Let’s take a look at what is undoubtedly Shimura’s biggest cultural impact.

With the recent passing of Japanese comedy legend Ken Shimura due to complications of a COVID-19 infection, everyone has been looking back on his many accomplishments in music, comedy, and entertainment in general.

Strangely, it was a tweet by the Japan Rock Paper Scissors Society (Nihon Janken Kyokai) that brought up his most overlooked and yet his biggest influence on Japanese culture. Normally, this Twitter account posts nothing but “rock (gu)”, “scissors (choki)”, or “paper (pa)” once a day, but yesterday it broke character for a very special announcement.

The above tweet reads:

“This is the first time we have uttered anything other than rock, scissors, or paper. There is no other reason that Rock, Paper, Scissors has become so widespread in Japan than through Ken Shimura’s idea of ‘Saisho wa gu.’ We were able to interact indirectly with him by the radio once, and want to thank him for all the laughs. We pray for his happiness.”

In Japan, where the game goes by the name of “Janken,” almost any time you play with a person from the age of two to 102, the wind-up will be accompanied by the rhythmically spoken phrase “Saisho wa gu, janken pon!” (First is rock, janken pow!). There are also variations, such as “Saisho wa gu, janken poi!” (First is rock, janken throw!), or the really time-consuming “Saisho wa gu, matamata gu, Ikariya Chosuke atama ga pa, seigi wa katsu, janken pon!” (First is rock, and again is rock, Chosuke Ikariya’s head is paper, justice wins, janken pow!).

It makes sense since before throwing their hand shape, everyone starts with a closed fist or “rock.” And when chanted by all members, it ensures a fair and synchronized match. And as the Japan Rock Paper Scissors Society pointed out, this phrase, which seems as old as the game itself, was actually coined, or at least popularized, by Ken Shimura.

Here is the phrase in action around 1970 in a sketch titled Janken Duel from the show Hachi-Ji Da Yo! Zenin Shugo which featured Shimura and his band The Drifters. The reaction of the kids in the audience shows how catchy it was, spreading around schoolyards and families across the country.

According to an interview Shimura had with the pop group SMAP, it was developed while drinking with some friends. One night they decided to play Rock, Paper, Scissors, to see who would pay for the drinks. However, everyone was too wasted to play properly and kept throwing out of time with each other.

So, Shimura basically had to hold everyone’s hand through the process, and thus invented the phrase “Saisho wa gu, janken pon!”

And yet, as shown by the reaction online, a lot of people never knew the words traced back to the late, great Ken Shimura.

“Ken Shimura invented ‘saisho wa gu’?! One more reason he was a great man.”
“That’s the first I’ve heard of this…”
“We often copied the Janken Duel in school, of course without pouring stuff down our pants.”
“Didn’t everyone know this?”
“Hopefully, Shimura’s death will influence anti-infection measures as well as his life influenced ‘saisho wa gu.'”
“There’s a Japan Rock Paper Scissors Society?”
“I never knew that but I can totally believe it. I think everyone got it from Hachi-Ji Da Yo!
“Not many people have created as much as he did. Rest in peace.”

Although Shimura is no longer with us, the mark he left on this age-old game will carry on and probably even outlive everyone on the Earth today. Hopefully, knowing he left us with that big a legacy helped him move on in the end.

Source: Twitter/@JapanRPS, Hachima Kiko
Top image: Pakutaso
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