The Jan-Ken Junkie (Part 4)

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“And so he did. The next day John began playing Jan-Ken solitaire. He played, sitting in front of the mirror for hours trying to feel it. Little by little, some little flicker of recognition emerged in his eyes. It was one night a few weeks later that he suddenly jumped up and shouted, he was so excited: ‘YUKE, I GOT IT, I GOT IT! WATCH!’ I watched him jan-ken in the mirror a few times but I didn’t get it. ‘Watch again, Yuke! See, I’m feeling it. Can’t you see?’ And then finally I did see: John knew, no—sensed—what he, as his opponent, would throw! Eureka! After that I could never beat John no matter how hard I tried.”

“But Yuko, is it that simple? I mean could I or anyone else just go home, practice in the mirror one night and master Jan-Ken?”

“No, of course not, Sandy. Don’t forget that at that point John had been meditating on the intrinsic qualities of Jan-Ken and playing Jan-Ken for years. He was close but just needed one more little something to nudge him up to that level of genius.”

“Mystical. Truly mystical, Yuko. Well, where did you go from there?”

Jan-Ken Schemin’
“Where did we go from there? We went to weddings, Sandy. John decided to refine his new approach to Jan-Ken at wedding parties.”

“Wedding parties? I’m lost. Why wedding parties?”

“Because that’s where the action is. Haven’t you ever been to a wedding party where they play the ‘Jan-Ken Money Game,’ Sandy?”

“Oh right! I think I have. Each person starts out with a 500 yen coin?”

“Right. But in those days they didn’t have 500 yen coins, Sandy. They used hundred yen coins.”

“Right! Each person jan-kens with someone nearby at their table.”

“Right. Then, when you lose, you give your money to the winner.”

“The winners play other winners. Soon you have table champions with handfuls of money.”

“The table champs come together at the front of the room.”

“Five Jan-Kens later, the winner has 10 to 20,000 yen in his or her hand! Did John do that, Yuko?!”

“You bet. John got himself invited to as many wedding parties as he could. He wanted to cultivate every subtle nuance and every passionate possibility of his art—under pressure. He wasn’t really interested in the money per se, but it pushed him towards excellence. But at first this plan backfired because not every wedding party played the Jan-Ken game. It was hit and miss. We ended up spending a fortune attending wedding parties where they didn’t play Jan-Ken. So I took over and started doing research. I became the scientist! Over the next few years, I made sure that John was invited only to really big weddings and with Jan-Ken on the menu. I remember one time we practiced in a coffee shop near the party place in Roppongi. John was hot! He was showing off and beat me and everyone there twenty straight games without even trying. That would have come to a fortune in winnings! He was ready! We got to the party and sure enough, they played Jan-Ken, but—it was Yakyu-Ken! Not the Jan-Ken Money Game. I hadn’t done my homework. I’ve never seen a man so disappointed, and there were a lot of pretty girls at that party, too!”

“Wow! What a change!”


“What was the most he ever won, Yuko?”

“Well, Sandy, at one wedding, I think it was some famous writer’s that John had met in Kamakura, everyone was drunk and they suddenly decided to play for really high stakes, 10,000 per person. It started out fun. But at the end, I’ve never seen such tension. John walked away from that party with a cool two million yen in his pocket. He was magnificent that day. Like a matador. Like Picasso. Bold. Fearless. Brilliant.”

“An exciting tale, Yuko.”

“Yes. And we were ready for the next step.”
Jan-Ken Celebrity
“One Friday night—I think it was in the summer of 1984—at a yakitori shop in Kamakura, John and I overheard, and then started drinking sake with a couple at the counter next to us who were talking about an upcoming Jan-Ken Contest. The woman was promoting the event and she invited John to enter. John said okay and, to the surprise of everyone except me and John, won! He was on his way! The promoter really liked John’s style and introduced him to other promoters. Before long, John and I were traveling to various events and competitions all over Japan. He always won and the more he won, the more they wanted him. After that, his rise to the top just happened naturally. At first John was written up in the press. Then he was featured on a few TV news programs. His name was becoming known and he could even command appearance fees.”

“And then, Yuko, John won a national contest, didn’t he?”

“Yes, Sandy, he certainly did. It was at that time that a national contest was announced. They had local, then regional, playoffs. The final contest, ‘THE JAN-KEN HEAVYWEIGHT TITLE MATCH,’ was broadcast live from the Budokan on TV Asahi. John should have been seeded first but because he was a foreigner, they ended up seeding him fifth. He was the sentimental favorite though.”

“I’ve seen video clips of the contest. He put on a real show, didn’t he!”

“Yes, Sandy, he did. They painted John’s hands red, white, and blue before the competition! He beat everyone in straight sets, and became an instant, national celebrity.”

“The final match was just thrilling, wasn’t it? Twenty consecutive ties before John finally won on the twenty-first throw!”

“Yes, and the brilliant thing was that John planned the whole thing, Sandy. He could have won on the very first throw if he had wanted to, but that wouldn’t have been very much fun, would it? No, he wanted to put on a show for the fans and that’s what he did. The people went crazy. The advertisers loved it, too.”

“Every time I watch the tapes I get goose bumps.”

“Yes, me too, Sandy. After that John was in great demand to jan-ken on just about every TV show that existed. His became the most famous face in the country. Besides TV, you’d see John jan-kenning on the cover of newspapers and magazines everywhere. Look, here are some photos—and side comments by John—of John jan-kenning with different famous people. Here’s one from when he had an audience with the Emperor and beat him at Jan-Ken (WHEW! CLOSE CALL! ALMOST LOST ON AN ATO-DASHI!). This is when he went to the White House and taught the president how to Jan-Ken (THAT’S SCISSORS, NOT A PEACE SIGN!). Here he is in the Philippines boxing and jan-kenning Muhammad Ali (THE REAL THRILLA IN MANILLA!). And here’s John singing and jan-kenning with the Beatles (ALL YOU NEED IS JAN! HEY, MIGHT MAKE A GREAT JK THEME SONG!). He did it all, Sandy.”

Totto-Chan and Jan-Ken Friends United
“Now, Yuko, I wonder if you could you tell us something about your marriage. How did it happen? And who proposed to who?”

“Actually, Sandy neither one of us really proposed. Rather, it was suggested, suddenly and quite sincerely, by Kuroyanagi Testsuko during the middle of an interview with John and I on her long-running TV program Tetsuko’s Room. We were relaxed, jan-kenning with her, and talking about children’s games and children’s education in Japan. As you might know, she’s quite an expert. I’m sure you’ve read her book, Totto-Chan. Anyway, somehow the conversation shifted over to family life. Kuroyanagi-san was astonished to find that we weren’t even considering marriage at the time. So during a commercial break, she had an intimate little chat with us about it. She must have touched a button in John’s heart because a moment later when we were back on air, John suddenly sat up straight in his seat, took my hand, and said—to me, Tetsuko, and to the millions of her TV viewers—that he would marry me … if I could beat him in a game of Jan-Ken.”


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