Menko literally means “small object with a face” in Japanese. In its current and more modern context, menko refers to a piece of cardboard with some sort of picture on the front side of it. The rules of menko are extremely simple, but first we must define menko as both the game and the actual pieces that are used to play the game. So we literally use menko to play menko. The term sumo cards and sumo menko have been used interchangeably by many references, but as you will see in later sections, sumo menko are vastly different from sumo cards. This Sumo Menko & Card Checklist will cover all facets of sumo menko, cards, karuta, bookmarks, stickers, prize cards and just about any collectible piece of cardboard or paper relating to sumo although its primary focus is on sumo menko.
For those that lived through the POG milk cap craze of the 1980s and 1990s you’ll be very familiar with how menko is played. The basic rules of menko are simple. Menko is very much like marbles where any number of kids can play and they each bring their own menko to the “battlefield.” Each child contributes the same amount of menko to the game and one of the children puts up all the menko into one stack on the ground. Some game variations have all the menko individually on the ground and not in a single stack at the beginning of the game. Ideally, each child will also have a slammer menko that is many times heavier than a regular menko. They will use this slammer to try and flip as many regular menko over from the stack by throwing the slammer menko into the battlefield and on top of the cards.
There are two other popular alternate rules to menko that don’t involve slamming and battling in the traditional sense. The first and most popular version is using the Gu-Choki-Pa (Rock-Scissors-Paper) mark on the back of the menko. Children would have a stack of menko and play very much like the American children’s version of War. They would turn over the top card and try and defeat their opponent’s menko by having a more powerful Gu-Choki-Pa mark. For example, Rock beats Scissors, Scissors beats Paper and Paper beats Rock. Paper menko were sporadically printed with Gu-Choki-Pa marks starting in the late 1930s and then almost every set from 1946 on had them. See Chapter 10 for more information and some picture examples of Gu-Choki-Pa marks.
The other fun alternative version is to use the Fighting Number on back to defeat their opponents. There are small variations to this alternative version, but the most common was to try and outnumber, or get a higher number than their opponent’s Fighting Number. Since most Fighting Numbers were not the same number of digits, many times kids would pick a certain digit on each menko, for example the 3rd, 5th or 6th digit, and use that digit to do battle with. Paper menko from the very beginning had Fighting Numbers associated with them and were used in many different ways as described in Chapter 10. Chapter 10 also has example pictures to give you a better idea of what Fighting Numbers looked like on the back of a menko.
Another way to play with menko was to stand them up on a cardboard or wooden surface against each other so they'd lean on each other without falling. Then players would tap the surface they were on and try to make one of the menko topple over onto the other one. The one that landed on top was declared the winner. This style of play was popular with the rikishi series(R-series) menko. In fact, a few of the R-series menko in the 1950s were marketed with the Japanese word “gamble” right on the sheets of menko along with visual rules on how to play this game. R-series menko are explained in Chapter 17 of this book.
You could play with the war themed words on the back as well. For example, the marshal beats the infantry, but is defeated by the spy. However, the infantry defeats the spy and so on. There are dozens of words and is detailed more later on in the next chapter.
Menko weren’t always used to play the game menko. In fact, a popular way to use menko was to shoot them up into the air with rubber bands. Specific menko were made for this and were called “flying menko”. These menko have distinct airplane or bird shapes. Many of the larger round menko that you see from the 1930s and 1940s were actually made to shoot up in the air. Additionally, many of the smaller circle menko were made to shoot up in the air with special shooters. These menko were called Romenko. What games the kids actually played by shooting the menko is still uncertain and needs some more research, but probably involved making your menko go the highest or farthest.