NARMA – Shadow Conspiracy or Bright Future?

Behind the North American Open is the relatively young North American Riichi Mahjong Association (NARMA), an organization approaching its third year but which remains an enigma to many still. However, on the eve of the biggest open tournament native to North America, they cannot be discounted as an empty presence on the American or international scene.

NARMA was conceptualized in a gathering of riichi enthusiasts during the 2015 NYC Open, and was officially founded in 2016.  There was an initial flurry of activity – establishing WRC rules as their standard, building tournament regulations, and working to distribute WRC seats to North America.

However, conflicts within its members’ goals and visions meant that its course was uncertain and just before WRC 2017, NARMA underwent a drastic shakeup resulting in poor visibility at Las Vegas despite many of the event’s organizing team having been recruited from its ranks. All fell quiet until early this year when they announced the first North American Open would be held in New York.

Beyond the upcoming tournament and the mission statement published on their website, NARMA has publicly said little about what its current practical goals are, and what we can expect in the future. That doesn’t prevent informed speculation with a healthy dollop of optimism and cynicism in equal measures.

Cooperation is essential to the game before you’ve even broken the wall.

An organization such as NARMA is only as good as the sum of its parts, and it is here that NARMA can claim some strength and credibility. The current presumed leading members of NARMA have some formidable qualifications. David Bresnick has been a major player on the international scene for many years. Edwin Dizon has been capably operating IORMC qualifiers and arrangements, and even appeared on a JPML stream. Luke Morgan was a head referee at WRC 2017, and operates one of the longest-running and most successful clubs in the United States. Aldwin Gordula is well known in the online scene and prolific on reddit and social media. Daniel Moreno, a regular tournament player around the world, was part of the original founding body, and rumor has it he still lurks about on the west coast. Last but not least, Donnie Clark who not only served as a head referee at WRC 2017 but also co-founded an amazing new news site that shall remain nameless.

Notable individuals have added value to the efforts in organizing the NAO. Andrew Whitcomb has proven an excellent technical writer and steady hand (but rumor has it that Gemma Sakamoto of WRC is hoping to poach him away entirely), and Zac Leak brings a fresh opinion and his own small production cadre.

There are also continuing physical manifestations of NARMA’s presence. Most of North America’s events have been done under the auspices of the org, including support from other members. Its greatest achievement to date will be the upcoming inaugural NAO, presumably with a second edition is on the slate. If not an annual event, then it’s likely that it might follow in the footsteps of the WRC hosting a continental tournament every few years.

On the face of it, the present isn’t looking half bad. Plenty of potential with room for improvement from a group of people planning events and forming a foundation.

What about the future – the five year plan? The best analogy that can be drawn is that NARMA looks like it could be what the European Mahjong Association is to the European continent. Certainly comparisons can be drawn and NARMA should be exhorted to consider EMA’s trials and tribulations to avoid the known pitfalls and pick up some easy wins.

A calendar, ranking system, and certified events are certainly something NARMA should be considering for the future as it grows.

Better representation is also required. Currently the main agents are all US citizens of a similar demographic. Representation from Canada seems to have fallen by the wayside and Mexico has yet to show any proactive interest in joining in. EMA, to the extent that any federal org allows for, does adequately represent its member parts. NARMA needs a plan to represent fairly all areas and cultures of the continent, and this should be a priority moving forward.

However, any comparison with EMA is imperfect insomuch that the challenges faced in Europe over the past decade will not be the same as those of NARMA.  The North American continent poses some issues – cultural and geographic – that EMA was not up against.

Let’s start by examining the latter – geographical issues.

Mahjong is primarily an interactive game requiring four people to assemble at a table, so proximity to fellow players is a prime issue. (Yes, I’m aware of online platforms such Tenhou, but lets not get stuck on that debate.) Have a look at the following demographics:

  • USA and Canada population: 365 million over 7.66M square miles (19.84M sq km)
    (Mexico has been omitted from this only because USA and Canada are the prime activists in North American mahjong at this time.)
  • Europe population: 742 million in 3.93M square miles (10.18 sq km)

Speaking in generalizations, North America contains about half the people in almost twice the space. The conclusion here is that what small percentage of the population plays riichi is spread out significantly more. Additionally, North America doesn’t benefit from a close network of public transportation such as trains (they do exist, but their destinations are more confined) which limits travel options to less efficient modes such as cars or planes which are costly when considering the distances required to travel.

What is needed are more local grassroots initiatives across the continent that require less travel and less time to participate in.

Secondly, there are also some limitations borne from America’s unique cultural environment. Vacations in European are generous and paid – a legal mandatory of four weeks paid vacation which inflates rapidly when you add in public holidays. In the typical work culture of America, there is no mandatory paid vacation meaning that time for R&R is not only restricted but costly.

These are difficult obstacles to surmount and rumor has it mahjong tournaments will not be the flash-point for a social revolution. EMA’s growth doesn’t offer any clues for a route the Americans can take to overcome these. What is needed are more local grassroots initiatives across the continent that require less travel and less time to participate in.

Riichi mahjong isn’t a national hit in North America just yet. There are 21 member countries in the EMA representing roughly half of the countries on the continent and each of those national orgs represent myriad local groups. While new clubs in North America are developing each year (with varied degrees of success), attendance at the NAO is representing 15 clubs and a number of individuals; way less than half of the states and provinces it is attempting to attract.

Additionally, riichi tends to draw new players from a young demographic – students and the like – whom have lower incomes and can’t afford the travel costs for many events. Parts of Europe experienced this in early years, but those young adopters have since grown older and acquired disposable incomes which then help support their interests. North American riichi is still young. Sure, mahjong has existed in the country since the 1920’s, but the style of American mahjong common then draws a much different crowd, and it is not often that the two mix.

…clubs in North America aren’t looking beyond their own walls. Yet.

While it may be early days, the primary demographic relates to one of the biggest challenges faced by NARMA so far. An ideological hurdle that is basically this: clubs in North America like to do things their own way. Even though we are all playing riichi, there is a sense of identity in a clubs chosen rules and structure, and a culture that doesn’t easily lend itself to the type of international standardization that the EMA enjoys. This isn’t to say that clubs in the Europe aren’t individual – it is more a commentary on the the fact that many clubs in North America aren’t looking beyond their own walls. Yet.

EMA has been successful in fostering local groups and encouraging them to adopt community standards so what CAN we learn from the EMA’s example here?

Give it time.

With more continental level events like the NAO, growing international acceptance of a common rule set like the WRC, and time to mature, it is possible that the North American riichi community will coalesce into a stable infrastructure.

So why should each of you out there – especially those perhaps running their own home groups – collaborate on a broader plan? Why should North America even want that?

Here’s why. International cooperation and opportunity – something that NARMA (if their vision statement is taken at face value) looks to bring to the table. When there are opportunities offered by foreign supranational entities (attending overseas tournaments like WRC 2020 in Vienna for example), they aren’t going to take on the burden of dealing with regional clubs individually. They will opt to put an allotment in the hands of a trusted national partner to distribute within their own domain. The more players that group can boast and the greater level of organization, the more negotiating power it has when it comes to national quotas. Without a broader agency to represent the players of the region, North America will likely find itself left in the cold.

And above all, riichi mahjong is a collaborative and competitive game. If you want to play, you need people to play with. Cooperation is essential to the game before you’ve even broken the wall.

But whether or not NARMA, a volunteer organization still fairly unrecognized in its own boundaries, is to be that international portal on behalf of North America remains to be seen. We will have to see what comes next – hopefully at or shortly after the NAO. Let’s hope that NARMA doesn’t pass up this opportunity to show us what it is about.

New York City was the metaphorical birth place of NARMA. Will the collective at the NAO, enjoying their first harvest, put in the next effort for an even greater future crop of growth and collaboration among those gathered there?

Share your comments 🙂

This editorial was co-authored by Donnie C. and Gemma S.