Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Fukushima Prefecture’s Iwaki isn’t exactly what anyone would call “main tourist attraction”; if it wasn’t the birthplace of my mother-in-law I don’t think I’d ever have visited it. And if I hadn’t visited it, I wouldn’t had seen in front of an apartment block the sculpture in the picture: a wooden representation of the game rock-paper-scissors. Although it isn’t the most surrealistic public work of art I’ve seen in Japan, it is certainly one of the most unusual and offers an insight on how important is this game in Japanese culture. For Japanese of any age, “janken” (じゃんけん) is the easiest means for just decision-making when it comes to everyday life’s small dilemmas –who will take the last slice of pizza, if we are going for tempura or ramen or if we’ll be choosing this movie or that on TV.
Despite its apparent insignificance, janken has a long history in Asia, a history starting in China perhaps 2000 years ago and involving a series of similar three-gesture games called collectively “sansukumi ken” (三すくみ拳); anyone who has ever been in an ozashiki (お座敷), the dinner parties where entertainment is provided by geisha, have seen one more theatrical variation, “kitsune ken” (狐拳) where the triad is “hunter”, “fox” and “village headsman”. Nobody knows for sure what was these games’ functionality in ancient China but the Japanese found them perfectly suited as an accompaniment to drinking and the broader “entertainment” provided in the brothels, first of Nagasaki, Japan’s point of contact with the rest of the world and then of Osaka, Kyoto and Edo. From there on, their dissemination to the rest of society was probably just a matter of time.
How the game passed from Asia to the West is also largely unknown –personally, I speculate that it was part of Far East’s “discovery” in the end of the 19th century but to be frank, I don’t really care that much. And the reason is that in western societies, it never escaped the domain of childhood and adolescence; conversely in Japan, it became one of the everyday small rituals of practically everybody and there are few sights I find more amusing than that of a group of company employees in their suits and ties or of trendy young women in their evening dresses and high heels standing in circle (in Japan, janken isn’t necessarily restricted to two players) and partake in a game of direct democracy aided by chance, certain that nobody will complain about the outcome. Last week –or, in a sense, for the last four years- I wrote about “wa” (和), the Japanese understanding of harmony; janken is one of its most delightful practical applications.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes on the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.