[Book] Lee O-young (III): A cultural theory of rock-paper-scissors

Lee O-young [李御寧] (1933 – present)

Lee O-young [李御寧] (1933 – present)

Continuing from Part II of this series. Lee O-young – having highlighted some key differences in outlook between the East and the West as embedded in linguistic structures in the first half of Janken Bunmei-ron [ジャンケン文明論] (2005), or “A Cultural Theory of Rock, Paper and Scissors” – then proceeds to the main argument of his book. He argues that the game of rock-paper-scissors is a metaphor for understanding how East Asians perceive the balancing forces of nature and adopt the game to govern certain aspects of human relations.

Rock-paper-scissors is a game of random chance. Anyone has the chance to win at this game. It is also a game that is outside the traditional top-down structures of social relations. More importantly, the game reflects the idea that there is never an absolute top-dog or winner in nature (even the strongest or cleverest mammal can fall prey to germs). So rock is defeated by paper, paper is in turn defeated by scissors, and scissors is in turn defeated by rock.

Lee O-young also observes that whereas rock-paper-scissors seems to be the preferred method for children in East Asia to settle questions such as who goes first or who does what, children in the West seem to prefer coin-tossing. While both produces random results, for rock-paper-scissors the human body itself is the one and only instrument required and each participant may even try to read the minds of each other, whereas in coin-tossing the coin is the key instrument and human consciousness does not enter into the equation. To perform rock-paper-scissors, you need at least one opponent. For coin-tossing, you can do it all by yourself.

He suggests that the ideas behind rock-paper-scissors may become guidelines to govern not only human relations, but also international relations. He recommends China, Japan and Korea as ‘Land,’ ‘Sea’ and ‘Peninsula’ taking up positions similar to rock, paper and scissors respectively in a circular, balanced system of forces.

He concludes:

This is not just about Japanese people, or Asian peoples. Everyone in the world is surely not free from the dizziness created by the elevator that goes up and up and accelerates in speed to no end. Get off the elevator quick. We should descend to the earth just as the olden age of calling an elevator an ‘elevator’ is coming to an end. We should no longer say ‘room for teaching’ [教室] but ‘room for teaching and learning’ [教学室]. […] Let go of the baggage. Do not worry. I feel that the winds of civilizations have already changed.

I checked the date of publication at the end of the book: 20 April 2005. It seems to me that 10 years ago it was not uncommon for messages of peace and optimism like this to enter into mainstream media in Japan. How times have changed indeed since then.


[Book] Lee O-young (I): Of linguistic bugs and pitfalls in perspective

[Book] Lee O-young (II): ‘As above, so below’ in linguistics


2 thoughts on “[Book] Lee O-young (III): A cultural theory of rock-paper-scissors

  1. “It seems to me that 10 years ago it was not uncommon for messages of peace and optimism like this to enter into mainstream media in Japan. How times have changed indeed since then.”
    So now it’s a bad time to move in Japan? I know nationalism is on the rise but what has exactly changed?

    • Well, I don’t know if my own person is any barometer for your reference, but 10 years ago I seldom came across anything that made me genuinely angry (perhaps youth had something to do with that, but no matter). I wrote about ‘Jinrui Shikin’ here and it is the sort of thing that makes me angry.

      We have been talking to each other for years on the internet and you may know my writing policy – whatever free time I have, I use it to blog about things of fine quality I would like to recommend to others. If something is rubbish, I just tend not to write about it – I could have used the time more productively to write about things of beauty and excellence. It’s not in my nature to bash people and things. These days I am seriously thinking about participating in some sort of Right-Wing Watch because I am getting angry with what I see.

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