Menko Corner
Sumo Menko Basics
by Ryan Laughton

Five thousand yen is all it took to get me started on collecting sumo menko.  This is the amount a kind old lady at a little old-fashioned toy shop in Kyushu charged for an unopened box of 1958 Dash 7-8 sumo menko.  There were actually two boxes there, but my brain tricked me into only buying one.  I’m still keeping the location a secret in the hope that I can make it back there someday and reclaim my first loss.  It’s been seven years, but I am still holding out on the chance that the box is still there.

Greetings from the United States!  My name is Ryan Laughton and my passion for collecting sumo menko has led me to write a series of articles to introduce this little known part of sumo history. 

For those of you who already collect sumo cards, whether new or old, I hope this information will be of use to you.  For the non-collectors, I hope to bring to light what used to be a major part of Japanese elementary school culture in the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s.  The meat and potatoes of the stuff I’ll talk about is covered on the relevant link over in Kokugi Connections but a good portion will also be “free-handed” elaborations on various topics surrounding menko. 

As with any discussion, don’t be afraid to raise your hands and ask questions or perhaps even offer suggestions.

In what I hope will be an enlightening and informative journey along the road to increased awareness of sumo menko, this first article will naturally be about the history, the game, and the rules of sumo menko.  These are the basics.  In the next article, I’ll write on methods of collecting sumo menko and the basic layout of a sumo menko.  We’ll also talk about the printing and construction techniques, and how that affected game play.  In the third article of the series I will cover set identification techniques and the “lottery” aspect of sumo menko back in their heyday. 

Before I dive into this discussion, I want to note that the word ‘menko’ and ‘card’ can be used interchangeably, but being a purist to some degree I like to use sumo menko instead of sumo card.  In fact, menko has a much deeper meaning than simply a card.  It’ll take a little while to get used to, but soon it’ll be flowing off your tongue.  So let’s get started….

Menko refers to a piece of cardboard or thick paper with some sort of picture on its face.  Menko literally means “small object with a face.”  Menko can be traced back to the Edo period - the 1700s when they were small circular or square game pieces made of clay or lead.  The production of paper or cardboard menko can be traced back to the late 19th century.  These menko were block-printed, blank-backed and round.  Some were even hand tinted.  In 1900 Japan banned the use of leads in ink used on menko for health reasons -  a result of several poisoning cases in Osaka, after children had licked their menko.  Lead-free cardboard menko were produced for another 60 years or so. 

In the 1920s and 30s all sorts of new pictures began to appear on menko such as religious subjects, cartoons, exotic animals, silent-era Japanese theatrical stars and sports figures.  Menko also took on new shapes during this time due to advancing techniques in manufacturing.  Some were long rectangular strips so kids could take them to school to use as bookmarks.  Others were die-cut into the shapes of rikishi, or animals, and later planes which could be flung or shot through the air with rubber bands.  These were known as flying menko and usually had notches cut into them for the rubber band.

Sumo menko really didn’t emerge until the early 1940s.  Before that, most sumo menko were actually stadium card sets sold at tournaments.  These were simple cards showing almost all the top division rikishi in their kesho-mawashi, with a blank back.  They were not used in any menko games.  The menko paper was extremely thin and they were really meant as a collectible.  Actual pre-war menko are extremely hard to find as Japan had wartime paper drives and many children turned in the few menko they had to support the war effort. 

The years between the mid 1940s and the mid 1960s were really the golden years of sumo menko.  The economic shift after WWII meant that kids had more money to spend on menko, and more and more sets were being produced by various toy companies.  Kagome and Yamakatsu were the big companies of the time; and no less than 10 toy companies were in the menko printing business; I myself have come across more than 100 different sets produced during this 20-year period and there are many more out there.  The emergence of popular rikisihi such as Tochinishiki and Wakanohana I (future yokozuna), created a huge sumo boom which started in about 1954. 

Between 1954 and the early 1960s, during the Tochi-Waka era as it’s called, is when you can find the most sets, and thus, the most cards produced.  Naturally, the majority of sumo menko that survive today are from this timeframe.  Another couple of reasons exist(ed) to explain this boom in menko numbers including the fact that prior to the mid-1950s, menko were made and used for ‘battle’.  Printing and production quality was generally poor and kids would destroy their menko in battle with little thought given to keeping the pieces as a collection or for simply appreciating the cards for their aesthetic value.  Toward the mid 1950s, however, the quality of printing went up and many kids actually opted to collect the menko instead of using them to play out battles.  This trend continued through the mid 1960s when Japan fell on relatively hard economic times.  Many kids then started to devote more time to their studies, in order to get ahead in life, and the role of menko diminished.  Coupled with Japan’s emergence as an economic world power and industry becoming more technologically advanced, one of many victims was menko; television and other modern forms of entertainment serving to replace these links to the past.  To highlight this fact, I’ve never run across a single sumo menko dated after 1965!

Now that we’ve talked about the history of sumo menko, let’s talk about the game that was played by millions of Japanese boys, and sometimes girls.  It is in fact quite simple and involves, for ease of writing, two ‘players’ with both placing their chosen menko on the ground and trying to flip the opponent’s menko by slamming it with a heavier or “slammer” menko.  If you flip one of your foe’s cards you get to claim it and if he flips yours – the same applies.  It’s actually a similar concept to the game of marbles and almost exactly like the POG craze in recent times.  There are a couple of variations of menko rules that were also equally as popular and less vicious.  "Gu-choki-pa” marks on the back of the menko are played as rock-scissors-paper.  Kids took out one of their menko to compare with their opponent's simultaneously following a given signal.  If they won, they take home the opposing menko.  Playing with "Fighting Numbers" is largely the same; trying to outnumber your opponent's menko on certain digits.  For example, one player might have a Fighting Number of 58786 on his particular menko and the other might have 777596587 on his.  If they were dueling with the last digit, then the boy with the 7 as his last digit would win and again get the other boy’s menko.  There were many more ways to play with Fighting Numbers, but this is one example. 

I hope this has helped get some of the basics down and to form a foundation for what we will discuss in the upcoming months.  Next time we’ll talk about how to start collecting sumo menko and some of the features on a typical sumo menko.  Until then……….

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