I won't exactly call it a trend-- it's much too small for that-- but in the last few years a lot of English-speakers have suddenly been taking up Japanese-style mahjong. “That's great, Dave, but what does that have to do with your anime column?”, you're probably asking me. Well, to put it simply... for most of these people, anime is directly responsible.
In 2005, the anime adaptation of Nobuyuki Fukumoto's manga Akagi, about a genius hustler with a demonic personality, ran on Japanese TV. While nearly every anime produced these days makes its way to English-speaking anime fans somehow, the same doesn't necessarily go for manga: before this it was safe to say that hardly any English-speakers knew who Fukumoto was.
Absolutely none of us watching Akagi knew what the hell was going on, but that wasn't really the point. The title character is so charismatic that after watching the show, a wave of anime fans said “I want to do that!” Some of them actually did so. My friends at USPML are board gamers who watched Akagi one day, and they started a whole organization over it.
And of course, the second wave was thanks to Saki. Though we certainly couldn't call it a mainstream hit with American otaku, the moe mahjong series enjoys much more popularity than the cult Fukumoto works. A lot of people wanted to make flowers bloom behind them as they pulled that winning tile off the dead wall. With the new Saki anime running this season, I'm really excited for another influx of new players!
(There's Legend of Koizumi, too, but I think the mahjong is the least of the things that impressed people about that comic.)
After a lot of failed attempts to learn since seeing Akagi, I came to the game seriously about three years ago. Of course, the first step after that is to try and get other people playing, and for a game so niche and difficult we might as well aim for the only group who would take up the challenge... other anime fans.
My good friend, fellow blogger, and PhD student in manga Carl Li and I have since run a mahjong panel at Otakon, one of the biggest anime conventions in America. The room was packed, and quite a few interested people came up to us to ask more questions afterwards. There's definitely no lack of interest among anime fans, but it's just a tough game to learn. Our numbers are still few.
The action in Akagi and Saki is outlandish compared to the actual game, but maybe that desire to play the game for real is a weird way of emulating the fictional hero (or in the moe case, are we getting closer to the fictional girl?) in the real world. After all, there are people out there willing to buy Washizu-style mahjong sets...
It's probably the same sentiment that gets Japanese otaku buying objects that appear in K-On! or American otaku paying out the nose for Japanese snack foods they saw in anime. Whether they're otaku or not, doesn't everybody want to realize their fantasies, even if only a little bit?