Jankiryuu—Way of the Mahjong Demon

For a mahjong player, the drawing of a tile is like the swing of a baseball player.

Daniel has kindly lifted the curtain on a very exclusive part of the Japanese mahjong community. Do not go to Pai no Oto without a personal referral from a current member and further not without considerable experience and conversational level Japanese. This is not a parlor; nor is it like the JPML Dojo or M-League Stadium.

Many tales are sung of the mahjong games played during the postwar era of Japan leading up to the economic bubble. In a time before automatic tables, and hand shuffling was the norm, players fought not only with the skill of their heads, but also their hands. Within those who played at a high-level, cheating was not a rarity, but a necessity.

Legends tell of a mahjong player who learned the game in his early 20s, starting his career as an underground rep player a year later, and went undefeated in this harsh world for 20 years. It is the legend of Janki (雀鬼), the Mahjong Demon. This player, still alive at the writing of this article, is Sakurai Shouichi.

Sakurai Shouichi is quite literally the most famous figure in the Japanese mahjong world. He has inspired a number of movies and other popular media, written numerous books and articles, and coached a large number of high profile and highly successful figures from a variety of fields including sumo, shogi, professional wrestling, Ping-Pong, mixed martial arts, business, and more… it’s no wonder he has the reputation he has! He is a representation of the previous era, and a teacher for the new one.

This legendary figure and teacher is not as far removed from reality as one would think, but instead occasionally visits his mahjong dojo known as Pai no Oto, The Sound of Tiles.

Pai no Oto is officially known as a mahjong dojo, but if you were expecting another parlor like you would find anywhere else in Tokyo, or even another mahjong dojo like JPML‘s, then you would be horribly wrong. Pai no Oto is quite different than any other place out there. How so? Well first off when Sakurai is around they’re not even playing mahjong most the time. Sitting around listening to Sakurai make random conversation, occasionally playing Ping-Pong, body movement drills, and some sumo wrestling; and of course a variety of food for a late night dinner.

Though when Sakurai is not around, or for the first couple hours after he arrives, mahjong is taking place… but what they play here is quite different than most other places. At Pai no Oto mahjong is a training tool to not only get better at mahjong, but also build communication, trust, and respect between the other players. At a deeper level to find a connection between ‘Body and Soul’ and step closer to nature, as Sakurai teaches. Matches are not about winning or losing, though they do keep track, but instead the teachings there go into more important aspects than the mahjong itself. Knowing how to act in certain situations, being considerate of others, being aware of their consideration for you—getting better at mahjong is nothing more than a side benefit.

To accomplish all of this, the mahjong at Pai no Oto (if you can call it that) follows a series of very specific and seemingly subjective rules specific to a style of play; a style of conduct known as Jankiryuu (Way of the Mahjong Demon).

The guidelines of Jankiryuu are viewed as “a promise to yourself”, a solemn vow to uphold the agreements made and to vocally acknowledge any instance in which that promise is broken. Furthermore any time the covenant is broken a player must discard their drawn tile (except dora) for the rest of the hand, can no longer win or make calls for the remainder of the game, and have any positive results from the game marked from their record. Quite the serious penalty, though it’s not viewed as a shameful thing or something you should apologize for because finding your shortcomings and addressing them is the entire point.

So all that being said, what are the games actually like? My first trip to Pai no Oto was in 2014 at the end of my study abroad in Tokyo, a week prior to the first WRC. The referral came from a friend who used to be a regular member and I immediately set out for the dojo.

Standing on the stairs to the dojo I heard the discrete sounds of tiles (don don don don) followed by “Ron! 12000 points,” and an affirmative “Yes!” I walked in, introduced myself and my referral, and was given a basic explanation of some of the key rules and principles.

How to draw tiles. How to discard tiles. How to sit and position yourself. These were the core lessons from the first day. Close attention is given to how to draw correctly without showing your tile to anyone by accident; efficient and without wasted movement. Movement without putting any power into it, natural. I was told, “For a mahjong player, the drawing of a tile is like the swing of a baseball player.” The fast games at Pai no Oto are not because of wickedly fast movements, but from efficient ones. To give you an idea of the timing, in Pai no Oto each East South game are timed at 22 minutes plus finishing the current hand; many games are completed before the 20 minute mark.

Next up were the rules inside the game. There are a lot of these, and I am still learning new ones every time I go. Each match is an East-South game with players starting at 30,000 points each. There are two red 5-pin dora in play; no other red 5s.

The most well know rules of Jankiryuu are:

  • You cannot throw dora unless you are in tempai
  • You cannot throw an honor tile on the first turn
  • You cannot betaori (completely folding by dealing safe tiles)
  • Do not break the rhythm of the game (instant discards)
  • No suji-cut riichi (135p shape, throw out 5p to wait on 2p)
  • No hell wait riichi
  • No tanki riichi except for chiitoitsu
  • Play according to the situation.

These are just the tip of the iceberg of the various rules, not to mention the very specific exceptions to some of them. Believe it or not, every single one of these rules applies to a certain core belief and teaching in the Jankiryuu system. ”Think of the dora as your lover, or a person that’s very important to you,” only when its absolutely necessary should you part. Don’t throw an honor your first time; take the time to look and think about the possibilities of your hand and the direction you should take it in. These are a couple examples of the rules and thier explanation, but even for a single rule there are usually multiple reasons.

Playing at super fast speeds while juggling a large number of rules, tracking discards and points, and monitoring the actions of opponents is difficult to say the least, all while maintaining good manners, proper form, and a keen awareness. There is no question why many strong players, like consecutive victors in Japan’s largest mahjong tournament, appeared from such teachings.

Janki, the legendary mahjong gambler, took a look at his 20 year reign of crushing opponents and found not happiness, but regret. His focused changed to leading and changing the lives of others, not just in mahjong, but many walks of life. “Mahjong is a bad. But the game itself is not bad—people make it bad. I wanted to do something for this game.” For the game he loved, he took it upon himself to change the bad image of mahjong in his own way, through his teachings and pupils. Only time will tell how the world remembers the legend of the Mahjong Demon.