10-month study abroad program and found differences in decision-making to be an area of conflict. One student even branded janken "unacceptable."