Mahjong parlors go deeper underground to stay in business

January 5th, 2012 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

As a disreputable pastime, mahjong doesn’t draw as much attention as racing sports or pachinko probably because as a game it’s relatively low key and whatever gambling goes on is between friends. In Japan, mahjong traditionally has been played by male college students and salarymen in smoke-filled “parlors” where participants rent tables by the hour and send out for food and alcohol. Like a lot of things that depend on disposable income, Japan’s mahjong industry has been hurting lately. Not only did the lingering recession eat away at the game’s clientele, but anyone with a mahjong jones can get their fix with computer and mobile phone applications. According to the National Mahjong Union, there were about 36,000 parlors nationwide in 1978, a number that remained fairly constant until the bubble burst at the end of the 1980s. By 2000, the number had dwindled to 20,000, and in 2010 there were only 12,700 mahjong parlors in Japan.

Against the wind: Entrance to mahjong parlor in Hama-cho, Tokyo

The Asahi Shimbun recently reported that many remaining parlors are desperately trying to attract new customers in order to stay in business and that some of these schemes have led to police crackdowns. The paper covered one struggling parlor in Osaka where it costs ¥1,800 to rent a four-person table for one hour, and most days the manager says they only manage to rent out about two tables. Another parlor in the vicinity has actually set up a no-smoking section behind glass in hopes that women and non-smokers will come. Still other parlors have set up bigger kitchens so as to offer a more diverse dining experience. There’s even a movement called “healthy mahjong” aimed at older and younger people that emphasizes daytime playing with no alcohol or betting, as well as the supposed brain-fortifying qualities of the game. Some parlors offer “classes” in how to play mahjong more enjoyably and effectively.

Traditional mahjong enthusiasts, however, will likely look askance at these developments, since without the drink and the smoke and the gambling mahjong holds little interest to them. The main problem is that a mahjong game requires four people, so some parlors have devised “free mahjong,” which means you can show up at a parlor by yourself and the manager will set you up in a game with employees. Instead of charging by the table and the hour, free mahjong parlors charge by the game., and since mahjong games can be relatively quick affairs, the profit rate is theoretically higher.

It’s also easier to evade taxes if the parlor underreports the amount of games that are played by a single customer. The police eventually caught on and have raided a number of establishments. One Osaka parlor was found to have underreported revenues of ¥520 million over a seven-year period, while another has already been forced to pay ¥300 million in back taxes and penalties. A National Tax Agency representative told the Asahi that tax evasion tends to go up during hard economic times, and so they are watching mahjong parlors carefully.

In the past, the police rarely bothered with mahjong parlors unless there was some connection to organized crime or they wanted to bust some celebrity who was being a bit too cavalier about his gambling prediliction. Now, however, the police seem to feel they are being challenged by the industry, and not just in terms of tax evasion. In order to make money, many parlors stay open after midnight, thus violating fuzoku eigyo (amusement business) laws, and many even employ young women as hostesses-cum-players. This style is called “garujon” (gal-jong). Of course, parlors that get away with late night hours aren’t going to declare the money they made during that time, either.

Some parlors have also taken a page from the pachinko manual. Traditionally, the “house” has no stake in mahjong betting. It’s all between the players. But now some free mahjong establishments offer premiums for points that customers accumulate over an evening’s play, and the customers can then exchange these premiums for cash at outside establishments, just as with pachinko. Points are determined by “rates,” also called fusoku (wind speed), posted at each parlor, which are pegged to the per-game charge. For instance, a fusoku of 0.2 means each game costs ¥200 and a player earns ¥20 per 1,000 points, 0.5 means ¥500 yen per game and ¥50 per 1,000 points, etc.

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