Japanese mahjong

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Japanese mahjong 「麻雀、 麻将、 or マージャン」 is the Japanese varation to the 4-player table card game of mahjong, whose objective can be best described as a combination of gin rummy and poker. Even though tiles are primarily used to play the game, the game is available online and can be played with regular mahjong playing cards. It's a four player game that combines the elements of calculation and strategy that is found in chess with the elements of risk assessment, observation skills, and luck.

Gin rummy can trace its origins back to the mahjong that was played in China. Gin rummy is a card game which centers itself towards developing tile groups of sequences (1-2-3, 6-7-8) and/or triplets (9-9-9).

Besides the tile groups, players also need to meet another condition called a yaku. The yaku can be synonymous to "poker hands", where yaku are a set of patterns or conditions. Just like a poker hand, for example the "full house", each yaku is associated with a name. In addition, yaku directly affect the value of a player's hand. The yaku add richness and depth to the game but at the same time requires some additional starting knowledge. When mahjong is not played on/via a computer, scoring by hand also requires additional starting knowledge. The game is otherwise known as riichi mahjong, due to a feature in the game rules allowing riichi.

In addition, the game is a zero-sum game. All players begin with a certain number of points, usually 25,000. Player hands are used to take points from other players. So, it is the objective of each player to develop their hands to accumulate more points than any of the opponents. Individual hands are scored with appropriate yaku and dora. Each winning hand value is determined with the number of han and fu, that corresponds to a specific number of points. On the flip side, it is also the objective of each player to minimize point losses against opponents.

The Japanese variation is primarily played in Japan. Yet, it is available to everyone via a few Internet sites and video games.


Game development history

Mahjong overall is only a 100 year old game or so. Originating in China, the game managed to spread across the country, East Asia, and even to the United States during the 1920s.

Main differences

The game of mahjong itself has numerous variations across the world, including an attempted standardization of "World Mahjong". Virtually every country in East Asia and the United States has a form of mahjong. While they all have the same general principles, they each have very distinct rule variations.

Japanese mahjong features these major aspects of the game, that are not used in many of the other mahjong variants. Although, these are not unique to Japanese mahjong.

Rules overview

Unfortunately, the rules to the game is complex. The basic game mechanics can be generally in compliance with other mahjong variants.

Mahjong tiles and suits

Standard Japanese mahjong tiles

There are three suits of number tiles each with sequences from one to nine. The three suits are the manzu (characters), the pinzu (coins/circles), and the souzu (bamboos). These three suits have the value of 1-9 according to their own suit. The face of the one of bamboo tiles have a bird design on them. The number one and nine tiles are called terminals. The number two through eight tiles are called simples. Runs don't wrap-around from nine to one.

A fourth set of mahjong tiles is composed of the jihai (honor tiles). This set of tiles can be further divided into kazehai (wind tiles) and sangenpai (dragon tiles). Unlike the standard suits previously mentioned, these honor tiles have special properties towards determining hand value. They can also be referred as "word tiles". Unlike the "numbered suits", the different honor tiles cannot be mixed together to form tile groupings.

Newer Japanese mahjong sets also come with four red-five dora tiles. One number five character tile, two number five circle tiles, and one number five bamboo tile are replaced with their matching red tiles. These red dora tiles can replace the appropriate number of standard five-tiles. Usage of the red dora tiles is optional. In addition, sets also come with flower and season tiles, but these are not used in the Japanese game. Instead, flower and seasons are used in other variations like Chinese and American styles.

Game setup

The game's setup features the 136 tiles, arranged in four walls of 17 tiles long double-stacked. After shuffling the tiles, all four players are responsible for creating the initial setup, which has every tile face down. A dice roll is used to determine both the initial dealer at the start of the game as well as the wall break at the beginning of each hand. After this process, both the dead wall is separated; and the tiles are dealt to each player to produce their starting hands. Play begins once the dealer makes the initial draw and discard.

Game play

After the initial setup, then the game may begin. With online sites and automatic tables, the above setup procedure may be ignored.

Tile draws and turn order

The game begins with the dealer's initial discard. From here onward, each player gets a turn to draw a tile from the wall, all players, except the discarder, has the option of claiming a discarded tile by chii, pon, kan, or ron.

If no claims of the discard are made, then the next player draws from the wall and makes a discard, unless the hand is a winning hand with the declaration of tsumo. The turn order are as follows: East-South-West-North, and the cycle repeats. However, in the event of a discarded tile claim, then the next turn belongs to the player to the right of the claimer. This means, it is possible to skip a player's turn with calls of pon or kan.

Discard pile

Every player's discard is organized and arranged in front of them. Per convention, players line up their discarded tiles in rows of six. This is not a necessary convention, but it is the preferred convention. The arranged discard pile is used for two primary purposes: as record of a player's discards, and as an indicator of safe-tiles for defensive play. Additionally, players learn and are able to discern player hand states by reading the discard piles.


Example discard pile

2-pin in this discard applies furiten to the example hand

The furiten rule applies to player's hands and the tile discards, by which specific discarded tiles may indicate a player in furiten. For this reason, players must discard their tiles in arranged rows, normally of 6 tiles per row. If a player has a winning tile in the player's discard pile, then the player is in furiten. While in furiten, the player's ability to win off a discard is disabled. In other words, the player cannot claim ron.

In addition, the disabling of ron by furiten applies to all winning tiles, not just a particular tile in the discard. If the player's hand looks like this:

  • Example tenpai hand:
Tile-3p.pngTile-4p.pngTile-5p.pngTile-6p.pngTile-7p.pngTile-3m.pngTile-3m.pngTile-3m.pngTile-6s.pngTile-7s.pngTile-8s.pngTile-4z.pngTile-4z.png Waiting for: Tile-2p.png - Tile-5p.png, or Tile-8p.png

This example hand is a tenpai hand waiting three tiles . If any of those tiles are in the player's discard pile, then the player cannot claim ron. A player can get out of furiten by changing the hand composition.

This rule forces players to take extra consideration, when making discards. Often, a player must have good reason to discard particular tiles, especially when they are already part of a tile group.

Hand development

The process of drawing and discarding, as well as making claims to discard is the process of hand development. As a player, after the initial deal of hands, players have a start hand. So, the aim of a player is to develop this hand into a tenpai hand, and eventually a complete hand. Typically, a complete mahjong hand is composed of 4 tile groups and a pair. The hand may be open or closed and have at minimum 1-yaku. This is a total of 13 tiles plus 1 (the winning tile), like so:

Tile-2m.pngTile-3m.pngTile-4m.pngTile-6s.pngTile-6s.pngTile-6s.pngTile-1p.pngTile-1p.pngTile-5p.pngTile-6p.pngTile-7p.pngTile-1z.pngTile-1z.png May win with: Tile-1p.png or Tile-1z.png

Per the yaku rule, it is impossible to win with the first tile by discard unless riichi has been declared. However, the the second tile may be claimed for a win under any circumstance in the East round, or for the dealer.

A hand that is one tile away from being complete is in tenpai. A hand that is one tile away from tenpai is one shanten. A hand that is two tiles away from tenpai is two shanten, and so on. Experienced players may sense how likely they are to win a hand based on their initial shanten number.

There are two notable exceptions to the 4 tile groups and a pair pattern. Players can try to form seven pairs or the rare thirteen orphans hand. Both of these hands are closed by default.

Tile groupings

Mentsu 「面子」 are the tile groups used to form mahjong hands. Each individual tile group must be composed of a single suit or type of mahjong tile. All groups, except kantsu, are composed of groups of 3 tiles.

  • Consecutive same suit Sequences. Sequences must be in consecutive numbers per the following examples:
Closed Open
Tile-1m.pngTile-2m.pngTile-3m.png Tile-4p-e.pngTile-3p.pngTile-5p.png
Tile-6p.pngTile-7p.pngTile-8p.png Tile-4s-e.pngTile-5s.pngTile-6s.png
  • Same suit triplets. Triplets are three-of-a-kind. As such, the tiles must be of the same kind both in number and suit. Per examples:
Closed Open
Tile-1p.pngTile-1p.pngTile-1p.png Tile-6z.pngTile-6z-e.pngTile-6z.png
Tile-7m.pngTile-7m.pngTile-7m.png Tile-3z.pngTile-3z.pngTile-3z-e.png
  • Quads occur, when a player is in possession of all four tiles of a specific tile type. With possession of all four of a tile type, a player has the option to invoke special rules applied to this tile grouping. Even though, the tile group consists of four tiles, it is, in an actual sense, counted as three-of-a-kind plus one extra, where players are actually awarded special privileges for possessing four of one type of tile.


A special set of rules and procedures applies to quads. When in special possession of all four tiles of a specific type, a player may invoke these rules, or otherwise, decline the option. Like many aspects of the game, this is a risk-reward option. When choosing to invoke the "quad rules", a player may declare after the current tile draw, if four tiles or the fourth tile is in the hand. If a player possesses three tiles and a player discarded a fourth, then the player may invoke the "quad rules" on that discard.

After the declaration for a quad, then a player gains special access to the dead wall. This is one of the first four tiles to the left of the dora-indicator. Afterwards, if the the extra tile does not complete the hand, the player must discard and play moves on to the right. As a sidenote, for each call kan, the player's tile count increases by one for each quad. Yet once again, a quad counts as a triplet plus one.

Furthermore, when a player calls or declares a kan, an additional dora indicator tile is flipped. This is called the kandora. Some rules may allow the kandora to be flipped immediately after the kan call. Other rules have stricter procedures on when the kandora tile is flipped. Some make the distinction between the open kan and the closed kan. Finally, a tile is shifted from the end of the regular wall to the dead wall, in order to maintain 14-tiles in the dead wall. Because of the additional dora, a play using quads can be very risky or rewarding.

Claiming discards

As part of the game, players have the ability to claim other player's discards.

Finally, a hand is distinguishable between an open hand and closed hand. A closed hand is a player's hand, that had yet to make any claim on a discard. A hand in this state is fully concealed from the other players. In the event a player makes a claim on a discard, then the player's hand changes from a closed hand to an open hand.

Usually, a player's hand value decreases in the event of an open hand, but this may not always be the case, especially for some yakuman hands. Japanese mahjong strategy centers on knowing when to appropriately make the above calls. Knowledge of the yaku plays a large part in this decision making process.

End of a hand

The procedure of drawing, discarding, and maintaining a hand ends with many different scenarios. The ideal for any player is the completion of the hand and winning it. A hand may end when all the tiles, except for the dead-wall tiles, are drawn, or when a player chombos, meaning making an illegal play. After the end of the hand, points are exchanged accordingly. Then afterwards, the tiles are reshuffled to setup the next hand, or renchan.

Winning a hand

Ideally, players seek to win hands. Once again, a winning hand is composed of a tenpai hand; and a winning tile may be claimed. Of course, a player must actively declare the win (ron or tsumo), or else, the player may also decline the win. Though, the latter option may be used for specific and strategic instances. This can also be attained by the dead-wall draw with the special tsumo of rinshan kaihou yaku. Two other special win claims can be attained by ron via chankan.

It is most important to note: winning a hand requires a minimum of one yaku. Failure to meet this requirement may be subject to a penalty.

Depending on the rules, multiple winners are also possible for a hand. This event occurs when more than one player is waiting on the same tile(s), and the wins are both claimed by discard. This event is called a double ron or even triple ron. Some rules may allow double, but not triple. In this case, the losing player must pay the winning players according to their respective hand values. Likewise, honba applies for both of them as well. Otherwise, some rules may apply the head bump rule, or atamahane. In this case, only one of the players may claim the win over the other. The former winner may claim the win over the latter, or vice-versa depending on the rules agreed upon.

Exhaustive draw

Also, known as ryuukyoku, the hand ends in a draw. In this case, all the tiles from the wall are drawn, except for the 14 tiles in the dead wall. The player(s) in tenpai receive points from those in noten. However, that needed tile was never claimed. Nearly 40% of professional games go to an exhaustive draw due to players immediately dropping out of the race when a player declares riichi.

Abortive draw

Various conditions may allow players to abort the hand. In other words, a mahjong hand may end prematurely before anyone claims a win or before all the tiles are drawn and discarded. In these events, no points are exchanged; and no penalties are enforced. Instead, the hand ends, and the tiles are reshuffled.


The chombo is a penalty to the player, who performs specific illegal procedures. Other illegal procedures may be forgivable if done accidentally, like accidentally drawing a tile from a different part of the wall. However, things like cheating or winning without a yaku are more serious offenses. In the event of a chombo, the player must play out a penalty of points to the amount of a mangan. Otherwise, the rules to chombo may be modified.


Winning hands are awarded points based on the difficulty and luck needed to form them. So, the appropriate amount of points are exchanged between players according to the tables in the scoring rules of the game. Naturally, the point exchanges are already handled by software and mahjong game sites. Even some automatic tables are capable of scoring calculations.

Dealers receive roughly 50% more points when winning than non-dealers. However, if a non-dealer wins by draw, then the dealer must pay roughly 50% while non-dealers pay roughly 25% each. The winner of a hand collects any riichi bets on the table and additional points allowed by honba.

Game Rounds

To note the game's progression, game rounds are used.

Wind rounds

Games are organized into wind rounds. For each wind round, every player has the chance to be the dealer once.


For shorter games, players may play a single East Round. Here players only have the opportunity to hold the dealer seat once. After the conclusion of four wind rotations, then the game is brought to the end. Yet, the points may invoke the extra round and bring the game into the South Round.

End of game

End game results with raw scores and uma scores

Typically, the game ends after the final hand of the last round, when at least one player is scoring 30,000 or more. This number may differ barring house rules.  However, the entire game may end differently than the standard rounds. This may occur under the following conditions:

  • Negative points. When any player's points falls into the negatives, or below zero, then the game ends. At that point, the player has run out of point sticks. The game can continue when a player has exactly 0 points. Some rules may allow continuance of the game regardless, in order to complete the entire wind rotation.
  • Win and finish. On the final hand of the last round, if the dealer wins the hand, the dealer may choose to continue the game or end the game. A similar rule applies to the last battle of team matches. If the dealer's team is in the lead after the first hand of the very last rotation, the dealer may choose to end the match when the match would otherwise continue due to dealer repeats. In which case, teams will usually opt to end the match.
  • Extra rounds. The game may play out an extra round, when a regular game ends with all of the players under 30,000 points. In the case of tonpuusen, the game extends into the South round. For a hanchan, the game extends into the West round. This overtime round ends as soon as any player has over 30,000 points. If all the points remains below 30,000 after another full round, then another overtime round may be played in the next prevailing-wind.

End game score

Finally, the player with the greatest number of points at the end wins. For additional scoring, another final uma score or +/- score may be applied. While this additional calculation has its origins around gambling, the adjusted points also allows comparison between games. For example, in two different games, a player may score exactly 34,000 points. However, in one game, the player finished 1st; while in the second game, the player finished 2nd. The point adjustment becomes a better reflection on player performance, rather than just using the raw scores.


Many rules of the game may be subject to various customization and house rules. Many simply resort towards allowing or disallowing certain rules and even hand patterns. Others involve different methods of enforcement and point values.

Three player

Sometimes, games can be played with three players, simply because four players are not available. A modified version to the rules are created to accommodate this scenario.

Two player

For any 1-on-1 situation, even a two-player variation is possible. Though gameplay becomes even more limited than that of the three-player variation. The tile count is even less; and often, it is down to a single suit.


Washizu mahjong is a particular variant, that changes the nature of the tiles. Here, three out of ever four tile type uses transparent tiles. This enables other players to be able to see most of the other players' hands.

Player environments

The game may be played under a number of different environments. Light play or new players may engage under casual settings, where rule enforcement is not so strict. Plus, the player pace may not be so rigorous either. Likewise, less emphasis on winning and losing is placed below that of merely enjoying the game and other players' company. Formality to the game is increased under tournament settings. Here, scores are pressed to the utmost importance, with the objective of placing well in the tournament and/or outright winning the event. Naturally, participants are expected to be knowledgeable of the rules and strategies. Commercial play are hosted in mahjong parlors, where players come to pay-to-play. Either at the parlors, casinos, or residences, gambling may be involved, whether it be legal or not legal. Finally, professional play involves televised games; and a staff may take detailed record of games and their results.



The game has been featured in a number of television series and movies.

Video games

An old hand held Nintendo mahjong game.

A number of video games featuring mahjong have been developed. The history of mahjong video games stretches as far back as the history of video gaming itself. By the 1980's, mahjong has been big enough in Japan, such that it was natural for the game to progress within the then fledgling video game industry.

External links

Japanese mahjong in Japanese Wikipedia
Their Riichi Rules for Japanese Mahjong contains detailed rules and terminology. A previous version was used by Crunchyroll's Saki anime translator.
Barticle's Japanese Mahjong Guide can be downloaded from the downloads section. It contains even more detailed rules and terminology.
JPML ruleset
Hanayori Uta's video.
A Japanese Mahjong blog for English speakers
Rules from the Saikyosen tournament
Another blog regarding various aspects of the game.