What is Japanese Mahjong?
Japanese Mahjong is a variant of Mahjong with some modifications and additions to the typical ruleset. The Japanese public was first introduced to Mahjong back in 1924, when a Japanese Soldier by the name of Saburo Hirayama returned from China, and brought Mahjong to the citizens of Tokyo.
In due time, Mahjong rose in popularity, slowly assimilating Japanese-style innovations. Eventually, Japanese Mahjong, or “Riichi Mahjong”, became the most popular tabletop game in Japan.
How to play Japanese Mahjong
Japanese Mahjong is a multiplayer game for 4-players, though it can easily be played with two or more players. While there are specific Riichi Mahjong sets, Chinese and American sets can be used, removing the unnecessary tiles.
Japanese Mahjong uses a total of 136 tiles, split across a total of 5 suits. The suits are described below:
Each suited tile has an associated suit and rank. There are 4 duplicates for each suited tile, and the rank is denoted by a number ranging from 1 to 9. For the Circle (pinzu) and Bamboo (souzu) suits, the rank can be discerned by the number of objects on the tile. For example, the ‘3 Bamboo’ tile has three bamboo sticks, and the ‘9 Circle’ tile has 9 circles or dots on the tile. The ‘1 Bamboo’ tile is instead represented by a sparrow.
The Character (manzu) tiles also have a rank, but these are illustrated by simplified or traditional Chinese characters. The rank is denoted at the top of the tile as the associated Chinese numeral, and the bottom tile is the 萬 or万 character, meaning myriad. The numerals and their associated rank are shown below:
|五 or 伍
The Honor tiles do not have ranks or suits. The Wind tiles show the 4 cardinal directions in Traditional Chinese characters (東 for East, 南 for South, 西 for West, 北 for north). The Dragon tiles are the Red 中 (center), the Green 發 (wealth), and the White tile with no markings.
Japanese Mahjong has a reputation for being the most complicated playstyle of Mahjong due to the complex scoring rules. However, if you are familiar with Chinese Mahjong, the base rules remain the same with regard to calls and sequences. The additional requirements and clauses simply involve an additional layer of strategy.
At its core, Japanese Mahjong is about creating a winning hand of 14 tiles. The game begins with all tiles shuffled and placed face-down on in rows or ‘walls’, and a ‘deal wall’. The ‘dead wall‘ is the last 14 tiles in the wall.
Each player starts the game with 13 tiles, and will continuously draw, claim and discard tiles until a winning hand has been assembled. A winning hand consists of 4 groups of 3 tiles and a pair, but unlike Chinese Mahjong, a yaku is required to call a victory, which prevents players from winning quickly with lucky draws. Possible sets include:
- Shuntsu (Straights) – Straight calls are a sequence of three consecutive tiles of a similar suit. Note that, unlike poker, straights cannot wrap around the end of suits. Also, straights cannot be formed from honor tiles.
- Koutsu (Triplets) – Triplets are formed of three of the same tile, whether suited or honor.
- Kantsu (kan) – The kan is formed out of 4 of the same tile. Unlike the other sets, it must be declared before the player can win and the player must draw an extra card from the ‘dead wall’, otherwise the player will lack the necessary tiles to assemble the winning hand of 14 tiles. Note that kans do not need to be called instantly if drawn (closed kans), they simply need to be declared before the player can win.
Players draw their starting hands, and the dealer draws one from the end of the wall. The dealer draws an extra tile, and then discards a tile of their choosing. The turn then passes to the next player in anti-clockwise order. Other players may call the discarded tile to claim it, completing a set they have in hand. If a tile is called, the turn then passes to the caller, skipping players who would have gone next. The calls are accompanied with a vocal cue, and the 4 different calls for claiming discarded tiles are:
- Chii: This call completes a straight and can only be used for discards from the player to the immediate left of the caller.
- Pon: Calling pon completes a triplet, and can be used for discards from any player.
- Kan: Kan is called to complete a kan, which consists of 4 of the same tile. Kan can be called for any discard, and can also be called by a player who has assembled a full kanin hand. Similarly, if a player who previously called a pon and declared a triplet draws the fourth and final duplicate tile, he can call a kan to upgrade the triplet into a kan.
- Ron: When a player is in tenpai, where he only requires one more tile to complete a winning hand, and another player discards the necessary tile to complete the winning hand, a player may call ron. This can be called by any player.
Calling and claiming a discarded tile completes a set, which is then displayed face-up in the player’s hand. These sets cannot be discarded. Unlike other variants of Mahjong, once a set is completed through claiming, the player’s hand is flagged as ‘open’, which affects the score values of different yaku.
The game proceeds as explained. The game ends when either a player has won, or all tiles except those in the ‘dead wall’ have been dealt, resulting in a draw. The turn order then rotates anticlockwise, with the new dealer being the next player on the right.
The Japanese Mahjong rules are similar to those of Chinese Mahjong. The complexity comes from the scoring system, which rewards strategic playing and careful resource management.
Riichi Mahjong rules state that each player begins by drawing 13 tiles off the wall, and shall at the start of their turn, draw or claim a discard from another player, giving them 14 cards at the start of their turn. If a winning hand is not assembled, the player must then discard a single tile of their choosing, which then passes the turn to the next player.
If the discarded tile is not claimed, the turn passes to the next player in anti-clockwise order. If the discarded tile is called with a Chii, Pon, Kan, or Ron, the calling player will reveal their completed sequence, triplet, or kan, and the turn skips to the calling player. The assembled set is placed face-up with the called tile rotated sideways to indicate that it was not drawn, but instead called from a discard.
The uniqueness of Riichi Mahjong rules are the requirement of a yaku in winning hands. These also affect the score multiplier (han or fan) of the hand, which will be discussed in the Scoring section of this guide.
If the necessary yaku condition is fulfilled, the player can win by calling ron or tsumo. Ron is called when another player discards the final tile required to complete the winning set. Tsumo is called when the final required tile is drawn off the wall at the start of the turn.
Certain yaku are prohibited if the hand is ‘open’ or ‘closed’. ‘Open’ hands include face-up sets that were called using Chii, Pon, or Kan. A winning ron does not make a ‘closed’ hand ‘open’ for yaku. For example, the yaku, Sanankou which requires three closed triplets, is rendered invalid if the third triplet is completed using a ron call for another player’s discard, since that renders the hand ‘open’. The player can, however, still win via other yaku.
Riichi Mahjong rules also include the rule of furiten. This state is reached if:
- The player discarded potential winning tiles previously, and can be seen in the discard rows or in the called sets of other players.
- The potential winning tiles have been discarded but were not called, resulting in a temporary furiten until the next discard made by the player.
- Winning tiles have been discarded since the player has declared riichi.
While in furiten, the player cannot win by calling ron on any discarded tiles. The player can only win through a tsumo via drawing tiles off the wall. To get out of the furiten state, a player has to change their hand composition. Discards have to be carefully managed in order to avoid furiten.
In summary, the Japanese Mahjong rules are:
- Each player begins the game with 13 tiles.
- At the start of their turn, players draw 1 tile from the wall.
- Players end their turn by discarding one tile.
- Discarded tiles can be called to complete sequences, triplets, or kans. The calling player will then reveal their set and place it face-up. The turn goes to the calling player.
- If a discarded tile is not called, the turn goes to the next player in anti-clockwise order.
- For the sake of yaku, a hand is ‘closed’ if no pon, chii, or kan calls have been made.
- A winning hand is called using a ron for discarded cards and a tsumo for drawn cards if the yaku conditions are achieved.
Japanese Mahjong scoring is part of its appeal in competitive settings. The goal of the game is not to win individual games, but rather to obtain the highest multiplier across many consecutive games. Scoring is done using hans, which are awarded based on yaku conditions. Different yaku award different counts of han.
Common yaku are:
- Menzenchin tsumohou: A player draws a winning tile and calls tsumo with a closed hand. Awards one han.
- Tanyao: A player wins with a hand composed only of suited tiles ranging from 2-8. Awards one han.
- Toitoi: A player wins with a hand consisting of only triplets (except the necessary pair). Awards two han.
- Honitsu: The player wins with tiles of a single suit and some honor tiles. Awards 3 han if closed, and 2 han if open.
- Chinitsu: The player wins with a hand composed of tiles completely from a single suit, with no honor tiles. Awards 6 han if closed, and 5 han if open.
- Riichi: The player has a fully concealed hand that is one tile away from winning and makes a wager. The player calls riichi right before discarding a tile by placing a 1000-point stick in front of their hand and placing the discarded tile sideways. Once riichi is called, the player must discard drawn tiles unless tsumo can be called.
Calling riichi is one of the major differing factors for Riichi Mahjong scoring, as it adds one yaku and potentially more if the player wins. Much like going all in in Texas Hold ’em, it is a careful risk-reward balance. Depending on the setting, house rule yaku can be implemented.
Japanese Mahjong hands consist of 14 tiles, and generally consist of 4 sets and a single pair. However, depending on the yaku conditions, this does not have to be the case. A few example hands with the necessary yaku are illustrated below.
Yaku of pinfu
This hand achieves the yaku of pinfu, and consists entirely of straights. The hand can win via the drawing or calling of:
which completes the 3-4-5 Circle or 4-5-6 Circle straight.
Yaku of Honitsu
This hand achieves the yaku of Honitsu, which consists of tiles from only a single suit and some honor tiles. This hand can win with the drawing of:
which completes their respective triplets.
Yaku of Chiitoitsu
This hand shows the one exception to the usual 4 set and 1 pair combination. This achieves the yaku of Chiitoitsu, which consists of 7 pairs, and can win by drawing or calling a
Other possible winning hands are described in this full yaku hand list.
- Japanese Mahjong strategy is about thinking out your moves, due to the existence of the furiten rules, a badly planned discard in the early game can lock you out of potential victories in the end game.
- Keep a list of all potential yaku at your side. Turns only end once you’ve discarded a tile, so look through all your possible outs before making a discard.
- For beginners, keeping your hands closed is recommended. Calling and claiming discards can make things easier to manage, but it limits your options and makes it easier for opponents to defend against you.
- Observe discards from other players. Once a player has discarded a certain tile, that means they cannot win using that specific tile due to the furiten rules. This makes those tiles a safe discard on your end if defending against players who have called riichi.
Frequently Asked Questions
I don’t have a Mahjong set; can I still play Japanese Mahjong?
Japanese Mahjong can be played with Chinese and American Mahjong sets with some tile removals. You can also play Riichi Mahjong online with simulators, and for many, this is the preferred method, since simulators track everything automatically, from your potential yaku hands and the furiten states, saving a lot of time.
Can Japanese Mahjong be played with less than 4 players?
Japanese Mahjong can be played with any number of players from 2 players onwards. The same rules apply, though the game was always designed to play best with 4 players.
Are there alternate rulesets in Japanese Mahjong?
We’ve covered the standard Riichi Mahjong rules in this guide, though as previously stated, house rules are easily implementable. The popular side rules are the ‘red tiles’, which switch out certain tiles for red tiles, which add extra han if used in completed hands.
How many rounds are each game of Japanese Mahjong?
Japanese Mahjong tends to follow rounds based on the cardinal directions, going in the order of East, South, West, and North. The round changes once everyone has been the dealer at least once. Most games end at the end of the South round. Some specific yaku even award bonus han if the player has Wind tiles of the round’s direction.