Beating Them at Their Own Game
As Japan's first foreign mahjong professional, Jenn Barr has become a force on the local gaming scene
By: Benjamin Boas | May 28, 2009 | No Comments | 2,556 views
Photos by Benjamin Parks

Photos by Benjamin Parks

The most popular board game in Japan is essentially invisible. It can be found everywhere—in hotel basements, in the backs of offices, even around the corner from your local train station—yet it remains hidden behind shutters and tinted windows, out of sight to all but those who can read the characters on the signage out front: “Mahjong.”

Chances are, you’ve seen dozens of jansou (mahjong parlors) in Tokyo, but you probably couldn’t pick them out, let alone go in and play. Yet if you ever wanted to learn, look no further than mahjong pro Jenn Barr. She doesn’t just want you to play mahjong—she wants to you to dominate at it.

Blue-eyed blondes are generally the last thing you’d expect to see at the jansou tables. But Barr is out to change this as well. “Mahjong is pretty much a man’s game right now, but I think that’s such a waste,” she tells Metropolis as she sits in front of a computer playing an online match. “It’s the best game out there and I want the world to know it.”

Ever since learning how to play in 2004, Barr has become a worldwide mahjong ambassador, spreading the word from Taiwan to Denmark to Las Vegas. “I’m so busy every day with mahjong, it’s like I breathe it,” she says. “But it’s what I love, so I couldn’t be happier.”

Born in Seattle and known to friends (and foes) as the “West Coast Angel,” Barr, 28, fell in love with mahjong while a student at Tokyo’s Sophia University. “I first saw the tiles and was like, ‘What are those things? They look so complicated,’” she recalls. “But mahjong is really easy to learn, and pretty soon I was playing in jansou by myself.”

beating them at their own game

Photos by Benjamin Parks

Two years later, she passed the Japan Professional Mahjong League (JPML) test to become the first Western mahjong pro; fellow American Garthe Nelson passed at the same time. “Tons of people take the test every year, but the pass rate is really low,” she says. “You have to pass a written test and an interview, and then place high in a test tournament.”

So did being a cute foreign girl help? “Well, I dunno, but I guess it didn’t hurt!” she says with a giggle.
Western mahjong pros may be new in Japan, but the pastime itself has been popular for over a century. The game in its modern form appeared in China in the late 19th century, and took off here after famed novelist Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) described it in his travel journals. During the years leading up to World War II, the government banned it due to concerns that an excess of foreign influence would corrupt “pure” Japanese morals. Mahjong resurfaced in the postwar period to become Japan’s most popular board game—by far. According to a representative of the All Japan Mahjong Business Union, roughly a quarter of the population knows the rules, and over 8 million Japanese visited a parlor during the last year.

It’s important, Barr insists, to understand that mahjong is different from country to country. Although all major variants involve four players and are played with essentially the same tiles, Japanese rules stand out because of their emphasis on defense, which gives the game an additional strategic depth. “It is the absolute best rule set out there—no question,” she says.

Ryan Morris, who writes a column for the biweekly manga serial Kindai Mahjong, agrees.
“Mahjong in China is a family game: think of gin rummy or poker with grandma,” he says. “Mahjong in Japan is a full-fledged industry. There are professional players, strategy experts, commentators and countless high-level amateurs. They are connected by dedicated mahjong magazines, television, DVDs, strategy books and online communities. None of this is found in any other country. As the saying goes, ‘Mahjong was born in China, but raised in Japan.’”

Barr is no stranger to mahjong-related media, having been featured in a host of TV specials and even a couple of manga. Certainly, the appearance of a cute American with model-caliber features made a splash in the gaming world. Yet Barr is more than just looks—she’s already up to 2nd grade pro, and she recently finished first runner-up in the inaugural tournament of the new JPML North Kanto league.

Barr’s counterpart, Nelson, grew up in California and teaches English to famous J-Pop stars as a sideline. The 38-year-old has also done quite well for himself in mahjong, beating hundreds of players to take third place in this year’s prestigious JPML Masters Tournament. Various senior pros, initially skeptical of the ability of foreign players, are grudgingly beginning to admit that the two show talent.

“At first, I didn’t think much of Jenn, but after seeing how hard she works, I have to say I’m impressed,” says one JPML director. “We’re counting on her and Garthe to bring mahjong to an international audience.”

What’s Barr’s secret? “Hard work,” she says with a grin. Besides running the biggest English-language website about Japanese mahjong (www.reachmahjong.com), she also travels across Japan as a “guest pro,” appearing at special events that allow customers to share a table with her at their local jansou. Additionally, she’s finishing up a book on mahjong in English, the first publication of its kind.

“It’ll tell you everything you need to know—well, except how to cheat,” she says. “But if you read it, you’ll get so good that you’ll never need to”.

Barr’s biggest time commitment, however, is running her new mahjong parlor, Fairy, which opened in Hachioji in February. “I essentially get paid to play, but I have to do it in a way that keeps customers happy,” she says. “Striking that balance is pretty tough.”

So, how exactly does one become a pro and get paid to play mahjong?

“I think anyone can do it if they apply themselves. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. I spend so many hours creating web pages and clicking on tiles, I hardly have any time to do anything else.”

Does that mean she’d ever think of switching careers?

“You’ve got to be kidding!” she exclaims. “I love what I do because I love mahjong—and so should everyone else. Come and play, it’ll be the best decision you ever make.”

Getting Started

Ready to follow in Jenn Barr’s footsteps? You’ll have to get the basics of mahjong down first.

Though the game may look fancy and complicated, it’s actually fairly simple. Those mysterious-looking ornate tiles are, essentially, playing cards. Instead of hearts and spades, there are three suits—bamboos, dots and numbers (written in kanji)—as well as “honor” tiles, which are kind of like suit-less face cards.

The play is similar to gin or other games in the rummy family; there are four competitors, each playing for themselves. Players draw 13 tiles in the beginning of each hand, and the first player to fill his or her hand with a combination of three-of-a-kinds, runs and one pair wins the hand. After eight rounds (usually), the game ends and the player with the most points wins.

The best place to start learning mahjong is online. Barr’s own site (www.reachmahjong.com) features beginner-level instruction and more expert advice, and there’s even a bulletin board connecting the community of enthusiasts. Other useful sites include the event guide at www.riichimahjong.com, which provides info about Japanese mahjong tournaments in Europe, and www.japanesemahjong.com, another easy-to-understand introduction to rules and basic strategy run by Ryan Morri.

Once you’ve browsed over the fundamentals, it’s time to start playing. The internet is full of fantastic Japanese mahjong servers that offer online games against other competitors, including the free Tenhou (www.tenhou.net) and Ron2 (www.ron2.jp). Tenhou is quite simple to use, and you can find English documentation for it at http://arcturus.su/tenhou. Ron2 is run by Barr’s mahjong organization, JPML, and hosts weekly offline get-togethers organized by Barr herself. Stop by her website for details.

Parlors

Although mahjong parlors once had a reputation as being dark, smoky dens for yakuza and other unseemly types, the last few years have seen jansou clean up their act. It’s now common to find students, women and even foreigners showing up to play.

Parlors are divided up into two types: setto and furii. Playing setto means you and three (or two) friends rent a table from the parlor for an hourly rate. This is no more complicated than shooting pool or going bowling, and rates are quite cheap—around ¥500 per hour per person, and half of that for students. It’s well worth trying, if only for the experience of playing at the fully-automated mahjong tables. Stop by the main branch of Tanu (3F, 2-8-5 Takadanobaba, Shinjuku-ku; 03-3209-0678) or Miss Choice in Kichijoji (3F, 1-1-3 Kichijoji-Minamicho, Musashino-shi; www.misschoicer.com)
Furii is a bit more interesting: you go to the parlor by yourself or with one friend, and play with strangers in a game managed by the parlor employees. This works like a poker table at a casino, and it’s a rare opportunity to sit down with Japanese people you have never met before.

The best place to make your furii debut is Shibuton, a “no-rate” parlor close to Shibuya station that’s geared towards beginners (3F, 2-10-12 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku. Tel 03-5456-8158. Open from 10am to midnight. Nearest stn: Shibuya, exit 2. www.shibuton.jp). In no-rate parlors, money is not wagered, and it’s not possible to profit from the game. Instead, the fee you pay is based on how each player fares in their game. First place pays ¥200 and last place pays ¥500. While a solid knowledge of the patterns and basic Japanese is recommended, the staff are very friendly and will welcome anyone so long as they know how to declare a win. When you go in, be sure to show them this article—the author is well-known there.

Once you are comfortable with live games, you can try moving on to low-stakes parlors. Barr’s own jansou, Fairy in Hachioji, is “ten go” (i.e., ¥50 a point). No matter what your skill level, there’s no way to lose more than ¥3,000 in an hour of play. Barr herself is there almost every day and will happily show you the ropes. Fairy is a bit far from central Tokyo, so if you want to find a parlor closer to you, look through the listings in Kindai Mahjong, a biweekly manga available at most conbini. If you don’t find anything that catches your eye, chains like Tanu (http://homepage3.nifty.com/tanugoten), Zoo (www.mj-zoo.jp) and Welcome are good bets; the Machao chain (www.marchao.co.jp) is nonsmoking.

Parlor Lingo

Want to show off your mahjong knowledge? Impress the staff with these handy expressions.

  • Atsu-shibo This refers to a hot (atsu) hand towel (shibo, short for oshibori). Call tsume-shibo for a cold one
  • Rasuto Shout this to signal to the staff that your game has ended—then laugh in triumph as you collect your winnings
  • Daisou Literally “pinch runner,” this is the thing to say when you need to leave the table; a staff member will take over for you while you’re away. Employees tend to be quite good, so you might be tempted to overuse this one
  • Ari-ari This pun refers to both mahjong rules and coffee with sugar and milk. Nashi-Nashi has a similar mahjong-related meaning, and also refers to black coffee
And more…

The world’s only mahjong museum is located in Izumi City, Chiba, an easy daytrip from Tokyo. Email the manager in advance for a guided tour (English OK): kaji.mahjong@gmail.com.

1-2 Nakahara, Misaki-Machi, Izumi City, Chiba. Tel 03-3264-1576. Open Tue-Sun 10am-5pm, closed Mon. Entry ¥500. Nearest stn: Kazusa-ichinomiya (JR Sotobo line), then take a taxi. http://museum.takeshobo.co.jp

Want a set of tiles for yourself? You can find mahjong sets at most major department stores, but they generally come with a steep price tag. Instead, head to your nearest Don Quixote (www.donki.com) to pick up a set and mat for less than ¥4,000.

Anime lovers will want to check out the series Akagi and Saki, both of which feature mahjong. Although Akagi ended its run in 2007, Saki is still shown on TV Tokyo late Sundays/early Mondays at 2am (www.saki-anime.com).

Advanced players might be interested in visiting Tenpane, a moe-themed jansou in Akihabara.

3-8-6, Soto-Kanda, Chiyoda-ku. Tel. 03-3255-3103. Open Mon-Fri from 1pm, Sat-Sun from 11am. Nearest stn: Akihabara or Suehirocho (Ginza line). www.tempane.com

For those who can read Japanese, the biweekly manga serial Kindai Mahjong is the best way to get into the game. Comic Obaka Miko (“Mahjong Princess Miko”), has been running for five years and is an excellent source of playing tips.

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