This article about my experience of mahjong in Japan was first published on a now defunct blog back in 2001.
From quite early on in my life I had wanted to learn to play mahjong. The teeming variety and exotic charm of the tiles fascinated me. When I accepted a job at a language school in Hiroshima in 1990 I took the opportunity to play mahjong in Japan.
I asked some of my students about the game. Two of them, Noda-san and Yoshimoto-san, offered to teach me how to play. “But there are only three of us.” I replied. “Isn’t mahjong a four-player game?”
“We’ll teach you Japanese three-player mahjong.” said Noda-san, “It’s a very good game.”
It is indeed. Like everything else that Japan has imported over the centuries, mahjong has been adapted to suit local tastes.
In fact there are two versions of mahjong in Japan. One is a four-player game called riichi maajan. That is the most popular version of mahjong in Japan. It takes the Chinese game and adds some extra Japanese details to improve upon the original.
3-Player Mahjong, Hiroshima-Style
Then there is the more radically transformed three-player game, which my two students taught me to play.
A standard mahjong set consists of 144 tiles divided into 36 types, each type occurring four times (4 x 36 = 144). The greater part belongs to one of the three suits, Coins, Bamboos, and Characters. The suits run from one to nine. The remaining tiles divide into three Dragons, four Winds and eight decorative bonus tiles called Flowers and Seasons.
Apart from the Flowers and Seasons, which are often discarded, the four-player game uses all of these tiles. However, the Japanese three-player variation cuts out all the tiles of the characters suit numbering from two to eight.
This produces a faster, riskier game that is ideally suited for gambling – if only gambling were not illegal in Japan! If you want to try the three-player game the rules in English are available here.
A Brief History of Mahjong in Japan
Mahjong was introduced to Japan from China in the early years of the twentieth century and became a popular urban pastime. But with Japan on a war footing from 1931-1945, mahjong was actively discouraged by the authorities.
Its fortunes revived after the Second World War to such an extent that there were about 60,000 mahjong parlours (jansoh) in operation throughout the nation by 1983.
Since then the game has been in something of a decline as fewer youngsters play it nowadays, so that by the early nineties the number of jansoh had fallen to something like 25,000. Nevertheless, that is still a lot of parlours! If you recognize the kanji for “mahjong” or jansoh you will not fail to notice the seemingly ubiquitous presence of signs advertising mahjong parlours wherever you go in urban Japan.
Inside a “Jansoh”
Poke your head inside the door of a typical jansoh and a vista of a brightly lit, smoke filled room crowded with men sat around square mahjong tables in their suits or rumpled shirt sleeves will most likely present itself to you.
The jansoh is not the exclusive preserve of men however, and every so often one or two of the more indomitable female players are often to be seen at the tables. The scene will be completed by the “mama-san”, the dominatrix who presides over the place dispensing drinks, snacks, and words of advice about the complexities of the game.
You can play either the four-player or the three-player game in a jansoh in Hiroshima. Moreover, not only are the fees quite low, the beer is cheap too! If you are lucky, mama-san will provide a range of tasty snacks or even some of her home cooking, gratis…
Automatic Mahjong Tables
It is worth visiting a jansoh just to see the mahjong tables. They are sophisticated marvels of modern technology. Each table contains two sets of tiles. While one set is on the table, in play, the other set lurks in the guts of the machine. When a game is finished one of the players presses a button and the central section of the table opens up to reveal a cavity. The players push the tiles into the cavity. Another button is pressed and the central section closes. At the same moment four long narrow flaps slide open on the table and four completed walls of tiles emerge.
Meanwhile the tiles that were pushed into the table are automatically churned and shuffled and jostled into position ready for the next game. In this way players are saved the bother of shuffling the tiles and building walls after each game. As soon as one game is over the next game can commence without delay; an important consideration when you are paying for the time you spend at the table.
Mahjong at Home
Of course, mahjong can also be played at home with friends or family. Mahjong sets can be purchased from many outlets and range in price from ¥2,000 to ¥35,000 and up. The game would typically be played sitting around the kotatsu – a low table with a built in heating element for winter evenings. Until a few years ago kotatsu manufacturers catered to the mahjong-playing market by finishing the underside of most kotatsu table-tops in green baize. If you wanted to play mahjong at home you could convert your kotatsu into a mahjong table simply by turning over the table-top.
Nowadays, with fewer people playing mahjong at home fewer kotatsu come with green baize undersides. Instead, rubber mats made especially for mahjong can be purchased quite easily. A rubber mat serves to keep the noise down when the tiles are shuffled.
The Mahjong Museum
The influence of mahjong on modern Japanese culture is testified to by the fact that in 1991 the world’s first museum dedicated to the game opened on the north-east coast of the Boso peninsula, to the south of Tokyo. [The museum shut a few years ago but the website remains… DH – November 2018]
But with fewer young people taking up the game, does mahjong have a future?
The Director General of the museum, Kyoichiro Noguchi [ Obituary ] certainly thinks so. Indeed, his vision for the game is full of lofty ambition. He expressed the hope that “Mahjong will contribute to the cultural exchange and peace of the world” [sic]. I don’t know about that, but I am sure that the game will be popular in Japan for the foreseeable future, even if it never reaches the heights that it did in the early postwar years.
DPH, July 2001
I recently heard that mahjong has experienced something of a revival despite – or rather, because of – Japan’s continuing recession. The reason is that it is cheaper to spend an evening in a mahjong parlour than in a hostess bar. I suppose that would depend on how high the stakes are if you happen to lose at the mahjong table. Nevertheless, the table fee is quite reasonable and the beer is cheap.
DPH, July 2003