Menko refers to a piece of cardboard or thick paper with some sort of picture on the face of it. Menko literally means ďsmall object with a face.Ē Menko can be traced back to the Edo period of the 1700ís when menko were small circular or square game pieces made of clay or lead. The making of paper or cardboard menko began around 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 to make menko due to poisoning cases on Osaka of kids licking their lead menko. Cardboard menko were thus produced for the next 60 years or so. In the 1920ís and 30ís 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 advanced manufacturing techniques. 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 didnít emerge until the early 1940ís. Before that, most sumo menko were actually stadium sets sold at tournaments. These were simple cards showing almost all the top division rikishi in their kesho-mawashi with a blank back and were not used in any menko games. Actual pre-war menko are extremely hard to find as Japan had wartime paper drives and many kids turned in the few menko they had to support the war effort. The years between mid 1940 and mid 1960 are 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 produced by different toy companies. Kagome and Yamakatsu were the big companies of the time. Iíve run across over 100 different sets during these 20 years and there are many more out there. The emergence of popular riksihi like Wakanohana I and Tochinishiki, created a huge sumo boom starting in about 1954. Between 1954 and the early 1960s during the Tochi-Waka era as itís called is when you can find the most sets produced. Consequently, the majority of sumo menko that survive today are from this timeframe. Besides Tochinishiki and Wakanohana I, a couple of other interesting facts shaped why the majority of menko survive today only from these 7-8 years. Before the mid-1950ís menko were made and used for battle. Printing and production quality was generally poor and kids would destroy their menko in battle. Toward the mid 1950ís printing quality went up and many kids would actually collect menko instead of battling with them. Then in the mid 1960ís Japan fell into some economic hard times and many kids were devoting more time to study in order to get ahead and the role of menko took on lessoning value. Additionally, Japan was emerging as a world power and becoming more technologically advanced and, unfortunately, menko were being replaced by television. To highlight this fact, after 1965 Iíve never run across a single sumo menko!
Menko were barely known outside of Japan except for avid collectors of baseball memorabilia. Now there is growing interest in menko in a Japan and the west as people become more aware of their historical and artistic appeal. According to sources such at the Antiques Roadshow (USA) and other web sources, menko will only grow in value with continued exposure to the market. Pre-WW2 menko are harder to find and interesting menko from the 40ís 50ís and 60ís are highly sought after. These feature a fascinating variety of images & graphics. They are great art and social history pieces which have undergone a revival in popularity in Japan and are keenly sought after. This is reflected in the prices which have risen sharply in the past year or so.