Japanese Mahjong — also called Riichi Mahjong — is the Japanese adaptation of the popularly known Chinese Mahjong. It’s a table-top game that can be played by four players.
Similar to poker, players have hands to complete to gain higher points than the other participants.
Other related games are Gin Rummy and Rummikub.
Although it has similarities to poker, it can be quite complicated for new players.
Tips on How to Play Japanese Mahjong Game
Japanese Mahjong is a game for 4-players maximum, although two or more players can easily play the game.
There are unique Riichi Mahjong sets. But you can also use American and Chinese sets by getting rid of the redundant tiles. If you are into Japanese Mahjong you might also want to check out the Filipino Mahjong.
The Game Tiles
The game consists of 34 different tiles, four of which are of each type, to complete the total 136 tiles in the game. A good number of these tiles are labeled 1-9 in three separate suits, which can be:
- Souzu (Sou, Bamboo, or Sticks): Note that 1 Sou is represented by a bird (owl, or peacock) instead of a single stick.
- Pinzu (Circles, Pin, Dots)
- Manzu (Man, Characters, and Cracks): The numbers on these tiles are written in Japanese or Chinese characters.
Apart from these 3 suits, there are Value/Honor tiles, which are divided into two subsets:
- Winds: North, East, South, and West
- Dragons: Green, Red, and White (often represented by an empty tile)
Riichi mahjong does not make use of season or flower tiles as in Chinese Mahjong. Also, it doesn’t use joker tiles found in American Mahjong.
Also, you can play Riichi Mahjong with one five from each suit exchanged with a red five tile.
The Game Hand
At the beginning of the game, each player receives 13 tiles. When it’s their turn, they draw a tile from the wall they have set up or claim a tile another player discarded.
This move gives them 14 tiles temporarily.
Once they have a full hand comprising of four groups and a pair (i.e. 3+3+3+3+2=14) and have accepted a yaku (see below), they can reveal their tiles and declare that they’ve won.
However, if they don’t have a full hand, they must discard a tile.
The game aims to get a winning hand by positioning the game piece into sets that look like this:
- Sequence (Shuntsu)— the most straightforward set you can form. It consists of three successive tiles of identical suit or, in poker, a three-card straight.
- Keep in mind that a sequence created with pieces from separate suits (3 circles, 4 sticks, 5 circles) is not acceptable.
- Also, a sequence can’t be wrapped around the suit’s end (9-1-2) and cannot make use of honor tiles.
- Triplet (Koutsu) — complete with three identical tiles or a trio/triple.
- Kan (Kantsu)— finished using 4 matching pieces or a four of a kind.
Note: Kan makes use of four tiles in each set rather than the usual three. Hence, the player that has it must announce it so that he/she can get an additional tile from the wall to avoid having too few tiles to make the four sets and a pair.
Some games allow you to announce a closed kan or presence of a quad without immediately showing it or turning it over (this is an additional strategy because you don’t allow your opponents to see your tiles.
Players may decide to play with a closed kans, although they can choose not to declare its presence immediately they are formed.
The player can make the announcement any time, provided this is done before the win.
This action gives the player the freedom to choose whether or not to use the kan.
Playing the Japanese Mahjong
First, the players shuffle the whole tiles and set them downward in rows or walls. When the initial hands are dealt, the dealer picks a tile from the wall’s end.
The dealer can win or throw away a tile that is not needed anymore. All players have to organize the tiles they discarded in chronological order in front of their tiles.
If one player throws a piece, other participants get the opportunity to take it provided they can make use of it to complete their set.
Another player only gets to pick this tile if it immediately rounds up their set, which they must show face up.
As soon as the set becomes exposed, the tiles are no longer regarded as part of the player’s hand and, therefore, cannot be exchanged or discarded.
After a throw and no other player claims it, the game continues anti-clockwise, and the player also receives a tile from the wall.
Once a player request for the tile, the turn moves to that player and play continues from that position, thereby skipping the remaining players in that round.
The games proceed until a player wins or all the wall tiles are given out, except the dead wall or the final 14 tiles in the wall.
If the dealer wins the game or is a tile away from winning in a draw, he remains the dealer.
If not, the person to the dealer’s right becomes the next dealer.
Call the Tiles
As mentioned above, if a player discards a tile, other gamers can call for it if it rounds up their hand.
In Riichi Mahjong, there are four types of calls players can make use of for discarded tiles, including:
- Chii: A call to complete a sequence. This call is only applicable for discards from the player directly to the left of the player who will call.
- Pon: A call to complete a triple. The pon call is applicable for throwaways by any player.
- Kan: A call to complete a quad or kan. This call can be utilized for discards by any player.
- Also, this is useful when a player has a 4 identical tile in his/her hand, who desires to declare it or has a previously melded ponand then draw the fourth tile, permitting them to elevate it to a kan.
- Ron: this is called when a player is in tenpai (that is, only require one final tile to win) and another player discards that last tile to finish their winning hand. Any player can make this call.
Winning a Japanese Mahjong
To win, note that a Riichi Mahjong hand comprises 14 tiles (except kans), a group of four sets, and a pair.
The most crucial aspect of winning is that the hand has to have a yaku. A yaku is a unique hand that differentiates this game from Chinese Mahjong, thereby increasing its value.
Thus, the hand has to have higher scoring hands, which can be:
- Honitsu: The hand make use of only a single suit as well as honor tiles.
- Iipeikou:Contains the same sequence twice as the hand is closed.
- Chanta: The hand has 1, 9, wind, or dragon in each meld and the pair.
- Pinfu: The hand consists of only sequences and the pair is not the player’s own wind, a wind of round, or dragon. The hand closed or face-down, and the winning tile wait is two-sided for a sequence.
- Riichi: The hand is fully concealed, and the player makes a Riichi bet.
- Yakuhai: Contains a triplet of players own wind, a wind of round, or dragon.
- Menzen Tsumo:The hand is closed or face-down and winning is through self-draw.
- Tanyao: The hand doesn’t have 1 or 9 tiles, winds, or dragons.
- Toitoi: The hand has all triplets and a pair.
It is essential to know these yakus as part of the winning strategy since each yaku adds a multiplier to the total value of the hand or han, which can multiply the value by two.
Some yakus are worth several hands, which increases the value of the hand up 8 times.
Open & Closed
You can have the hands and sets in either an open state or a closed state.
A player’s hand is considered ‘closed’ if he has not made any pon, chii or open kan calls from the remaining players.
There are quite a few yakus that are worth more when the hand is closed than when it is open, and in the case of pinfu and lipeikou they’re only an acceptable yaku if the hand is closed.
A ron call does not result in a closed hand to being open to scored a yaku.
A closed hand that is won by tsumo will get an additional yaku (menzen tsumo) more than the similar hand won by ron.
As a rule, it is suggested that first-time players try to keep their hand as close as possible and only call tiles when you have a yaku you can use to win.
Although opening the hand by calling tiles can make the hand move faster, it usually limits the player’s defensive ability. Also, it reduces the possible value of the hand, especially if one loses the ability to riichi.
Unlike a hand, sets are regarded as open if the player himself has not moved any piece within that set.
For example, the yaku Sanankou (three closed triplets) is only valid if the player entirely draws all three triplets. A ron call on the last triplet counts that triplet as open and cannot be taken into account for the yaku.
- The strategy of Japanese Mahjong is about thinking through your moves. Due to the existence of the furitenrules, a poorly planned throwaway in the early game can lead to a situation where you’re closed to possible wins in the final match.
- Hold a list of all probable yakuat your side. Rounds don’t end until you throw away a tile, so examine all your possible outs before throwing away a tile.
- For beginners, it is recommended to keep your hands closed. Calling out and calling in discards can make things easier. However, it restricts your choices and thus makes it very easy for your opponents to defend against you.
- Observe discards from other players. Once a player has thrown away a particular tile, it means that he cannot win with that exact tile because of the furiten
- This makes it a safe discard tile on your part when defending against participant that has called riichi.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I still play Japanese Mahjong without owning a Mahjong set?
You can play Japanese Mahjong with Chinese and American Mahjong sets, but you must remove some tiles.
Also, you can play Riichi Mahjong online using a simulator. For many people, this is their favorite method, as simulators automatically track everything, including your prospective yaku hands and the furiten states, saving a lot of time.
Can Riichi Mahjong be played with less than 4 players?
Japanese Mahjong can be played by any number of players starting from 2 players.
The same rules apply, although by design, it is best played with 4 participants.
Are there alternative rule sets in Japanese Mahjong?
In this guide, we have covered the standard rules of Riichi Mahjong, although, house rules are easy to implement.
The popular side rules are the ‘red tiles’, where certain tiles are exchanged for red ones that add extra han, when utilized in completed hands.
How many rounds does each game of Japanese Mahjong have?
Japanese Mahjong tends to follow rounds according to the cardinal points, which are in the order of East, South, West, and North.
Once everyone has been the dealer at least once the round changes. Most games come to an end when the South round ends.
Some specific yakus even give bonus han when the player has Wind tiles from the direction of the round.
As stated above, Japanese Mahjong is a popular game that everyone can play once you understand the rules.
All you need is the game set and players, and you’re good to go. If you don’t have the Japanese set, don’t worry, the American or Chinese sets will do just fine.