Menko Production and Menko Layout

    All sumo menko were printed on some sort of paper or cardboard stock.  From the 1930s to about 1956 the standard was to use the thicker paper stocks, as they provided the right amount of weight for game play.  Some kids would even glue menko together to get their slammers even heavier.  Check out the 1955 “Renga” series of menko that is printed on 1/8” paper stock!  In 1956, most companies switched over to thinner stock because not only was it easier to produce, but they also realized that kids weren't playing menko and destroying them in games as much as they were collecting the menko for their aesthetic value.  It was also cheaper to print menko on the thinner stocks, and because there were at least 6 toy companies during this time, it was almost a necessary financial choice to stay competitive.  You’ll see the popularity of prize sheets emerge on the market during this time, as well as the whole lottery aspect of sumo menko.  Many of these intact sheets can still be found today in online auctions and stores, and they offer the most pristine view of what the menko looked like right from the factory.  On a similar note, for the period from about 1956 to the end of the sumo menko era in 1964, you’ll almost never see a sumo menko with the rikishi's rank on it because the number of annual basho increased from four to six from 1956-58 and it became almost impossible to keep re-producing them that fast.  Each company was producing several sets a year as well so competition between the companies was fierce.  These facts will be important as we cover set identification in next issue’s article.

Color printing technology improved rapidly over the 30 years of sumo menko production.  In the beginning – on a single menko – only simple colors like red, blue, green and yellow were used, but eventually thousands of colors were produced.  Since color printing is based on the principles of mixing magenta, cyan, yellow and black colors to get the whole array of the color spectrum, technology is the biggest limiting factor on what colors can be printed and how they are printed.  Some sets had poor printing quality, such as the 1953 Trump 6 set, while others had beautiful and vivid colors like the 1959 Yamakatsu Trump 7 set.  In my opinion the 1930s menko are the best examples of combining artwork and printing, even though 20 more years of sumo menko production were to follow.  These menko were hand-drawn and the printing quality was very high, resulting in crisp images.  A second genre of sumo menko is the bromide.  Bromide is actually a borrowed English word which refers to a photographic print treated with bromine and silver.  I use the term bromide to refer to the black and white photograph menko sets that were common in the 1950s, but it has been used interchangeably over the years to refer to any of the photographic looking menko that bear images of popular actors, ball players and singers.  The final subset of all the sumo menko is the gold-proof menko.  These are menko printed with gold color ink and look pretty sharp.  However, they are really hard to find so if you do run across any of these, I wouldn't hesitate to pick them up right away.

The final part of the production process is how individual menko were cut from their master sheet after printing.  All the rikishi series menko were die-cut, which is essentially the same process as how monetary coins are made.  A big stamp came down and stamped out the menko, but left parts of the master sheet as unusable.  It also tended to produce off center menko as is seen with many of the menko produced in this fashion.  This technique was more costly than the second method that produced the simple rectangular shaped menko seen on 95% of all sets.  Rectangular shapes were relatively easy to make, as all that was needed was essentially a huge paper cutter to cut stacks of master sheets into individual menko.  A variation on this method that the companies used was to print the master sheets and then sell them intact or include them as prize sheets where the kids had to cut them apart themselves.  This was a further attempt at reducing production costs, as no cutting was required at the factory.  One result of this, though, is that many menko that survive today are those cut from sheets by the kids, and so have many wavy edges and are off-centered to some degree.  I have yet to notice an effect on game play from the different cutting methods. 

Now that we’'ve talked about the front of the menko, let’s move to the back.  The backs of sumo menko came in all sorts of themes such as Chinese Zodiac signs, war images or outer space drawings, but the two basic types that are consistent on all the menko after 1950 are the Gu-Choki-Pa (Rock-Scissors-Paper) mark and Fighting Numbers.  These were used in the different variations of menko game rules.  Instead of slamming the menko on the ground trying to flip the opponent’s menko over, the kids could simply pull out different menko and use the Gu-Choki-Pa marks to outplay their opponents.  The Fighting Numbers were also used to play a variation of menko.  See last issue’s Sumo Menko Basics article for more details on the variation of these games.  The emergence of the Gu-Choki-Pa marks on sumo menko is first seen at the beginning of the 1940s and is standard until 1964, but the 1930s menko only have Fighting Numbers.

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