Shiritori: Japanese word game

By | April 15, 2015

Quickly getting bored with academic learning materials, I always search for new ways to use Japanese without actually living in Japan. Typically, the more fun the activity is the more positive feedback there is and the more likely it will continue.

One game which is entertaining and requires no physical props or materials is game of shiritori(しりとり). This game can be played with any number of people, though I’ve only done in a group of two.

The rules are simple. One of the players starts by saying a word of their choice, and the second person must say a word which begins with the last character of the previous word that was said. After this, the 3rd person must now do the same, thinking up a word whose first letter matches the last letter of the word said by the 2nd person. After all the members have done this once, the process continues with the first person who began the game.

The game continues at which point someone says a word which ends in the Japanese letter ‘n’ (ん), at which point that person looses. If there are more than 2 players, the remaining players can continue until only one person remains.

Now that you understand the rules I can explain the origin of the name. “shiri” (尻)means “butt” (more commonly as “oshiri” and sometimes “ketsu”) and here refers to the last character of the word. “tori” (取り) means to take, in this case taking the last character of the word and making a new word beginning with it.

Let’s look at a quick example game to make sure the rules are clear:

Person A: そ

Person B:

Person A:

Person B:

Person A: ンド

Person B:  (looses!)

Since Person B said らせん (spiral) which ends with ん, they loose and Person A is the winner.

It’s important to notice that loanwords (normally written in Katakana) are legal here as well.

While these are the basic rules, in fact there are many optional rules. One alternate way to begin the game is start with the word ”しりとり” itself. When I have played, usually it is bad to reuse the same word over and over again, so if you do this may be pointed out and you have a chance to pick another word.

Two interesting variations are only allowing words which belong to a certain category (like “all things that can fly”), or to force matching up the new word with the last two characters of the last word (リスク => スクリーン, etc.).

You may be wondering at this point why words that end with “ん” loose. The reason appears to be because there are almost no words that begin with ん in Japanese (though technically there are some African regions or city names which do begin with ん).

An interesting strategy to improve ones chances at winning are to memorize as many words as possible that begin with る, because they are relatively rare in Japanese. However since loanwords are legal, you can memorize words like ルビー (ruby). It is easy to find Japanese words which end with る (especially verbs such as たべる、くる、みる), and if these words continually are said the person who knows fewer words beginning with る is likely to loose. Conversely, if you have memorize many of these you could keep trying to give る-words to your opponent, hoping to knock them out early. These sorts of strategies may be the reason one of the optional rules is to constrain words to nouns only.

While I wouldn’t go as far to say it’s nearly as good a real conversation practice, for those who lack the sufficient grammar for extended conversations you can still try this game out, and practice recalling words. You can also learn new words when your opponents says a word you aren’t familiar with. Of course, even if you are fluent you can still enjoy this game and use it to keep you on your toes.


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8 thoughts on “Shiritori: Japanese word game

    1. Tan Junheng

      風 (Kaze)-Wind
      神風 (Kamikaze)-Name of a part of the Japanese Special Attack Units

  1. vaffangool

    Wait how does this work – does the next entry need to start with “mai” like 毎日 (まいにち) or “i” like 幾ら (いくら)? I haven’t seen kanji used in shiritori so I’m totally thrown off.

    1. locksleyu Post author

      It’s the last letter, so い (i) is what you want to begin with.

      いくら is valid, so someone else can build off that (:

      1. vaffangool

        Thanks—I had thought that’s how it worked but I only know the game from watching ハロー! モーニング and AKBingo!. It’s all young people, so you never see kanji in these parlour games. Really the only time you see kanji on those programmes is when they’re giving someone a hard time for being less-than-proficient.

        One of the pitfalls of learning Japanese from fansubbed idol shows is that nearly all the kanji I know come from myōji. That and my dad is constantly laughing at me for saying 私.

        1. locksleyu Post author

          I haven’t heard of either of those shows but definitely there is a lot that can be learned from Japanese TV.

          I have seen some Japanese variety shows with Kanji but don’t have good enough sample to say if that is common. Even if it is young people speaking, I would assume the words would be written in subtitles containing Kanji just because it’s easier for adults to read.

          By the way, the only reason I used Kanji was just to describe the word I was using a different way. I wasn’t sure if there was more than word that meant “spring”. Generally shiritori is done spoken so this stuff doesn’t matter anyway.

          There might even be a version of it where you can use Kanji instead of single hiragana characters, but haven’t heard of that before.


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