janken by Hidetsugu Tonomura

how to cross a bridge

Give me today, for once, the worst throw of your dice, destiny. Today I transmute everything into gold.
Friedrich Nietzsche

Caesar: Alea iacta est inquit – The die has been cast, said Caesar
Suetonius, Vita Divi Iuli

Don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing.
Matthew 6:3

Let’s play rock paper scissors. Mail in your answers, and let’s see who won.
Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report


The other day at a formal new year party everyone had to choose small gifts. In Japan if people have to choose about something between themselves they play rock paper scissors. In Japanese it is called jankenpon or jankenpoi or janken. It’s used for everything. Who gets to choose the first piece of cake. Or who plays first in a game or a sport. Or who gets to cross a bridge first. Japanese people wonder how people in the west get along without it. Well we have games like odds or evens. Robin Hood and Little John decided who got to cross the bridge first by fighting with quarterstaves. A quarterstaff is a strong stick for fighting similar to a Japanese bo. Apparently boy scouts once learned how to use it! But deciding with janken is less painful.

When I first had to play janken many years ago I did the sign for paper like a karate chop. A tight tegatana or shuto uchi knifehand strike from aikido or karate. My fingers were close together. So people told me I had to relax. That sounded familiar. Everyone who does martial arts has to relax. In janken you have to let the fingers spread slightly so it is more like paper.

Then there are the tactics. You can sometimes win with beginner’s luck. But if there is a tie and you have to repeat the game you are in big trouble. At first I used to try to outthink my opponent. But I usually lost. So then I decided to try a random choice. The trouble was to me it was random but obviously it wasn’t to my opponents because again I usually lost. Even if it had been random I could only win 50% of the time playing against one opponent. But some Japanese people never seem to lose.

And janken is the same as a martial art. You have to do it with kiai. That means not half-heartedly or weakly. You have to be full of determination and energy. A loud voice is good too. Hmm. There’s more to this than tossing a coin.

One way to get good at it apparently is to play your right hand against your left hand. Seriously. And you have to do it often. Until it’s ingrained in your body. That’s like a martial art too. But don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing.


free e-books

Friedrich Nietsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra

Suetonius Tranquillus, Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Vol. I

Howard Pyle, The Adventures of Robin Hood

This article is published simultaneously on the aikido site aikiweb.

my columns on aikiweb:

Aiki and Kokyu Ryoku
Martial Arts in Manga and Animé
Indigo Blue
Improvised Weapons No.1: The Umbrella
Unbalance – Feet of Clay
Half a Tatami
Zen in the Art of Aikido

I have an essay in a charity e-book put together by some writers and photographers to raise money for victims of the earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku on 11 March 2011. It costs $9.99.

© niall matthews 2012


  1. niall

    Gracias Carina. That’s a good poem.

  2. Thanks Niall for another interesting post, the letters are looking nice too. Just to let you know that again spanish is more like japanese, we too play “piedra-papel y tijera”, I didn’t know about your english play:).
    Here a poem: Song of powers by David Mason http://www.poetryoutloud.org/poem/175891
    Mine, said the stone,
    mine is the hour.
    I crush the scissors,
    such is my power.
    Stronger than wishes,
    my power, alone.

    Mine, said the paper,
    mine are the words
    that smother the stone
    with imagined birds,
    reams of them, flown
    from the mind of the shaper.

    Mine, said the scissors,
    mine all the knives
    gashing through paper’s
    ethereal lives;
    nothing’s so proper
    as tattering wishes.

    As stone crushes scissors,
    as paper snuffs stone
    and scissors cut paper,
    all end alone.
    So heap up your paper
    and scissor your wishes
    and uproot the stone
    from the top of the hill.
    They all end alone
    as you will, you will.
    And a song http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yLkO6Q1-_2g

Leave a Reply