Hand-To-Hand Combat

January 29, 2010 By KUMIKO MAKIHARA
The International Herald Tribune/The New York Times

TOKYO — As I gazed up enthralled at the ornate, pink columns in the ancient city of Petra, I heard the annoying chant again: “Chi chi no cement.” My 10-year-old son and his cousins were shouting the words to a Japanese hand game in which players try to predict how many thumbs will be up or down at the end of the call. Throughout our winter holiday tour of Jordan, the boys kept at it.

Their obsession with the game was exasperating for us parents trying to listen to the guide, not to mention hoping to broaden the children’s horizons.

On the other hand, it was good to know that in the age of Nintendo and Play Station, children can still entertain themselves with just their thumbs. In fact, hand games may be the play of choice for modern-day parents. They can be educational, creative and improve hand-eye coordination and response time. And as my son Yataro says, “You don’t have to worry about batteries.”

Traditional hand games and their modern variations permeate Japanese society. After returning with a rusty fist from living overseas, I’ve now honed my skills for the mother of all hand games, janken, or rock, scissors and paper. (Rock seems to be the most common first throw.) At school, the mothers engage in heated rounds to assign PTA duties, and at my tennis class we decide our rotation order by the game.

Apart from using janken for decisions like selecting teammates or settling disputes, children play numerous varieties of the game as a diversion. There’s “bulldog janken,” which I refuse to partake in because it involves pulling your opponent’s cheek to resemble the animal each time you win.

I prefer the reflex tester “green, green, parin,” in which the winner of the previous round shouts his or her next hand simultaneously with the throw. If the players tie, the first one to shout “don” is the winner. It sounds simple, but it’s hard to win against a seasoned 10-year-old — a humbling experience for adults.

Among children, too, hand games are the great equalizer. Yataro constantly bemoans the fact that, according to his count, we are the only family at school that does not own a Nintendo DS, which excludes him from talk about the latest software and relegates him to second-class citizenship. Indeed, one mother threw him a few crumbs after her son accidentally spilled water on him at a restaurant where the boys had been absorbed in their games.

“As a punishment, lend your DS to Yataro,” she told her son.

But in hand-to-hand combat, Yataro can hold his own. As soon as he started school, older boys taught him how to play a hand game that requires quick addition and subtraction. Recently I saw him and a friend enraptured in a game they had made up on the spot in which different hand and arm positions acted as missiles and barriers, and the object was to shoot an unguarded opponent.

Such resourcefulness keeps the old games evolving. In chi chi, the thumb prediction game, originally the players just guessed the total number of thumbs that would be pointing upward at the end of each chant. Children then added descriptive words that could be used instead of numbers. If the player who is up shouts “cement,” any thumbs down are stuck in that position for the rest of the game. “Dynamite” gambles on all thumbs being up, and for the opposite forecast of all thumbs down, my son’s friends created the new antonym: “shynamite.”

Classic versions of hand games can be a problem when not updated for political correctness. Children still play a form of janken that replaces the words for rock, scissors and paper with the key World War II vocabulary, gunkan (battleship), Chosen (Korea) and Hawaii (à la Pearl Harbor). Chosen can be an offensive term for Korea under some circumstances, related to Japan’s war-time annexation of the peninsula. I suddenly realized the inappropriate word usage when Yataro and his cousins began shouting “Chosen!” during a round at a Korean barbecue restaurant.

I know that all too soon the excited boy shouting chants and waving his fist will give way to a mum, earphone-clad teenager with hands in his pockets. So for the time being, I’ll endure the clamor and work on my reflexes.