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MAH-JONGG

Mah-jongg ancient, progressive

by Minoru Matsutani

Few games may be as addictive as mah-jongg, whose players range from university students to salarymen and tend to go at it all night, often for money.

Part of mah-jongg’s popularity is due, somewhat like bridge, to its combination of strategy and luck. Many “manga” comic books feature mah-jongg, and software companies cater to the craze with games.

How is mah-jongg played?

The game uses 136 tiles, or “pai,” made up of 34 sets of four with their own characters and designs. The object of each of the four players in the game, who usually sit at a square table, is to form four groups of three tiles and a pair with 14 tiles.

Nationwide there are some 8,900 mah-jongg parlors, which charge ¥300 to ¥500 an hour per player. The tiles can also be purchased.

What is the history of mah-jongg?

The game is believed to have originated in China 140 years ago, according to the Web site of the Japan Federation of Mah-jongg Business Association. Its spread to the rest of the world dates to the 1920s, after Europeans, Americans, Japanese and other non-Chinese learned to play mah-jongg in Shanghai and other parts of China, the federation says.

Ships sailing from Japan to Europe had mah-jongg rooms to give passengers something to do on the two-month voyage, according to a brochure of the Japan Mah-jongg League.

Japanese engaged in the brisk trade with China in the 1920s also brought mah-jongg tiles back from Shanghai, the brochure says.

Rules were universal at first, but Japanese players made modifications later.

What compels players to engage in mah-jongg all night?

Mah-jongg is often played for money, and unlike other forms of gambling, including poker, pachinko or even horse racing, the game often involves friends and also requires cunning.

How popular is mah-jongg in Japan compared with other parts of the world?

Only China tops Japan in the popularity of mah-jongg. Not only are there many manga about the game, but publishers release periodicals, including Kindai Mah-jongg. The cable TV channel Mondo 21 and other TV channels sometimes air mah-jongg matches, usually late at night.

Has mah-jongg’s popularity in Japan declined compared with the bubble economy period?

Yes. There were 13 million to 14 million people playing mah-jongg in 1988-1989, but the figure had dropped to 7.6 million in 2008, said Hiroaki Kinoshita, chairman of the Japan Federation of Mah-jongg Business Association, citing the government’s Leisure White Paper.

The number of mah-jongg parlors plummeted to 8,900 in 2009 from a peak of 48,000 in 1979-1980, he said. Parlors racked up more than ¥300 billion in sales in 2008, merely 1 percent of pachinko’s ¥30 trillion, he said.

Why is mah-jongg less popular now?

Young people are not interested, Kinoshita said. Also, leisure activities have become more diverse and mah-jongg has always carried a somewhat unhealthy image, he said.

Is the industry trying to revive the game’s popularity?

Yes. The industry has been waging a “healthy mah-jongg” campaign that discourages players from smoking, drinking and gambling, he said.

Coverage of young female mah-jongg professionals on TV and in magazines is helping. Kinoshita said the number of female players in his mah-jongg parlor, as well as the number of women working there, have increased and he’s been told the surge is due to the female professionals.

Internet mah-jongg games have also helped stop the decline in popularity. Most popular among them is Konami Digital Entertainment’s “Mah-jongg Fight Club,” which pits players against each other via the Net.

Now that the game’s image has been improved, Kinoshita wants NHK to air mah-jongg lessons for beginners. “NHK has ‘shogi’ and go programs. Mah-jongg is now clean enough for NHK,” he said. Shogi and go are rarely forums for gambling.

Wouldn’t playing mah-jongg for money violate the law against gambling?

Gambling is illegal unless it is a nationally accepted event, such as horse racing.

The Penal Code’s Article 185 stipulates violators of the gambling law face a fine of up to ¥500,000, but gambling on “momentary amusement” is not punishable.

In 1993, then-Justice Minister Masaharu Gotoda said in the Upper House that mah-jongg gambling would be acceptable if bets stay within “socially acceptable levels,” Kinoshita said.

In mah-jongg, a player gets 30,000 points in “hanchan,” or a unit of eight games after which four players calculate their points.

The Japan Federation of Mah-jongg Business Association considers ¥50 per 1,000 points to be within socially acceptable levels, Kinoshita said. With that rate, one’s maximum loss in a hanchan is theoretically ¥1,500.

But in reality people tend to play for much higher stakes than that.

Are there international mah-jongg tournaments?

There are some. Rules varied greatly from place to place until 2002, when the first world championship tournament was held in Tokyo using universal rules. In August, a world tournament will be held in the Netherlands.

Are there foreign mah-jongg professionals in Japan?

Yes. Americans Garthe Nelson and Jenn Barr and Chinese Wong Zhengfang are members of the Japanese Professional Mah-jongg League. Barr was born and raised in Seattle and came to Japan in 2001. She graduated from Sophia University, where she learned mah-jongg. Nelson, hailing from Sacramento, Calif., learned mah-jongg from his students studying English. Wong, whose grandmother is Japanese, first came to Japan at age 13.

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