News photo
Ryan Morris –
shows banker Liam Hearns which tile to discard during a
mahjong lesson in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo.

Mahjong may be a game of skill, intelligence, calculation and luck, but Jenn Barr also believes in good form.

“Excess movement can give you away,” says Barr, who turned pro in April. “Wait, and the tide will turn,” she says as she coaches beginner Yoko Furukawa on a Monday night in Shinjuku, Tokyo.

If mahjong conjures images of high stakes, thick smoke and shady-looking customers, look again. Barr and Furukawa play in a nonsmoking, brightly lit mahjong parlor. Their drinks are “konbu-cha” (kelp tea) and Calpis and water, and the room is full of young professional players.

“Mahjong used to be a game for bad boys, and when I was in college friends would get their friends to play until everyone was playing,” says Shigekazu Moriyama, who holds a ninth “dan” (grade) in mahjong and is a director of the Japan Mahjong Professional League. “But that image is not going to help attract new players in the future.”

When the economic bubble burst, so did the world of entertainment mahjong, where businessmen and clients, police and yakuza, journalists and sources played for deals, money or information.

In that world, there were some 60,000 mahjong parlors nationwide in 1983. Now the number is closer to 25,000.

To grow, the mahjong industry is seeking new players, and that means younger players and women, according to Gou Kobayashi, who runs a parlor in Shinjuku Ward.

Some parlors may dress their wait staff in French maid costumes, and others offer family-style food, but the underlying pitch is that mahjong is “clean.”

And forget about high stakes.

Witness Furukawa, an employee at a shipping firm, in her first game. She looks up every few turns to ask, “Which of these should I throw out?” and “Can I reach now?” as she shows her tiles to the other players.

Japanese mahjong is a prohibitively complex game at first, and beginners usually need a friend to give them a walk-through. In the earlier stages, playing for money is out of the question.

“If we made beginners play for money, we would lose all prospective ‘kamo’ (suckers or easy victims) real quick,” says Ryan Morris, a translator who also writes a column in the bimonthly “manga” magazine Kindai Mahjong.

In the postbubble economy, most people playing in the parlors wager stakes no higher than who pays for the drinks or the hourly fee for the table.

Certainly, the industry is doing what it can to make the game more accessible for total beginners.

Some parlors provide free coaching, while experienced players like Barr and Morris offer tips in English and Japanese.

Beginners can also pick up the basics on their PlayStations, on the Internet and at video game centers.

For its part, the Mahjong Professional League is pegging its hopes on foreign professionals like Barr, a native of Seattle, and other female professional players.

Indeed, the league went out of its way to make the path easy for Barr. Moriyama coached her, with the result that she turned pro in April in record time — less than a year after she started out playing the game on a computer.

Barr turned pro at the same time as Garthe Nelson, a native of California, and China-born Wang Zhenfang. These three are the league’s only non-Japanese pros.

Barr, especially, lacks the experience to play on a par with other Japanese pros, but the league is banking on her long-term potential.

“We hope Garthe and Jenn will open the way for more English-language speakers to play,” says Moriyama. He’s hoping they’ll do what female pros have already done: attract new players and transform mahjong’s sometimes dubious image into one that’s more accessible.

Women, at least when they’re starting out, also have it a little easier when it comes to making some money off mahjong.

While it is extremely difficult for a professional player to live off the game alone, it is much easier for women to earn money early on, Morris says.

Professionals win nominal prize money at monthly tournaments and receive salaries at mahjong parlors, which hire them to attract customers.

“Men still pay to play with women pros, even if they aren’t exceptionally strong,” Morris says. That trend, however, is fading fast. “People ultimately want to play against the strongest players, because it feels that much better when you win.”

The joy of winning and the glory of collecting the right tiles even when you start with a bad hand have fueled the game’s popularity since it was brought to Japan from China in the early 20th century.

Fans were undeterred even when police actively discouraged the game for its Chinese connotations in the 1930s and ’40s.

But with fewer young people taking up the game, what is in store for tomorrow?

Kyoichiro Noguchi, director of the Mahjong Museum in Isumi-gun, Chiba Prefecture, said the future of the game in Japan depends on its popularity overseas.

“Unlike pachinko, where people become isolated, mahjong brings people together,” he says. “The game will gain popularity again when people see they can play with people from other countries, and that it brings cultural exchange and peace.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.