by

If you’ve ever needed help making a small decision like who gets the last piece of pizza or who gets to ride shotgun, you’re probably more than familiar with the game of rock, paper, scissors.

But you might not know how big rock, paper, scissors is in Japan. Turns out that rock, paper, scissors – or as it’s known in Japan, janken – was big in Japan before anybody in the West had ever even heard of it.

Like kanji, fireworks, and General Tsao’s chicken, rock, paper, scissors was actually created in China. The game was created around the time of Christ, but stayed in China for hundreds of years. It wasn’t until the 1700s that it made its way over to Japan.

The rest, as they say, is history. Janken, in the ensuing years, became incredibly popular in Japan and today, pretty much everybody in Japan knows how to play. You could walk up to any child in Japan and he/she would be immediately ready to throw down in a game of janken.

How to Play

Janken is played pretty similarly to the way most people play rock, paper, scissors in the US: you use one of three moves to beat your opponent. Rock breaks scissors, scissors cuts paper, and paper covers rock.

Obviously in Japan though, they use different terminology. Here’s a handy table:

English Romaji Japanese
Rock Guu グー
Paper Paa パー
Scissors Choki チョキ

The differences don’t stop there. There’s a whole special ritual to janken that’s a little different than what I’m used to in the US.

  1. Both players start by saying “Saisho wa guu” (最初はぐう) or “Starting with rock,” and holding out a closed fist.
  2. Each says “janken pon!” and throw out their move, whether it’s rock, paper, or scissors.
  3. If there’s a tie (both players choose the same move), both players say “Aiko desho!” (相子), or “It seems like a tie!” and keep going in rapid-fire succession until somebody finally wins.

But it doesn’t stop there. There are tons of variants to janken, some more violent than others:

Make no mistake though: janken isn’t just used for schoolyard disputes. Virtually everybody in Japan plays janken to solve disputes or make decisions.

Pop group AKB48 has held janken tournaments to determine which of the young ladies appear on the group’s next single. Competition is fierce, and the tournaments can run for several hours (as you can see in this video).

Janken was once even used in an international, multimillion dollar art deal.

The Most Expensive Game of Rock, Paper, Scissors

Janken isn’t just used by the Japanese to see who pays for the beer or whose turn it is to clean the dishes; it can also be used for expensive, high-stakes decisions.

In 2005, a Japanese businessman decided to auction off his art collection which included masterpieces from renowned European artists like Cézanne, Picasso, and van Gogh.

But he ran into a bit of a snag when it came time to decide which of the world’s two most famous auction houses, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, would get the rights to auction off his magnificent collection.

So how did this businessman make his decision? He made the two auction houses compete in a game of janken.

The two auction houses spent a weekend strategizing, planning their one, critical move; and on Monday, the competition took place. The New York Times paints a picture of the scene:

Instead of the usual method of playing the game with the hands, the teams were given a form explaining the rules. They were then asked to write one word in Japanese – rock, paper or scissors – on the paper.

After each house had entered its decision, a Maspro manager looked at the choices. Christie’s was the winner: scissors beat paper.

“We were told immediately and then asked to go downstairs to another room and wait, while the forms went off to headquarters to be approved,” Mr. Rendell said. He described the atmosphere in the room as “difficult,” saying both sides were forced to “make small talk.”

But while janken has served as a cornerstone of the decision-making process for centuries, that era may soon be coming to an end.

Has Japan Solved Rock, Paper, Scissors?

A Japanese university has recently invented a robot that beats humans every time in rock, paper, scissors. That’s right, it has a 100% winrate. Say what?

How does it do it? It’s pretty simple: the robot uses a camera to quickly read what its opponent’s move is going to be, and reacts at the last possible second.

What happens when two of these robots play against each other? An infinite tie? Would the universe implode? Nobody can know for sure.

But I can say this: until somebody makes a portable janken robot available to the masses, janken will remain a cultural staple in Japan.

Just remember, the next time that you’re challenged to a game of janken to decide who buys the next round, don’t pick rock.


General Tsao’s chicken was actually probably invented in some Chinese restaurant in the US. Or on the field of battle in China by General Tsao himself. Who knows.

Photo by Aka Hige

  • Xsuna

    Hell yeah. Hashi, that first video just ended all those boring break times with my friends.

  • http://twitter.com/Musouka Musouka

    Reminds me of this…. 

  • simplyshiny

    I’ve never understood how they do it so FAST…I can’t keep up!

  • http://twitter.com/daeiribu Ingi

    Is Janken the most used name today? It was presented to me in Japanese class as Jankenpon, which is, I assume, a longer form of the name (as well as the phrase that gets cried out)

  • Missingno15

    Don’t forget AKB Janken Tournaments during the winter!

  • Ben

    Fantastic.

  • kuyaChristian

    Even though General Tso’s Chicken is technically one of those Americanized Chinese food abominations [really, General Tso's Chicken was made in the US], I’ll give you some slack :3

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I talked about that right after the first video! I just couldn’t bring myself to embed a 2 hour video of AKBers playing janken, tho.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I think at this point, I kind of assume that all “Chinese” food I know of has never been made, seen, nor heard of in China.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I think that “janken” is the name of the game, “pon” is onomatopoeia that people use when throwing down their move.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I hope I don’t have to add a “don’t try this at home” disclaimer, haha

  • kuyaChristian

    JankenPONPONPON
    WAY WAY PONPONPON

  • kuyaChristian

    Unless you hit up the Dim Sum, that’s where you get the authentic stuffs. Now I’m craving shumai…
    But then at the same time, I’ve gotten soo tired of take-out ‘Chinese’ that I dont even wanna eat it anymore. I’d prefer making myself curry rice every now and then :P

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Shaun-Krislock/553071502 Shaun Krislock

    There’s also the “あっちむいてホイ” version where the winner kind of tells the looser “look this way” and the looser tries to not look that way.  Hard to explain, here’s a video:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lfi46HJhIa8

    I saw this for the first time back in the day (1994?) when とねるず had a tournament on TV and it was mesmerizing.

  • http://samuelmcconnell.com Samuel McConnell

    The only winning move is not to play.

  • Anon

    Sneaky Japan, has a dang robot to ruin everything…

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    They’re miles ahead of us

  • sawayaka

    Was just going to post to say, what about the pointing/looking variation? That style raises the ‘tension’ quite a bit for sure. I don’t quite get how it works, i.e. who points and in what scenario? 

  • http://www.vietamins.com Viet

    Yum. Chicken feet.

  • ジョサイア

    …Anyone thinking of the rubix cube solving robot?

  • ジョサイア

    Very interesting post…You can’t eat General Tsao’s chicken! Tofugu employ’s only eat tofu and fugu!

  • kuyaChristian

    Chicken feet kare rice? xD
    Adobo-cooked chicken feet is soo good tooo :]

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Shall we play a game?

  • linguarum

    I know! Plus I’m used to rock paper scissors with two hands, where you pound your fist on your open hand, so you can easily hear if the timing is off. Japanese people like to play one-handed air-janken (as shown in the videos) which is even harder.

  • John

    Too bad :(

  • http://mistersanity.blogspot.com Jonadab

    Eh, I’m pretty sure that’s a cardboard tube they’re hitting each other with, like what comes in the middle of a roll of wrapping paper.  To make it actually dangerous, you’d have to use something a bit firmer, like, say, a pipe wrench.  Of course, then the bucket might not provide adequate protection…

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    I love Janken. I see it used every day and also let my students use it several times a day.
    By observing them I saw that some of them have the strategy to keep the same thing for every round (if they started with paper they won’t change it). I have a feeling that they win a bit more often than others do, but it’s probably just my imagination! ;)

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

     I’m not sure if there are regional differences, but everywhere I’ve been teaching so far the students just call the game “Janken”! :)

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

     Maybe I’ve been in Japan for too long, but to me it doesn’t seem to be fast at all! Just normal! o_O;

  • fee_fi_Fiona

     And beef tendons… mmm…

  • Omnislashlb

    They need to add a new item called the “bomb” which explodes and always wins! Tee hee!

  • http://twitter.com/Daithi852 David Sellers

    I wonder what would happen if that robot faced itself in a mirror?  Would it ever make a move?

  • http://twitter.com/ayabuns Aya

    Wow. Interestingly enough, we have a same game in the Philippines called ‘Jack en Poy’, it has the same premise as Janken and it sounds similar as well (but y’know, not as hardcore). I’d like to think the game was adapted during the Japanese occupation in World War II, but I have yet to confirm this, as I know little about the history of the game and only heard it from my great-gran. (Because great-grandparents who survived through the war are not considered a credible source, obviously, LOL)

  • Robert Patrick

    You forgot to mention that Janken Pon is also the very root of that HUGE phenomenon that is… Pokémon !

  • http://jeremybeasley.com/ jeremy beasley

    Does anyone know if there are similar versions of this game in China or Korea? Oh and thanks for the links of the AKB48 tournament. You owe me two hours of my life back. :) 

  • Guest

    Here’s an example scenario where BLUE beats RED in janken. BLUE points to RED and quickly chooses a direction in which to point.  If the RED looks in the direction BLUE pointed, BLUE gets one point.  First top three wins here.

  • Bbvoncrumb

    More importantly, とんねるず’s 男気じゃんけん. Where they travel with a group of awesome guys to shops, stack masses of products and the loser must buy it all. If they do anything “unmanly” like say “I have no money” or “I don’t want these” or act upset if they win, they get beat with a stick.

    Best show ever.

  • Ed Blake
  • DeTo-13

    I can see it now in the far future, being checked with a stethoscope to confirm if your a cheating android or a regular human when winning janken.

  • Perry Eubank

    Hashi, This video really shows how bad we (americans) are at playing this game. We have no standard of when to “shoot.” The Japanese really have it down
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kejK9HGXh_U&feature=g-u-u

  • http://www.facebook.com/josh.battin Josh Battin

    General Tsao’s chicken is American in origin, and not that old either:

    “The dish is reported to have been introduced to New York City in the early 1970s as an example of Hunan cooking, though it is not typical of Hunanese cuisine, which is traditionally very spicy and rarely sweet.[1][2] The dish was first mentioned in The New York Times in 1977.” -wikipedia

    anywho, janken will be my decision maker from now on

  • John

    Cheaty robots!

  • Killua

    Robot vs Robot = Self Distruct