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One of the few surviving sansukumi-ken games is jan-ken, which was brought to the West in the 20th century as rock paper scissors. East Asia has a long history of hand games, which are known as ken games in Japan. Ken was brought to Japan in the 17th century as a Chinese drinking game. The speech chronicles ken as a game played by the emperors of ancient China during drinking parties. It recounts a traditional story about the origin of ken in Japan.
The story is set in Nagasaki's Maruyama red light district approximately years prior to the publication of the handbook. The Chinese hosted a party in Maruyama and held Japan's first ken tournament after feasting and dancing. The party guests competed until five of the best ken players were selected and awarded expensive prizes. The importance of the party is never made clear in the speech, but the story is useful for understanding the cultural background of ken games.
Ken games played with three hand gestures became popular in the 18th century. They were named sansukumi-ken , which translates into "ken of the three who are afraid of one another.
In mushi-ken , the "frog" represented by the thumb wins against the "slug" represented by the little finger, which, in turn defeats the "snake" represented by the index finger, which wins against the "frog". The centipede was chosen because of the Chinese belief that the centipede was capable of killing a snake by climbing and entering its head. A distinct feature of kitsune-ken is that the game is played by making gestures with both hands. Ken games underwent a transformation from drinking games played by adults into children's games.
Several Japanese writers made note of the observation that children were playing a game once associated with brothels. He had this to say: "In former days children used to play red-shell-horse-riding or they fought with the shell of mussels. Of today's children nobody knows these games. The games which children play when they come together are "The old man goes to the mountain to cut wood, while the old woman goes to the river to wash" like in former times, but now they play also mushi-ken, fox ken, and original ken.