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Experiences with Japanese Mahjong

How to Play Mahjong

How to Play Japanese Mahjong


Japanese mahjong is a variant of mahjong originating from the 20th century as a simplified version of Chinese mahjong. Since then its gameplay has evolved into the more complex version that we know of today. Japanese rules differ from other variants in a few main ways. There are bonus tiles called “dora.” A hand requirement (called “yaku”) is necessary to declare a win. There are organized discards for the “furiten” rule. Additionally there are more differences like no flower tiles that will be explained below. Overall in comparison to Chinese mahjong, it is more difficult to win given the limited yaku and more easy to play defense given the furiten rule.

Section 1: The Tiles

Of course in order to play mahjong, a mahjong set is required. Japanese mahjong uses a total of 136 tiles. There are 34 types of tiles and 4 copies of every tile.

Mahjong Tiles

(Source: Barticle’s Japanese Mahjong Guide)

The top row constitutes the manzu suit. They are commonly called character tiles in English.

The next row is the pinzu suit. They are commonly called circles or dots in English.

The third row is called the souzu suit. They are commonly referred to as bamboos in English.

The last row is referred to as jihai or in English, honor tiles. The honor tiles are divided into two groups kazehai (winds) and sangenpai (three dragons). The winds pictured above are in the standard order used in mahjong east, south, west, and north or ton, nan, sha, and pei. The dragons are referred to as white, green, and red dragons or haku, hatsu, and chun.

Section 2: Setting up the Game

1. Determining Seats

There are many ways to randomly determine seats. If it does not matter to you where each player sits or who is the first dealer, then simply sit at the table, have someone be first dealer and skip this step. A simple way is to shuffle one of each wind and have each player sit counter-clockwise using the standard order east, south, west, and north. Note that this results an order which is REVERSE of compass order. Then the player that drew east can be called the oya or dealer. Otherwise the player who drew east can roll two dice and count counter-clockwise starting from himself or herself the number rolled. Then player the count lands on will roll once more and the next player landed on will be the dealer. This is not the only used to determine seating and dealer but merely a suggestion.

2. Building Walls and Dealing

Shuffle the tiles facedown until all players are satisfied. Then build a wall 2 tiles high and 17 tiles long. The dealer rolls the dice and counts counter-clockwise the number shown starting from himself. (This means that rolls of 5 and 9 will land on the dealer.) The wall determined by this roll will be the wall from where the starting hands are taken. On this wall, count the number shown on the dice in the clockwise direction. (This will be the right side from the perspective of the player whose wall was chosen.) Each player takes 2 stacks of tiles (4 tiles) at a time in a counter-clockwise direction starting from the dealer. Do 3 rounds of this until each player has 12 tiles. Then each player will take 1 tile for 13 each and the dealer will then take 1 tile extra for 14 tiles. This 14th tile counts as the dealer’s first draw. It is common for the dealer to take these 2 single tiles at the same time. This is done by skipping over a tile; that is taking 1 tile from the first stack then taking the top tile from stack after the next stack.


Tiles marked “E” are the dealer’s 13th and 14th tile

(Source:  http://mahjong.wikidot.com/basic-rules)

3. Dead Wall and Dora Indicator

At the break, count 7 stacks (14 tiles) backwards (in the counterclockwise direction) and set off those tiles. These 14 tiles will not be drawn in the game. Once the draws reach the dead wall, the game will end in a draw. It is common practice to bring down the top tile closest to the break. This tile is the rinshanpai which is the first tile drawn after a kan. Bringing the tile down prevents this tile from being revealed since winning off of the rinshanpai is a yaku. (Rinshan and kan will be explained below.) Additionally flip over the third tile from break. This tile is called the dora indicator (dorahyoujihai). The dora indicator “indicates” which tile for the round will be dora. The tile shown is NOT the dora. Instead count one up from the tile shown to determine the dora. If the dora indicator shows 2 pin for example (shown below), the dora for the round is 3 pin. Nine loops to one and the order for the winds is the standard order of East, South, West, North and then loops East. The order of the dragons is Green, Red, White, and then Green.



Example of dead wall. Note that the rinshanpai is placed down on the table.

(Source: http://arcturus.su/wiki/Dora)

Section 3: Gameplay


The goal of the game is assemble a hand consisting of 4 sets of 3 and one pair. The sets may be triplets (3 identical tiles) or sequences (3 consecutive tiles of the same suit). The pair consists of 2 identical tiles. A winning hand will have 14 tiles, but otherwise your hand should have 13 tiles. A winning hand must also have at least one “yaku” (see Section 4).

1. Turns

Turns go counterclockwise starting from the first discard of the dealer. On your turn, draw a tile and discard a tile. Discards are arranged in rows of six.

2. Calling

The tile that was most previously played may be called in a variety of ways. If you call a tile, you DO NOT draw a tile. Instead you take the tile, reveal your open set and discard. In general you may only call when you can use the discarded tile immediately. It is also common practice and good manners to discard before taking the tile you are calling.

1. Chii 

This is the call for completing a sequence. You may only call chi from the player before you. For example, if you have a 2 pin and 3 pin in your hand and the player before you discards a 1 pin, then you may call chii to form a sequence of 123. After calling, discard and reveal the set you have made.

2. Pon

This is the call for completing a triplet. In order to call pon, you must have a pair of the tile you are trying to call. You may call pon from any player but only on the tile that was just discarded.

3. Kan

This is the call for a 4 of a kind or quad. There are a few ways to make a kan. The first way is to have a concealed triplet in your hand. When the 4th tile is played, you may call kan. This is called daiminkan. The second way is by adding a tile to a pon. If the 4th tile is self-drawn, then the player has the option of converting the pon into a kan. This is called shouminkan. These two methods are collectively referred to as minkan. The third way is to have a concealed triplet and draw the 4th tile. If you choose to use the set as a quad, you must declare kan. This is called ankan.

After declaring any type of kan, a tile is drawn from the dead wall. Also the last tile in the live wall is shifted to the dead wall. Declaring kan results in flipping a new dora indicator thus creating new dora called kandora. The new dora indicator is revealed immediately for an ankan only. Otherwise it will be revealed after the player discards. Be aware that there are many rule variations regarding kan. For example, some rules allow the dora indicator to be flipped immediately regardless of whether it was ankan or minkan.

3. Winning

A player wins by being the first to assemble 4 sets and a pair that has yaku, is not in furiten (see below) , and declares the win. (It is possible for players to “win” but choose not to, usually to go for a bigger hand.)

When a player draws the winning tile himself, it is called tsumo. When a player claims a discard to win, it is called ron.

4. Furiten

Furiten is the basis of defense strategy in Japanese Mahjong. When a player is in furiten, he may not ron.Instead the player must either change his wait or draw the winning tile himself. Furiten occurs when a player has discarded any of his waits. It does not matter if some of the waits give yaku or not. Discarding one of your waits makes you permanently furiten unless you change your wait.

There is also a situation called “temporary furiten.” This occurs when a player is in tenpai (ready to win) and ignores a winning tile (does not declare ron). Until his next draw, that player is furiten. If one of the tiles you are waiting for is played and you do not declare the win, you are furiten until your next draw. There are some rule variations (former EMA rules) that end temporary furiten if the go-around is interrupted by a call (chii, pon, or kan), but these are not very common. Nowadays it is standard for drawing to cancel temporary furiten.

Section 4: Yaku

1. “Normal Yaku”

By normal yaku, I am referring to yaku that award you “han” (the unit of points in Japanese Mahjong). I wrote a series of articles on every standard yaku as part of my “25 Days of Yaku.” For an overview of yaku and yaku lists, see THIS POST.

Here are a list of links to the 25 Days of Yaku:

25 Days of Yaku: #1 Riichi

25 Days of Yaku: #2 Ippatsu

25 Days of Yaku: #3 Tsumo

25 Days of Yaku: #4 Tanyao

25 Days of Yaku: #5 Yakuhai

25 Days of Yaku: #6 Pinfu

25 Days of Yaku: #7 Haitei/Houtei

25 Days of Yaku: #8 Rinshan

25 Days of Yaku: #9 Chankan

25 Days of Yaku: #10 Iipeikou

25 Days of Yaku: #11 Double Riichi

25 Days of Yaku: #12 Sanshoku

25 Days of Yaku: #13 Sandoukou

25 Days of Yaku: #14 Ittsuu

25 Days of Yaku: #15 Toitoi

25 Days of Yaku: #16 Chiitoitsu

25 Days of Yaku: #17 Sanankou

25 Days of Yaku: #18 Sankantsu

25 Days of Yaku: #19 Chanta

25 Days of Yaku: #20 Junchan

25 Days of Yaku: #21 Honroutou

25 Days of Yaku: #22 Honitsu

25 Days of Yaku: #23 Ryanpeikou

25 Days of Yaku: #24 Shousangen

25 Days of Yaku: #25 Chinitsu

2. Yakuman

What I did not cover in the “25 Days of Yaku” series is yakuman, which are the “limit hands” and highest scoring hands in the game. Here I will cover the most common yakuman since there are a lot of rule variations different yakuman.

1. Tenhou (天和): The dealer is dealt a complete hand. Basically this means that the dealer wins by tsumo on the first turn. Of course, there is nothing in the rules that requires you to declare tsumo. You may still discard or double riichi, but you will be furiten. Also note that tenhou is cancelled if you delcare ankan on the first turn even if you win on the rinshan draw.

2. Chiihou (地和): A non-dealer win on his first draw. The first turn must not be interrupted by a call (pon, chii, or kan) otherwise chiihou is invalidated.

3. Renhou (人和): A non-dealer wins on the first round of discards. Renhou is invalidated by a call (pon, chii, or kan). This is not a standard yakuman. It is not included in most rulesets. However if it is, it is usually counted as mangan or assigned some han value (I’ve seen it given 8 han at a parlor I went to!). Make sure to check the rules before playing to see if Renhou is considered yakuman.

4. Kokushi Musou (国士無双): A hand consisting of all 13 terminals and honors plus one duplicate. If you have one copy of every terminal and honor, then you are in tenpai for a 13-sided wait meaning you can win on any terminal or honor! Also called “13 Orphans” in English.

5. Suuankou (四暗刻): Four concealed triplets. This is also known as closed toitoi tsumo. The only way to winn suuankou by ron is to have 4 concealed triplets and win on a pair wait.

6. Daisangen (大三元): A hand that has sets (triplets/quads) of all 3 dragons. The fourth set and pair can be anything. This is the more expensive version of Shousangen. Daisangen is commonly called “Big Three Dragons” in English.

7. Shousuushii (小四喜): A hand with 3 sets of winds and pair of the fourth wind. The fourth set can be anything. Shousuushii is commonly called “Little Four Winds” in English.

8. Daisuushii (大四喜): A hand with 4 sets of winds. The pair can be anything. Daisuushii is commonly called “Big Four Winds” in English.

9. Tsuuiisou (字一色): A hand consisting of all honor tiles. This is an “upgraded” version of honroutou.

10. Chinroutou (清老頭): A hand consisting of all terminal tiles. This is also an “upgraded” version of honroutou.

11. Ryuuiisou (緑一色): A hand consisting of all green tiles. The green tiles are 2,3,4,6,8 sou and hatsu. Any valid hand containing only these tiles is awarded ryuuiisou.

12. Chuurenpoutou (九蓮宝燈): A closed hand of one suit in the form 1112345678999 plus a duplicate, which can be any tile 1 through 9. If you are in tenpai with the shape 1112345678999, you have a 9-sided wait and can win on any tile of that suit. You can see for yourself that adding any number 1 through 9 to this shape will form a complete hand with 4 sets and one pair.

13. Suukantsu (四槓子): A hand with four quads. Note that this means you will be left with 1 tile for a pair wait if you declare 4 kans.


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