Gaming Mahjong

Mahjong around the world: Japan

Written by Jenn Barr

This article first appeared in the Jul/Aug 2012 issue of World Gaming magazine.

This issue we’re introducing a new series to showcase your favorite game and how it’s seen in other countries around the world, starting with Japan.

Each country has their own special version of the game – even the culture and demographics of mahjong differ depending on where you travel. For this issue I’m starting with my current favorite version of the game, which is the one I play every single day.

Japanese “riichi” mahjong celebrated its 100-year anniversary recently. Although mahjong has evolved since its introduction to Japan, the current version has found an important home here and its popularity has grown worldwide.

The rules of Japanese mahjong have some peculiarities you won’t find in any other rule set, namely “riichi” and the “missed win” rules. When a player has a concealed hand that is ready (just one tile away from winning), the player has the option to declare riichi and put out an extra point bet. This counts as a one-hand point (fan) and doubles the score if the hand wins. Once declaring riichi the hand cannot be changed and the player is committed to continue until the hand ends.

This is fine, except if you’ve fallen victim to the “missed win” (furiten) rule. A player who has discarded a tile that completes their hand no longer has the option to win on another player’s discard.

For example, if a player is holding:

…and has already discarded the 1 or 4 of cracks, they can no longer win on a discard, but the hand may be won on a self-draw (tsumo). This is the reason Japanese mahjong players line up their discards in order and why the game has more defensive strategies than any other version.

What makes Japanese mahjong culture so unique is the professional circuit. The largest and most successful professional league, the Japan Professional Mahjong League, boasts hundreds of members and some of the world’s strongest players. Ranked by a 9-tier “dan” system similar to martial arts and shogi (Japanese chess), each month players compete in a league ranked from A to D (A being the top tier) and accumulate points for the season.

Each season the top players in the leagues B, C and D move up and the bottom players of leagues A, B and C move down, just like promotion and relegation in the English football league system (also known as the “football pyramid”). At the end of the season the winner of the A-league is named the Phoenix Cup Champion, the most prestigious title in the league. Other notable leagues are Nihon Pro Mahjong Association and Saikouisen Nihon Pro Mahjong.

Japanese tend to play mahjong among friends and colleagues but rarely with family members. Most players prefer to visit a parlor and rent an automatic table, even for private games among friends, and there are thousands of parlors throughout the country. Parlors are especially predominant around stations and, despite strict gambling laws, advertise freely on the street. Players may venture into these establishments on their own for pick-up games and when there aren’t enough players, staff are happy to jump in.

Some have the image of the parlors being smoke-filled and packed with veterans, but this is not always the case. Those nervous about entering parlors can visit the video game arcade instead. Throughout Japan and Hong Kong, Japanese-style mahjong games are networked and there are thousands of users online at any given time. There are also several online options where players can get matches from the comfort of home.

Around 10 percent of Japan’s population plays mahjong, but this number is predominantly male. Japanese mahjong is more comparable to poker in the West than to mahjong in other Eastern countries and has historically been used for business negotiations. The current Japan, however, caters for players of any skill level, and with mahjong venues offering a great mix of offensive and defensive play, it’s no wonder the world is starting to notice riichi mahjong.