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.

Rock is 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 felt.

As a 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.

But 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.

"Mahjong 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 tallied.

For the 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 international sport.

Today, 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 communities.

In 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 500 yen.

Given 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 very cheap."

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."

The 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 says.

The 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 gangsters.

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.

Some 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.

Of these developments in the game, Noguchi says, "Nothing gives us such great pleasure as this."

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