Jihai 「字牌」 are the honor tiles. Sometimes, they are referred to as word tiles or characters, although the latter term should be avoided because it can also be used for the manzu. Unlike the numbered suits, these tiles cannot be mixed together to form sequences. Instead, to use them in a complete hand, identical groups must be made in triplets, quads, or the pair. or alternatively all seven of them can be used to complete kokushi musou. This class of mahjong tiles is subdivided into two smaller groups: the sangenpai, or dragons, and the kazehai, or winds.
The sangenpai 「三元牌」 (lit. three foundation tiles) are three tiles, originally representing the three Confucian values. These tiles are quite distinctive, often brightly coloured. In English, they are most often referred to as the dragons, but occasionally they are referred to as the colours.
Haku 「白」, the white dragon, is usually depicted by an entirely blank tile in Japanese-style sets. In Chinese-style sets, it is more frequently depicted as a blue or black border around nothing, although those sets often come with blank replacement tiles which can be used instead. In some Japanese-style sets, especially those where the front and back of the tile are the same colour, haku will have a gem in the center. Chun 「中」, the red dragon, and hatsu 「發」, the green dragon, are depicted by their respective kanji although, especially with hatsu, they may be stylized. Chun is usually written in red, and hatsu is often, though not always, written in green.
The sangenpai are traditionally ordered haku, hatsu, chun, as in the table on the right. When one appears as a dora indicator, the dora tile is the next in this sequence, with chun pointing back to haku.
The sangenpai are an easy way to score points. A pair of any of them is worth 2 fu (although it means that pinfu cannot be scored), and a group of them scores yakuhai, a yaku worth 1 han. If a hand is lucky enough to have two groups of dragons, as well as a pair of the third, it will score 2 han for shousangen in addition to the yakuhai, for a minimum of 4 han. Completing all three groups of dragons produces the daisangen yakuman, one of the three most common.
Often, a hand scoring shousangen or daisangen will have two visible calls of dragons. Such a hand should be treated with extreme caution by the other players if they cannot see many copies of the remaining type of dragon. The hand may well be tenpai for shousangen or daisangen and, in games using pao, even if it is not tenpai, a player discarding the remaining dragon risks becoming liable for a yakuman payment.
There is only one difference between the three sangenpai, and that is that hatsu can be used (and sometimes is required) to score ryuuiisou, the yakuman awarded for having a hand entirely consisting entirely of the tiles which are traditionally green. Other than this rare case, the tiles are effectively interchangeable.
Kazehai 「風牌」 (lit. wind tiles) are four tiles representing winds in the four cardinal directions. In the four directions are, in counterclockwise order, ton 「東」 or east, nan 「南」 or south, shaa 「西」 or west, and finally pei 「北」 or north. As many new players notice, the wind order does not emulate the Western cardinal counterclockwise order of east, north, west, and south. One way to remember the mahjong order is to imagine a compass rose written on the ceiling, above the players. In English, the kazehai are referred to as the winds or, less commonly, as the directions. The wind tiles are each depicted with their respective kanji, although usually in a more stylized form than is common in modern Japanese.
The winds are special as they are the only tiles whose value changes throughout the game. One wind is distinguished as bakaze 「場風」, the round wind or table wind. This wind is the same for all players at any given time, and corresponds to the current round of play. Additionally, for each player, one wind is distinguished as jikaze 「自風」, the seat wind. The dealer is always east, and the directions continue counterclockwise around the table, with the player to the dealer's right being south, the player across being west, and the player on the dealer's left being north. As the deal rotates, so do the wind positions. Winds which are neither bakaze nor jikaze are otakaze 「客風」, off winds or guest winds.
Only jikaze and bakaze are worth fu and yakuhai in the manner of the dragons. For one player, the round wind and seat wind will coincide; this double wind will score yakuhai twice, for 2 han, and a pair may score 4 fu rather than 2, depending on the ruleset. Otakaze do not score any yakuhai and are therefore the weakest tiles in any hand: they can only group with themselves and are worth no more points. Additionally, the presence of any jihai means that tanyao cannot be scored, which makes it a common strategy to discard otakaze immediately.
Similarly, an open call of otakaze is extremely limiting to a hand. The common yaku riichi, pinfu, and tanyao become unscorable, and the call does not guarantee yakuhai. A hand that calls otakaze usually seeks to find a yaku in honitsu, or less commonly, in another yakuhai or toitoi, and likely means the hand will not be worth many points, unless more winds are called.
A hand that completes groups of three of the winds, plus a pair of the fourth, scores yakuman for shousuushii. If the fourth pair is replaced with a group of the last wind, the hand instead scores daisuushii, which is worth double yakuman under many rulesets. A hand that has made three visible calls of winds should therefore be treated as highly dangerous, unless the locations of at least three of the last wind are known. When the pao rule is in use, a player who discards the tile needed to complete the fourth group of winds will be liable to pay for the resulting daisuushii hand, even if it was not then in tenpai.
When a wind tile is a dora indicator, it points to the next wind in the counter-clockwise order around the table.
- Jihai in Japanese Wikipedia