Rock, Paper, Scissors from Duke Yearlook

janken part 2 – and zen

Last week in how to cross a bridge I wrote about janken: rock paper scissors. There was a comment about always making the same throw. In janken not martial arts. I’m not sure how that strategy would fit into game theory but the comment reminded me of this story from Zen and the Ways by Trevor Leggett. Trevor Leggett was an influential figure in British judo and Japanese studies. He had lived in Japan and India. He had studied judo, shogi, zen and yoga. He wrote many books about Eastern culture. I recommend very few books about martial arts but Zen and the Ways is a great book. Most aikido and martial arts books by westerners are superficial and worth reading perhaps once. Zen and the Ways is a book to keep for a lifetime and to return to often. The imaginative solution is a valuable lesson – especially for anyone who teaches.

A teacher has to find something which engages all the faculties of a pupil; through this he can pierce through to the depths. Consider this example: a young married couple were desperately poor, but by hard work and thrift, combined with some luck, they became suddenly well off and then rich. It became necessary now for the husband’s business associates and friends to be entertained, but the young wife had such a habit of saving that she could not bring herself to spend, and things were always skimped. It began to be a disadvantage to them, because they were getting an unpleasant reputation of meanness, but though she saw that logically they must accept entertainment expenses for the sake of the business,, she could not bring herself to do it. Even when she did spend the money, it was obvious that she hated doing it.

A zen teacher was asked to see her, and she told him, ‘I know what you’re going to say, and I agree with it up here in my head. It’s just that I feel down here in my tummy that once we begin spending it’ll all simply go pouring away and we shall be without anything like when we started.’

He said nothing in reply, but remarked, ‘I have been told you are very clever at the janken game. I have always wondered how it is that some people can always win at that – can you teach me?’

Janken is a familiar children’s game in which two players shoot out one hand, either clenched as ‘stone’, or open as ‘paper’, or like a v-sign, as ‘scissors’. Paper wraps and therefore beats stone, stone blunts and beats scissors, scissors cut and beat paper. So each one beats one other, and loses to another. If the two hands come out the same, that round is a draw. The hands come shooting out in a rapid succession of turns. The one who wins twice or three times in a row marks up one point.

The outcome of a few turns is pure chance, but some experienced players are able to win consistently when playing against the same opponent. They work by intuition and find it hard to explain, but it seems that most people have certain habits which come out in a long run of rapid janken. Some people when they try stone and lose to paper, immediately change to scissors, apparently on the unconscious assumption that the opponent will repeat his paper with which he has just won. Others always change with each turn; still others tend to repeat the same thing even four or five times. An expert begins to have an intuition of what the opponent is going to do, and can regularly win over a period.

The wife was going to explain some of this, but to her amazement the Zen priest simply came out with stone again and again. She expected him to change occasionally, so sometimes she made the scissors or the stone, and then he won or drew. But as he persisted it became clear he was not going to change; she produced the paper each time, and the game became no game. She stopped and explained, ‘Your Reverence, it’s no good always making the stone like that. You have to try something else or it isn’t a game at all.’

‘Oh,’ he said, ‘oh I see. Let’s try again.’ Now he began coming out with the paper, and continued with that, so that he lost every time and it became ridiculous. ‘Well,’ he said finally, ‘I can see that I’m never going to be able to master this game. Anyway, thank you for putting up with me, and now…’ and he took his leave.

When her husband came back she told him what happened. ‘They say he’s so clever, but I think he’s an absolute fool. You know he kept bringing out the stone,’ – and she suited the action to the word – ‘and he went on doing it, on and on and on. And then I told him, I said, you can’t win like that, you have to try another one, and you know what? he went paper, paper, paper all the time’, and she was laughing and holding out her hand in the paper sign.

As she held her hand out she stopped laughing and looked at it. She stared at it for quite a little time; then she clenched her fist into the stone and looked at that. She became lost in thought.

At the next party, the entertainment was on the proper level and she was really hospitable. Thereafter she had no trouble in entertaining generously when the occasion called for it, without falling into meaningless expense when not necessary. Through her favorite game she had learned that to keep the hand always closed will not be right, but neither will it do to have the hand always open. But one does not have to do either of those things; one can alternate them appropriately.

Trevor Leggett, Zen and the Ways


background articles

cool photo from Duke Yearlook used under creative commons licence: photostream 

Trevor Leggett, Zen and the Ways on Amazon

This post 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

    Thanks Carina. That’s a nice clip. It’s amazing you found it! Those old Zatoichi movies are very cool.

  2. Thanks Niall for this post with the story thoughtful of the lection given to the woman, just making her reflect. Here a part of Zatoichi, where in the min 6:25, they play rock, paper and scissors

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