Here we'll talk about the more common M-series menko, or Square series, which are the most traditional, most common and most affordable series of menko. In fact, almost half of the approximately 340 individual type of sumo menko are classified as M-series menko.
The first part of the paper sumo menko era from the late 1800s to the 1930s was dominated by the R-series and C-series of menko and relatively small amount of M-series menko were printed. In fact, there were only about seven M-series sets produced during this time compared to about the 50 or so total sets manufactured during the same time period. The very first menko set, the1860 Kesho Mawashi Set (M1860), is debatable on whether or not it is a true menko set (See Picture 1). There were several games with woodblock printed sheets of rikishi that were meant to be cut out and played with, but the timeframe from which they were made doesn’t quite line up for when paper sumo menko started getting printed. Regardless, this “first” set is a true piece of history and an example is seen below.
Picture 1 (M1860 Set) – First known M-series Set, woodblock printed menko of generic rikishi
The real boom of M-series menko started right before World War II and continued to 1959 when it was rapidly replaced by the more popular bromides of the era. One of the most historically significant menko sets ever produced was from November 1942. The 1942 Nagoya Gunbai Set (M421) made by Nagoya Gangu was the only set ever printed during the middle of World War II (See Picture 2). At this point in the war, Japan had been fighting with China for 10 years and had entered war with America a year earlier in 1941. Japan was short on many basic necessities including food, oil and paper so it was almost unheard of to print and sell “frivolous” items such as menko and games and people were expected to support the war by giving up some of the comforts of life and making daily sacrifices. Consequently, there wasn’t extra money to spend on items such as menko even if they had printed them in great quantity. What makes M421 an even more intriguing set is that it came in 5 variations and completing any one of the variation sets is difficult, let alone completing the master set of all 5 variation sets.
Picture 2 (M421-4 Set) – Future Yokozuna Maedayama as an Ozeki
After World War II, it took several years for Japan to recover economically and menko production followed suit. It wasn’t until 1953, when a fourth sumo tournament was added to the schedule, a new stadium was on the verge of opening and bouts were being televised nationally, that sumo and sumo menko regained their popularity. The most significant set printed during this time was the 1951 Sanenchu 5 Set (M511). Please see my SFM October 2008 sumo menko article here for more information on this set. The M511 set (See Picture 3) contains at least 7 of the modern-day yokozuna as well as 2 of the modern day ozeki, but I’m predicting there is a yet to be discovered menko of Sekiwake Tochinishiki lurking out there somewhere. I’m also predicting menko of future Ozeki Saganohana, Kotogahama, Matsunobori and Ouchiyama. If these are all confirmed, it would mean there are 8 yokozuna and 6 ozeki in this single set making it one of the most important sets in sumo menko history!
Picture 3 (M511-2 Set) – Future Yokozuna Chiyonoyama as an Ozeki
Sumo menko production peaked in 1956 as well as the number of M-series sets produced per year. The majority of M-series sets during this time started to look this same and the increasing popularity of the BB-series and BC-series menko led to a phase-out of the M-series by the 1960 even though the end of the sumo menko era continued for another 4 years. One set that stands out from all these sets is the 1956 Tsuriyane 7-8-9 set (See Picture 4) which attempted to miniaturize menko. This set is approximately 66% smaller that the typical M-series sets and contained Future Yokozuna Wakanohana’s first ever menko as an ozeki. Evidently this new size didn’t catch on as the standard size continued to be 1.25” x 2.75” for the next four years.
Picture 4 (M5616-1 Set) – Future Yokozuna Wakanohana as an Ozeki
The last M-series menko was printed in late 1959 or early 1960. Although the exact date is unknown, the 1960 Trump 7-8 Set (M601) is considered the last sumo M-series menko set ever printed (See Picture 5). It is a basic set with a playing card back and only the shikona is printed on the front to identify the rikishi. The colors are nice and vivid, but the more popular bromides of the day made the M-series “old” news.
Picture 5 (M601 Set) – Ozeki Kotogahama
Because of the number of M-series sets printed, they are some of the most affordable sumo menko sets out there. In addition, many M-series menko that survive today are in great shape because of their thicker cardboard which withstood more menko battles. Most of the 1950s M-series menko can be purchased for $1.00 - $1.50 per menko and they are almost always available for auction.