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Rock, Paper, Scissors


The hand game called Rock, Paper, Scissors, while being an innocent game, may also be considered as symbolic of martial art combat philosophy.

The game is a western version of an 1800’s Japanese game called Jan Ken Po, or Janken or Ishikne (rock ken). It basically played in the same way as the older Japanese game. The game is enjoyed for its ease of play, its sudden reversals, and the quick thinking it requires.


In the game, two players face each other, pump their hands (preparatory motions that may vary according to the locale) and simultaneously extend their hands with the hands held in one of three shapes:
  • Rock. Represented by a fist
  • Scissors. Represented by extended index and middle finger.
  • Paper. Represented by a flat hand


According to the rules, the winner is decided by the following combinations:
  • Rock & Scissors: Rock breaks scissors and rock wins.
  • Paper & Rock: Paper covers rock and paper wins.
  • Scissors & Paper: Scissors cuts paper and scissors wins.


Janken is a type of ken. Originally, in China, ken meant fist, grip, force, or strike. This explains the name of the Chinese martial art of kenpo. However, a game in which victory was decided by the shape of the extended hand together with a number was also called ken. It appears that this usage of ken appeared in the Sung period and it is thought to have been conceived as a competitive game or a form of gambling. Of all the variations of ken games that arose, the one called Honken (original ken) that was the one that spread to Japan, so it called the root of Janken.

According to Shogakukan's Nihonkokugodaijiten dictionary, ken arrived in Kyushu in 1642, spread to the Osaka area by around the Edo period, and spread to Edo (now Tokyo) by about the Kyoho period (around the 1720’s). Because it first arrived in Nagasaki, it was sometimes called Nagasakiken or Kiyouken (Kiyou being the old name for Nagasaki).

Honken was played between two people, each of whom would simultaneously extend 0 to 5 fingers of one hand, and at the same time predict the total number of fingers. Whoever correctly predicted the number of fingers shown was the winner. Originally, this was a game played in drinking places as a way to determine who bought the drinks or who had to take a drink.

While I was in the Navy, we played a variation of this to decide who would go buy soft drinks for everyone. Each person had three paper clips behind his back. Each person would choose from one to three clips and hold them in front in a closed fist and each player would predict the total number of clips in all players’ hands. On command, all players opened their hands. The eventual loser went for the drinks.

Various kens were created, such as willow-ken, tail-up ken, deep-river ken, strip ken, circular ken, hand-up ken, follow-me ken, blindfold ken, and fists-together ken. What is called Janken comes from the guu, choki, paa or rock, scissors, paper sansukumi way of thinking.

Sansukumi is expounded in the book called the Kan'inshi, which describes how the snake fears the slug, the slug fears the frog, and the frog fears the snake. Each of the three animals holds the others in check so that the three cannot move, the same relationship as between rock, paper, and scissors. When this idea propagated to the honken and other ken (hand) games, games like Janken resulted. The jankens of the Edo period included Shoryuken and Musiken.

Shoryuken, also called village-headman ken or fox-ken, was played with the village-headman, musket, and fox symbols. Village-headman was indicated by sitting in a dignified manner, as if on the seat of honor. The musket was represented by mimicking carrying a musket in both hands. Fox was indicated by holding up both fists at an angle. All the gestures were made using the whole body. The rules were that the headman beat the gun, the gun beat the fox, and the fox beat the headman.

Mushiken was played with the snake, frog, and slug symbols. Snake (thumb) beats frog (index finger), which beats slug (ring finger), and slug beats snake. Mushkin was a children's game, whereas Shoryuken was played by adults.

After these, many other variations of jankens appeared.


Traditional Rock, Paper, Scissors, also called Gawi-Bawi-Bo and pronounced Kai-Bai-Bo, where kai is scissors, bai is rock, and bo is cloth or paper, is popular among Koreans. The rules are the same as in the traditional Japanese game. A popular related game is Muk-Chi-Ba.


In the game, no single hand shape (weapon) is superior since each has a strength and a weakness. In each hand presentation, one side will win, and one side will lose, or a tie will occur. Although the outcome would seem random, which side wins and which side loses depends on upon the mental strategy used by the presenters and the ability of each presenter to read the intentions of the other.

When compared to the martial arts, one might say that the game shows how the power of an empty hand (fist) is able to defeat the blade (scissors) of a warrior. Additionally, it shows how the open hand of friendship (flat hand) is able to defeat the power of the fist. The flat hand may be considered symbolic of a friendly handshake or the salute of a respectful adversary, or the paper (flat hand) may be symbolic of a peace treaty that is able to control conflict and keep it suppressed.

In taekwondo, the symbolism of the game is represented in the enclosed-fist ready position that is used in several traditional chang-hon patterns. The fist (rock) indicates power and the willingness to use it if it becomes necessary while the enclosing hand (paper) indicates a restraint of the power and a willingness to seek a peaceful solution.

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