Pro Interview: Naoki Setokuma (part 1)

Active ImageIt’s been a while but we are finally back in the groove with a featured interview. This time we sat down with Naoki Setokuma, JPML A-Leaguer and the winner of the first-ever ReachMahjong.com Cup. Join us as we take a dip into Mr. Setokuma’s journey from an after-school gambler to a top-level pro.

ReachMahjong.com: Hello and thank you for taking the time to join us for this interview. Let’s get right into it with the story of how you started playing Mahjong.
Naoki Setokuma: Well in high school my friends and I played Card Mahjong at school on our lunch breaks, but it wasn’t long before that wasn’t enough for us, so we called around to all the Mahjong parlors until we found one that would let us in wearing our school uniforms.

Active ImageRM: Couldn’t you just change out of the uniforms into normal clothes?
NS: What a pain, no, our way was definitely better. We must’ve called a hundred parlors before we found one that would let us in.

RM: Where did you go to high school?
NS: That was in Kumamoto on Kyushu island. We went there because my dad was transferred.

RM: Aren’t job transfers pretty rare in Japan? Especially to someplace as remote as Kumamoto?
NS: My dad was part of the Self-Defense Forces, so we moved around a lot. We moved about once every 2 years. I’ve lived almost everywhere from Aomori on Honshu all the way down to Kumamoto on Kyushu. I went to 4 different elementary schools.

RM: How did you end up in Tokyo?
NS: I came here for college. Well, I actually spent 3 years here before I got into college. In the end I graduated but I have to say that I spent most of my time in mahjong and pachinko parlors.

RM: What did you do after college?
NS: I got a job right away. I was already 25 when I graduated. That year I played in the JPML Masters tournament as an amateur.
RM: What did you think of that?
NS: I made it to the quarter-finals (the final 16), and I noticed that the pro’s got to come into the tournament later, without all the qualifiers that I had to go through. I thought that I should become a pro too so that I could take that easy-street.

RM: How did you balance that with work?
NS: It wasn’t a very big company, there was just one owner and one office. After working there for a year I was doing really well and I was due to get a promotion. The problem was that if I took the promotion, my weekends would be filled with golf and meetings with clients and I wouldn’t be able to play mahjong anymore, so I quit.

RM: When did all of this happen?
NS: I would say about 10 years ago.

Active ImageRM: What made you decide to go with the Japan Professional Mahjong League?
NS: I watched the league tournament and all of the famous players in Kindai Mahjong and writing books like Takeo Kojima, Masayoshi Ara and Ando were part of the JPML. If I was going to be a pro, I thought I should join the league with the strongest pro’s.

Shintaro Konno: I thought the same thing when I joined. We all wanted to beat the strongest pro’s and were absolutely sure that we could.
NS: At that time there weren’t games like Mahjong Fight Club, so my main goal was to join a league where I could play against the strongest players.

SK: Once you join you realize that you’re not as good as you thought you were, but most of us wanted to join because we thought we were the best and we wanted to prove it by beating the best. That’s why we chose JPML.
NS: It’s so embarrassing to remember how confident and arrogant I was that I was the best when I really still had a lot to learn.

RM: So what happened after you quit your job and put everything into Mahjong?
NS: There was a parlor in Shinjuku called Gofu and I was offered the job as the parlor manager so I did that for 2 years. After that I got sick from overworking and was in the hospital for 2 months. I realized that working as a member in a parlor was too hard on my body.

RM: But as a professional mahjong player there aren’t a lot of other options. What did you do after that?
NS: Yuko Ito told me about a parlor in Hachioji that was looking for a store manager and he told me that I should work there, so I did that for 3 years. I ended up quitting when it changed owners to someone that wasn’t connected to JPML. After that I basically just hung out for 2 years before I started working as a prop player at a parlor in Nakano.

RM: Is that what you’re doing now?
NS: Yes. I realized that was the best situation for me and it’s not too demanding.

RM: What is your schedule like now?
NS: Now I work as a prop player on weekdays and head out to play Mahjong Fight Club after I’m done. At night sometimes I play on Ron2 and on weekends I’m usually running JPML tournaments and events. I usually get a day off each week.

We will continue our interview with Naoki Setokuma next week. In the meantime, you can catch him on Mahjong Fight Club, Ron2 and all major JPML tournaments.

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