The 2002 World
Championship in Mahjong Comes to Tokyo
By Brett Bull
The Captain would
never describe himself as a gambling man. The
reason is simple: It is already taken for
granted. From his part-time work as lead leak
inspector at his local nuclear power plant to his
late-night "chicken" contests against
on the subway tracks, the Captain's life is one
big game of chance.
At one time, the
mahjong business was similar - assumed to be mere
gambling, that is. Today, mahjong is slowly
shedding that image; it is a family game, a game
of true competition. And this week Tokyo was
location for the 2002 World Championship in
Mahjong. Join the Captain as he turns over a few
tiles and discusses some of the recent
developments in the image of this parlor pastime.
Jong Rock rides a motorcycle
and plays guitar. He's a tough guy, has long
sideburns and a skull-painted leather jacket. The
ladies can't resist him. And he plays...mahjong.
the main character in a manga (comic) featured in
Kindai Mahjong, a bi-monthly magazine whose
content includes manga serials and advertising
all focusing on the game of ceramic tiles on
business, mahjong doesn't have the scope of
pachinko, Japan's largest industry. Neither does
it have quite the sophisticated allure of horse
racing. Instead, its reputation over the past few
decades has been as the game of choice for
high-stakes wagering in smoke-filled backrooms
and parlors by some of Japan's hardest-core
gamblers, including members of the yakuza
(gangsters), company presidents, and politicians.
today, this image is slowly changing.
Increasingly, it's seen as a friendly game, a
means of leisure for average salarymen, retirees,
and young people. And yes, even those inclined to
read comic books, which is a significant portion
of the population. Given this, the organizers of
the 2002 World Championship in Mahjong, arriving
in Tokyo this week, couldn't be happier.
has finally come to be understood as a sport and
a competition at last," beamed Kyoichiro
Noguchi, Chairman of the Board of Directors of
the Mahjong Museum and Director of the Japan
Mahjong Organizing Committee, who was interviewed
shortly before the games began.
This first-ever championship,
held at the Grand Palace Hotel in Iidabashi, was
to draw 120 players comprising 30 teams. Noguchi
expected the strongest players to hail from
China, Japan, the United States, Sweden, Hong
Kong, and Holland.
Ever since the game was
imported to Japan from China over 100 years ago,
Japanese players have developed their own rules.
But the basics are the same. Players select
individual hands of 13 small, white Chinese
character-covered tiles from a pool of 136. One
player, the starter of the game, selects 14. The
tiles come in matching sets of 4 and the goal is
to create a hand of any of a number of
predetermined matching combinations of tiles.
Players take alternating turns in discarding and
selecting tiles from the remaining pool until a
player achieves a hand of one of the matching
combinations, allowing him to "go out."
Based on his exiting hand, points are then
championship, the rules of play were those set by
the State Sports Commission of China in 1998 -
the year that mahjong came to be recognized as an
Japan is the home to over 20,000 parlors
nationwide with nearly 5,000 in Tokyo and 2,000
in Osaka. They can be found in large
entertainment districts or small residential
Tokyo parlors, the tiles fly over the felt on
Friday and Saturday nights. At assistant manager
Kensuke Saito's Vacance Mahjong in Kagurazaka,
salarymen and students from universities in
nearby Ochanomizu and Waseda can be found filling
the parlor. Steady streams of cigarette smoke
rise from each table. This parlor, painted in
South-Pacific-island motif of seagulls, ocean
waves, and palm trees, charges 1,000 yen per hour
per table. Students get a break and are charged
the relatively low prices for playing, mahjong
has become a popular form of recreation during
the past decade of economic stagnation. Though
Saito admits that his business is hurt by Japan's
economic doldrums, he isn't worried. After all,
he has plenty of loyal customers. "Compared
to hostess clubs," he says, "this is
Though mahjong's image may have
improved, organized-crime expert Reikichi Sumiya
says the game still serves as a favorite pasttime
for the yakuza.
"There is a gambling
party," Sumiya explains of these special
events. "A suite is reserved at a top hotel
in Tokyo. There's tobacco, brandy, sake, bourbon,
girls walking around. And mahjong."
players will strip to their waists to reveal
their colorful tattoos. Since the games can drag
on late into the next morning, they shoot up on
speed to keep their juices flowing. How much cash
do they bring with them? Surprisingly little.
"They use promissory notes, because the
wagering can exceed 1 billion yen," Sumiya
implications of the mob's links with mahjong are
disturbing. Last year's fire at a video mahjong
parlor in Tokyo's Kabukicho district, in which 44
people died, is thought to have been set by
Still, common folk aren't
letting such matters keep them away from the
tiles. And parlors are trying to attract a larger
female clientelle by offering ladies-only
lessons. The more women there are around the
playing tables, the logic goes, the more men will
come to join them.
managers are going one step beyond the
educational campaign. Dozens of ads in Kindai
Mahjong feature parlors where scantily clad
mademoiselles fill in when gaming parties have
fewer than the four people needed for a session.
these developments in the game, Noguchi says,
"Nothing gives us such great pleasure as