It’s a game everyone in Japan knows. It requires no equipment and can be played anytime, anywhere. All you need is a minimum of two players (at least one of whom will typically be below the age of 10), some rudimentary kana knowledge, and a lot of words. しりとり (shiritori) is the name of the game, derived from the phrase 尻を取る (shiri o toru). It literally means “take the rear” — and that is basically what you do.

Here is how it works: One player says a word, the “rear part” of which is then recycled by the next player for the beginning of a new word. The rear part of the new word will be used by the next player to begin another word with, and so forth.

A game will normally start with the word “shiritori” itself, which means that the next item will have to begin with り (ri). The default choice here is りんご (ringo, apple), in which case the following word is required to begin with ご (go). This can continue on forever, or until someone — by accident or on purpose — proffers an item that ends in ん, the singular “n” sound. Some common candidates here are キリン (kirin, giraffe), だいこん (daikon, radish), and みかん (mikan, tangerine). Since there is no Japanese word that starts with ん, you have reached a dead end. Needless to say, the person who came up with the ん-word loses.

The rules are a bit fuzzy with respect to what exactly the rear part of a word is. Most people seem to take it to be the final kana or kana combination of an item. That means that in the case of a long vowel indicated by a 伸ばし棒 (nobashibō, lengthening dash), they would go with the last kana before the dash. Accordingly, the word following on ストロー (sutorō, straw) would start with “ro” rather than “ō.”

Another tricky case is when a word ends in a small kana, such as with じてんしゃ (jitensha, bicycle). While you could just change little ゃ into a full-fledged upper-case や and use this one for your next word, players are more prone to keeping the しゃ combination, and will continue on with a word such as しゃっくり (shakkuri, hiccup) or しゃこ (shako, garage) instead.

For advanced players, a number of special rules are often enacted. One such rule dictates that a word can only be used once, which prevents the game getting stuck: すいか (suika, watermelon) → からす (karasu, crow) → すいか → からす … what a mess. For similar reasons, the rules may disallow words that consist of only just one kana, such as き (ki, tree), か (ka, mosquito), or が (ga, moth).

Players may also agree to use only nouns or restrict their contributions to single words. This is to eliminate the rather cheap trick of adding a だ (da, is) upon realizing you’ve accidentally produced an ん-word. For instance, メロン (meron, melon) could be easily turned into メロンだ (meron da, it’s a melon). Those types of emergency exits can make the whole game about as exciting as bowling on a bumper lane.

To learn more about the unwritten rules of shiritori, I conducted a little experiment. I asked about 60 university students in one of my undergraduate classes to write down the first 10 items they would use in a shiritori chain, starting with — you guessed it — shiritori. I gave no additional instructions.

Not altogether surprisingly, I found the students tended to opt for specific shiritori paths. More than a quarter of them chose りす (risu, squirrel) as their second move, and — even more impressive — no less than 57 percent went for ringo.

Treading further down this ringo path, the most favorable subsequent items in the chain were ゴリラ → らっぱ → パンツ (gorirarappapantsu, gorilla → trumpet → pants). No less than 27 percent of all students proceeded in this order. And that is not yet the end of the line, because there were three more stalwarts waiting to be unleashed: つみき → きつね → ねこ (tsumikikitsuneneko, building blocks → fox → cat). A total of seven people (11 percent) had resisted an incalculable number of other possible combinations and were still together at this eighth item in the chain. They would split up into a コアラ (koara, koala) and a こま (koma, top) group from here, but completely disperse only at the final item of the experiment.

My little survey also confirmed that shiritori players prefer simple nouns with a concrete meaning. The students hardly ever chose verbs or adjectives, though they did occasionally use proper nouns, such as ジュラシックパーク (Jurashikku Pāku, “Jurassic Park”) or the following chain of inner-Tokyo place names: めじろ (Mejiro) → ろっぽんぎ (Roppongi) → ぎんざ (Ginza).

Sino-Japanese vocabulary was rare, with only a handful of non-abstract, everyday items such as りょくちゃ (ryokucha, green tea), えんぴつ (enpitsu, pencil) and うんどうかい (undōkai, sports festival) making an appearance. By contrast, the number of Western loan words was noticeably high. An average of 2.1 items was contained in each chain, though of course this is in part due to the frequent occurrence of gorira and pantsu.

Whatever words you choose when playing shiritori, don’t forget the two most important rules: Have fun and be aware that the end of the game can be quite suddeん!

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