The other night, as the only raised-on-Maui local among the folks gathered for an evening of parlor games, I was pleasantly surprised when my friend Kristi suggested we “jan ken po” to determine which team would go first. And then she floored me by chanting “Jankenna, mankenna, saka saka po!”
“The long version!” I exclaimed with delight, “I haven’t heard that in years!”
“I work with kids,” she smiled.
Jankenpo, Hawaii’s version of rock-paper-scissors, was introduced to the islands by Japanese immigrant workers. In Japan, janken is more than child’s play; it’s commonly used to resolve disputes and make decisions. The highest-stake janken game ever recorded took place in 2005, when a wealthy businessman used the method to choose an auction house for his prized art collection, which included works by Cezanne, Picasso, and van Gogh.
Jankenpo is also more complicated and ritualized than rock-paper-scissors, in which players say “one, two, three” in unison, revealing their choice on the third count and repeating the process if there’s a tie, or if the players have agreed to “two out of three” rather than a one-shot deal. In Japan’s janken, they first say “jan ken pon.” If both players show the same gesture, they say “aiko desho” (looks like a tie) and try again. Our small-kid-time pidgin version was “ai kara sho,” which I had mistakenly believed to be derived from “I cannot show.”
But that’s the short version. Serious jankenpo, with several rounds, starts with the four-count phrase Kristi learned from her young theater students. The complete chant, with four “shows,” goes like this:
Jankenna mankenna saka saka PO!
Wailuku, Wailuku, bahng bahng SHO!
Maui (drawn out and pronounced “MaaaauuuWEE!”)
Although the last two lines vary according to geography and generations, the second line seems to be universal in the islands. It even appears in “Pidgin to Da Max,” which also cited the alternate “Wailuku, Wailuku, big fat TOE!”
Occasionally, some smart-aleck kid would try to introduce a new hand sign, like pointing the little finger (“That’s dynamite! Dynamite beats everything!”), so we had to preface our games with a declaration of rules: No dynamite and no Superman (crossing the index and middle fingers).
As for the record-setting janken challenge mentioned above, Takashi Hashiyama told the New York Times, “I sometimes use such methods when I cannot make a decision. As both companies (Christie’s and Sotheby’s) were equally good and I could not choose one, I asked them to please decide between themselves and suggested . . . rock, paper, scissors.”
The auction houses were given three days to prepare for the multi-million-dollar showdown, and they employed vastly different approaches. Although she declined to discuss her preparations publicly, the head of Christie’s Japan office reportedly researched the psychological aspects of the game and consulted with experts, including a pair of 11-year-old twins, who informed her that “everybody knows you always start with scissors.” Sotheby’s, on the other hand, wasted no time on strategy because, as an official said, “this is a game of chance, so we didn’t really give it that much thought.”
Rather than face off with the traditional hand gestures, representatives of the two companies were instructed to write a single word — rock, paper, or scissors — on a piece of paper. Christie’s did, indeed, choose scissors and won the rights to auction off the $20 million collection, which likely earned them several million dollars in commissions.
I wonder what would have happened if the Sotheby’s agent had written “dynamite” on his paper.
* Kathy Collins is a radio personality (The Buzz 107.5 FM), storyteller, actress, emcee and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.