Rock Paper Scissors Hammer Helmet Pain

After you’ve been in Japan a while you discover, much to your surprise, that the game Rock, Paper, Scissors is a martial art and that you suck at it.

The Japanese even give it a name: Janken (pronounce like John Ken) which ranks it up there with Karate and Judo. In the West we merely describe the basic parts. If we did the same with Karate and Judo in the West, Karate would be “punch kick throw” and Judo would be “try to grab uniform, try to grab uniform, grab uniform, throw, argue with referee”. (Something like that.)

The basics are the same: rock beats scissors beats paper beats rock in that endless Mobius strip of winning and losing. The players start with a similar gesture, but whereas in the West we say something like “Rock, Paper, Scissors 1-2-3” the Japanese have a chant that translates to “First we are stones.” Then they say “JohnKen pone” and throw rock, paper or scissors. Draws get another chant which translates to roughly “Looks like a tie!” with the new throw happening on “tie”.

At this point, however, once the basics are mastered, the martial art moves to the black belt level. On a one on one level, the Japanese add another move. The winner points at the loser and says “Look this way”. On “way”, the loser turns her head as the winner points left, right, up or down. If the loser looks the same way the winner points, it’s another loss.

From this point, the martial art moves on to the multiple black belt level with group “Janken”. The most I’ve ever seen play at once is 10 people. They form a circle and start playing and they are so good at they can figure out in moments who has lost. I tried it once, got yelled at for slowing down the process and just gave up. I was like “To hell with this. I don’t want the last cookie anyway.”

Finally, the Japanese add a bit of the old ultra-violence to the martial art (which is what makes it martial). In the most famous version, the winner tries to pick up a plastic hammer or paper tube and hit the loser whilst the loser attempts to pick up a helmet or bucket and cover his head. It looks something like this: (I suspect this was happening in either math or English class.)

I’ve learned a few tricks in my years in Japan and can hold my own, especially if I’m playing best three out of five, but I still avoid making any big decisions this way.


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