Being completely fair


When I brought my children to Japan a year ago, I expected they’d pick up on certain things faster than me. I did not, however, anticipate that they’d so quickly succumb to the Japanese national obsession with janken.

Granted, janken is not unique to Japan. As a kid, I occasionally played the Western version of the game, which we called “rock, paper, scissors.” On hot summer evenings, we kids would stand in a circle. At the count, everyone put out a hand sign for rock, paper or scissors. Rock beats scissors. Scissors beats paper. Paper beats rock.

We played for maybe five minutes before everyone lost interest. Then we’d move on to something better, like “capture the flag.”

As far as I can tell, no Japanese kid has ever lost interest in janken. My son, the expert, says this is because there are so many variations. Heard of burudoggu? The winner gets to pinch the face of the loser. Or shippe, in which the victor doles out punishments such as dekopin (a mean flick to the forehead)? How about baikuman? Jinbo? Senso? And they worry that Japanese kids lack creativity!

At the Japanese elementary school my kids attend, janken rules. Who gets to be team captain? Janken shiyo! Who gets a second bottle of milk at lunchtime? Janken shiyo!

While watching third-graders play ball one day, I saw janken used for dispute resolution. The red team said the throw was out. The white team said the throw was in. Voices rose. Tempers flared. Just as I started looking around nervously for a teacher, the kids raised their fists and settled the matter. By janken! Apparently satisfied with this random judgment, they went calmly back to their game.

Nor is janken obsession something that Japanese outgrow.

I play tennis with a group of Japanese moms. We decide partners and the order of play using yet another variation of janken called guppa. Rather, they decide this. I go along lamely, thrusting out my hand at what I think is the right time, but I have no idea what is going on. With years of experience, they glance at our outstretched hands and immediately understand the results.

I have also witnessed a PTA election decided by janken. No wonder Japanese politics is a mess!

According to my Japanese friends, no one complains when they lose because janken is completely fair. It is? Then why are there television specials on how to win at janken?

Perhaps because we came to Japan as adults, my husband and I seem to be immune. We have not once decided by janken who has to clean the kitchen.

I admit that I haven’t really tried to understand janken. I figured I could get through life, even in Japan, just fine without it.

But the time has come. I have to learn the finer points of janken before May 9, when Japan celebrates Ice Cream Day. On that day, to commemorate the day ice cream was first sold here, back in 1869, my local ice cream shop promises a free cone to anyone who beats a staff member at janken.

As soon as my kids get home from school, I’m asking for a janken lesson.