When I first came to Japan when I was 19, I was really shocked by just how much everyone plays Rock, Paper, Scissors (called “Janken” here). Of course, I was very familiar with the game, having played it many times with kids on the schoolyard, or with my brothers and sisters. But once I became an older teenager, I stopped playing it as I thought of it as a game for children. So, I was shocked when nearly everyone in Japan plays Janken. I had assumed that Janken was just an adaptation of Rock, Paper, Scissors, and must have been introduced to Japan by Americans but boy how I was wrong. The truth is actually quite the opposite.
Janken actually is derived from the similar Chinese game called Wuzazu. The style of play is the same as Janken but the hand movements are different. When Wuzazu came to Japan in the early 200’s CE, it was adapted to a game called “Sansukumi-Ken” or “Mushi-Ken”. In this version, your fingers represent frog, slug, and snake. In this game, the frog eats the slug, the snake eats the frog, and the slug poisons the snake. There were many different versions of the game. In one other version, known as “Kitsune-Ken”, you use both hands to make a kitsune (a fox), a village head, and a hunter. In this game the kitsune eats the village head, the hunter kills the kitsune, and the village heads defeat the hunter (by revoking his hunting license?). Eventually, the form we know would become the most common version.
The first works in the west discussing Rock, Scissors, Paper are from The Paper Scissors Stone Club which was founded in London, England in 1842. In their initial publications, they stated their goals as “The club is dedicated to the exploration and dissemination of knowledge regarding the game of Paper Scissors Stone and providing a safe legal environment for the playing of said game.” Ooh… Rock Paper Scissors… Such a dangerous game… Be that as it may, by the 1920s this club would have over 100,000 members.
Even in the 1930s the game was not well known in America. An article in the Japanese section of the New York Times gave the instructions for the game. The article referred to the game as “John Kem Po”, and gave the following advice, “This is such a good way of deciding an argument that American boys and girls might like to practice it too.”
Throughout 30’s and 40’s the game would spread throughout the country, to the point that a 19-year-old boy from Nevada would think that Rock Paper Scissors was as American as apple pie, but the truth is as truly Japanese as sushi.