Why Does Rock-Paper-Scissors Come Up In Anime So Much?

by Justin Sevakis,

Samuel asked:

Mind explaining the history of the Japanese version of Westerners' "rock/paper/scissors" known as jan-ken-pon (and what each gesture looks like and does to another gesture)?

The game of Rock-Paper-Scissors is so ancient and so pervasive across the world, there is some historical disagreement about its origins. Most historians believe that the game is an ancient Chinese invention, and was refined into its current state in Japan. Its earliest mention in ancient Chinese history texts (Wuzazu, circa 1600) refers to it as "shoushiling," (hand command) and stated that it dated back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). The competitive hand signs meant different things in those days, but the basic premise of three hand signs that defeated each other when drawn was already firmly established.

Recent research at The University of Lisbon has found evidence of the game being played by Celtic settlers in Spain and Portugal around 600 BC, and that it was spread throughout Europe in the first century A.D. by the invading Roman armies. However, there is a chance that this theory may be confusing Rock-Paper-Scissors with an ancient finger counting game called Morra. At any rate, the actual Rock-Paper-Scissors seemed to (re?) emerge in Europe in the mid-1700s where it was, for some reason, associated with the French Army General Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comet de Rochambeau, who supported George Washington in the American Revolution. For this reason, the game is still known as "Roshambo" in Europe (where it does not mean a kick to the nuts). However, knowledge of the game appears to go dormant here after a time.

As for Japan, shoushiling made it there in the 1600s as a Chinese drinking game. A Japanese book on various hand games from 1809 tells a story of the game's introduction at a big, fancy Chinese hosted party in Nagasaki in the 1650s, where guests competed until the top five winners were awarded prizes. Known in Japanese as Sansumi-ken (三すくみ拳), the game had many variations based on folklore. The earliest known variation, Mushi-ken, featured a frog beating a slug beating a snake beating a frog. (The slug beating a snake didn't make much sense; it's thought to have been a mistranslation from the Chinese for "poisonous centipede.")

Other variations followed. The most popular was "Kitsune-ken", which had a (supernatural) fox beating a village leader, which would beat a hunter, that could defeat the fox. Strip-Kitsune-ken was a popular game at brothels. The game in various forms eventually became a children's game. The current version, "jan-ken," was thought to have been invented in Japan in the mid-1800s, and spread back to Europe in that form. Despite its earlier European incarnations, it appears that it was this re-introduction from Japan that our modern knowledge of the game comes from.

From there, the game developed a small, anime-like cult following. The Paper Scissors Stone Club was formed in London in 1842 (dedicated to knowledge of and providing a safe legal environment for the game, according to its charter). The club changed its name to the World RPS Society and moved to Toronto in 1918, and by 1925 had more than 10,000 active members.

By the 1920s various Western newspapers were introducing the concept to their audiences. A 1924 article about Morra being played in Italian port cities in The Times of London turned into a letters thread discussing its similarity to "Zhot" being played in the Mediterranean, which was then identified as the Japanese Jan-ken-pon. By 1927 the game was mainstream enough in England that a thriller novel came out called "Scissors Cut Paper." (A sequel came out two years later called "Stone Blunts Scissors.") A French Children's magazine in 1927 introduced the "Japanese game Chi-fou-mi" (from the old Japanese for "one, two, three"). The New York Times, in a 1933 piece on Tokyo's rush hour, went to great pains to describe the rules of the game. By the following year it was an entry in Compton's Pictured Encyclopedia.

Today, of course, the game is ubiquitous worldwide, and still goes by many names. It's still everywhere in Japan, and is commonly invoked in everything from video games to famous court cases. And the World RPS Society still exists. They have a website, and still maintain authority over world Rock-Paper-Scissors tournaments.

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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