For the second in the traditional Japanese games series we have kazu-ken (‘ken of numbers’). Kazu-ken, which originated in China, is thought to be the oldest version of the various ken games. During the game, both players made a hand gesture with their right hand which represented a number from zero to five, and as they did so they called out the number likely to result when the number they had made was added to that of their opponent. The correct number, which could be anywhere between zero and ten, had to be called out in a specially invented language which sounded similar to Chinese, and the loser was forced to drink a cup of sake... the consequence of losing most Japanese party games. The left hand was used to keep a record of the player's number of wins.
The image above is from the series A Mirror of Flirting Lovers: Cloud Clusters across the Moon (Chiwa kagami tsuki no murakumo), by Kitagawa Utamaro, published c. 1798-1800 by Enshūya Matabei. The characters depicted are from the play Sukeroku: The Flowers of Edo (Sukeroku yukari no Edo-zakura), which tells the story of the love affair between the courtesan Agemaki and the dashing dandy Sukeroku. Here, Sukeroku, on the right, is engaged in a game of kazu-ken with his rival, Ikkyū, whilst Agemaki stands behind the two men and observes.
This type of numbers game played with the hands is not unique to China and Japan. In Italy, the most popular version of a game called morra, which dates back to ancient Roman times, is almost identical to kazu-ken. The Romans called it micatio and were introduced to the game by the Greeks, who held a rod in their left hand whilst playing; the position of the hand along the rod indicating the number of games the player had won. The Greek game was an adaptation of one played in ancient Egypt. Illustrations of men and women engaged in playing atep, as the Egyptians called the various versions of the game, are illustrated on the wall of tomb no. 9 at Beni Hassan. This sort of game seems to have had universal appeal, and also appears to be timeless as it is still played today.
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