Artist: Shōkōsai Hanbē 松好斎半兵衛 (active 1795-1807)

Authors: Girō 義浪 and Gojaku 吾雀

Title: Kensaku sumai zue 拳会角力図会 (Pictures of Sumo Hand Competitions)

Publisher:  Kawachiya Tasuke 河内屋太助, Ōsaka

Date: 1809

Medium: Woodblock printed, ink on paper

Gift of Arthur Tress, Arthur Tress Collection, Box 29, Book 8

The hand gestures game called “janken” in Japan or “rock-paper-scissors” abroad is very well known today. It is often played by children and adults for fun as well as in competitions—perhaps over whose turn it is to do the dishes or to ride in the front passenger seat of the car. And while that game is familiar to us today, it was not played with “rock-paper-scissors” as the hand shapes until the mid to later nineteenth century.

This book recounts the popularity and the rules for “ken-asobi” (拳遊び) or  “hand-gesture play” at the time it was published in 1809. These were often enjoyed as drinking games and were styled  after sumo wrestling competitions. In the opening pages, Osaka artist Shōkōsai Hanbē shows participants and fans hurrying to the site of play, then packing into the hall to sit in small groups eating, drinking, and playing hand gesture games.

Some  matches were played around miniature wrestling rings, like the one shown in the illustration at the top of this post, in imitation of sumo wrestling competitions. These games were refereed by judges carrying fans, just like the ones used for sumo, and the pages preceding this image describes the rules along with the role of the referees. Some competitors became famous for their skill, as the list of names of players from Osaka, Kyoto, and Nagasaki at the end of the book demonstrates.

Two variations of hand gesture games are illustrated in this opening, and the pages preceding and following describe the terms used during the game. One variation used all five fingers, as seen on the right, in a game where each player selected a hand gesture for a number and then shouted a prediction for the total made by both players (see the essay by Linhart listed below).

On the left, we are shown the very popular variation with three distinct hand forms called mushi-ken (虫拳), shown on the left side of the opening. This version featured three protagonists: the snake, the frog, and the slug. These animals were classed as mushi, a word often translated as “insects,” but which also included amphibians and reptiles. This form of the game originated in China with the protagonists as the snake, frog, and poisonous centipede. The shift from centipede to slug in the Japanese version happened due to a misreading of the characters for centipede.

In the illustration here, the snake is performed by the index finger, the frog by the thumb, and the slug by the pinky finger. Each of these animals is afraid of being consumed by one of the others, so the snake wins over the frog, the frog over the slug, and the slug over the snake. Below the hand gestures, Hanbē has illustrated an item called a “kenkin” (拳錦) or a “competition brocade,” a cover that could be attached to the hand, presumably to hide the gesture before played.

Games like these were played at home as well as in a variety of other locations. Images of the licensed brothel quarters often show clients and sex workers playing a game featuring a fox, a hunter, and the village headman. In that version, the wily fox outsmarts the village head, the village head bests the hunter, and the hunter trounces the fox.

This large format book features printing on fine paper. Mr. Tress recalls finding this book, volume one of two volumes, in 1970, on his second trip to Japan. For complete digitization of both volumes, see the example held in the Pulverer Collection (

Other copies:

Pulverer Collection:

Berlin State Library (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin)

University of Kyoto Library along with another seven libraries in Japan

Selected Reading:

Kitagawa Hiroko, “Commentary,” Kensarae sumai zue, The World of the Japanese Illustrated Book (

Linhart, Sepp, “From Kendo to Jan-Ken: The Deterioration of a Game from Exoticism into Ordinariness,” The Culture of Japan as Seen through Its Leisure, SUNY Press (1998), 319–344.

Posted by Julie Nelson Davis, August 24, 2020