Leave it to Japan to make a friendly game of rock-paper-scissors into an event, complete with cosplay, cheering, and crying.
Since 2010, members of idol group AKB48 and its sister groups have duked it out in paper-rock-scissors competitions or “janken taikai” in Japanese.
“Janken” means paper-rock-scissors (“taikai” means “tournament”), and while I played this growing up in the U.S., I certainly never did as much as Japanese people do. Even grown-ups play janken, using it to decide trivial things among friends that people in the U.S. might decide with a coin toss.
In Japan, janken dates from the 17th century and is an evolution of an older game that was imported from China that dates from 200BC! Japan, however, is often credited with helping rock-paper-scissors spread through the West.
But what’s the point of having a paper-rock-scissors competition for idols? It’s two-fold. First, it’s another big event for AKB48 groups and their fans, and second, a paper-rock-scissors tournament is a rather cutesy, especially when it’s taken so seriously. Competitors cosplay, there’s a ref, and even if your favorite idol loses, you can cheer her on in the wake of defeat.
However, the reason why the winning idol freaks out is because this year the tournament champ gets a to be the center (main idol) in a special spin-off group. In the hyper competitive world of Japanese idols, that is quite a prize! It’s also a way for group members, who might not yet have a large following, to have a moment in the spotlight.
This isn’t the first paper-rock-scissors tournament in Japan. In the past, Japanese variety shows have held janken competitions, but they certainly were not this intense. Such competitions are not Japan only, either. Here’s footage of a RPS event in Las Vegas:
And here is a rock-paper-scissors champion on Conan’s old show.
All this might seem rather peculiar in the West, but in Japan, paper-rock-scissors is actually a daily thing: Every morning on one of the country’s most popular morning shows, celebrities challenge viewers to rock-paper-scissors matches, and viewers can even track their wins!
Plus, every Sunday on Sazae-san, the longest-running animated TV series in history, the titular character Sazae-san challenges viewers to a game of rock-paper-scissors. Mind you, this is on a weekly basis, and since families tend to watch Sazae-san together, everybody plays!
In Japan, this simple game is much more than just paper-rock-scissors. It’s part of the culture.
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