The popular children’s game called jankenpon in Japanese is variously called “rock, paper, scissors,” or “stone, paper, scissors” in English. The word order is not always the same, but how important is that? For example, it could be “paper, rock, scissors,” or “paper, stone, scissors.” Sometimes Japanese students and teachers alike approach me and ask for the “correct” way to say jankenpon in English. I feel at a loss, because I know that in their minds there can be only one correct translation. For me, though, you can call it whatever you like, so long as you include those three words: paper, scissors, and stone.
I like to play the game with younger students - elementary school-age children, or junior high school first year students (grade seven). It is a good way to break the ice (and defeating children also boosts my confidence), to approach them in the school hallways or on the school playground. I also play the game with my own children at home.
I have found, over the years, that it is very easy to beat my Japanese opponents consistently because their first round predictably follows the same order: first paper; them scissors; then rock. In their second series, they invariably alter the sequence by only one order: first scissors; then rock; then paper I have learned this through lots of experience. So with children I
can always win by following this order:
scissors (chuki); stone (gu); paper (pa).
Second Series: stone; paper; scissors.
I don’t think that this represents a lack of imagination on the part of Japanese children so much as it shows that they are still learning how to play the game. If I tell them that I know what they are going to do next, and explain how I plan to beat them, then it quickly becomes more difficult as they figure out how to stymie me. They cleverly and deliberately introduce more variation into their play that makes it more
difficult for me to predict their next move.
If I explain my prediction of their second series to them: scissors; then stone; then paper, then they will deliberately alter it and try to trick me out by starting either with stone instead of scissors, or else paper, as they began their first series.
This is the genius of jankenpon. It has only three elements, but there are hundreds of combinations to choose from. It is a great psychological test, and I feel shame if I loose to a mere child. Children, of course, love to beat me, an adult. I suppose that no other adult will play with them like this.
I have heard that some universities in Japan have jankenponclubs and hold jankenponcompetitions. I mean people will spend a whole day - not just a few hours - playing and repeating it. I think most Westerners would not be able to stand it. They would lose their minds with the boredom of it sooner rather than later. But I think that to Japanese, maybe, their persistence in such a rote game for so long partly symbolizes for them their gambare spirit - the traditional virtue of sheer perseverance for its own sake.