Menko can be traced back to the Edo period of the 1700’s when they were small, circular disks made of clay. Clay menko eventually started having designs of famous actors and local heroes imprinted on them by toy manufacturers and sold at cheap sweet shops (Dagashiya) and their popularity soared. Clay menko were eventually replaced by solid lead menko in 1879, but in the early 1900s Japan banned the use of leads in menko due to poisoning cases in Osaka of kids licking their menko. Subsequently, the lead menko era ended, but the paper menko era was already starting to replace lead menko in popularity and were printed for the next 60 years or so. The making of paper or cardboard menko began at the end of the 19th century. Although the exact origins for paper menko are unknown, three references point to Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya as the birthplace of the modern paper menko. According to Report of Children’s Culture by Shiho Irie and Noriko Onishi, a man named Ichiyo Higuchi (1872-96), who was a famous Japanese novelist and owner of a local dagashiya in Tokyo, bought a stock of paper menko in September 1893 as noted in his purchase book. This indicates menko were already being sold in Tokyo by 1893. Additionally, a man named Isaku Miki started to manufacture paper menko on Matsuyamachi Street in Osaka and created a big menko boom. In fact, because of this boom, other traders came into the area to start their own businesses (History of Higashi-ku Ward, Osaka). Lastly, the second volume of Japanese Children’s Games, published by Hakubunkan around 1901, describes the origin of paper menko as being recently created by Taro Naruse. These menko, according to the book, were 5.5 cm in diameter and had faces of actors, historic heroes and animals. Children rushed to buy them and at the same time the rules of the game were established. The book also states that the menko craze spread throughout the prefecture as well as to neighboring prefectures. This indicates that the birthplace of paper menko was Nagoya City. If these references are correct, then we can assume paper menko were first created in Nagoya along with the rules probably around the mid to late 1880s and then spread to other major cities across Japan.
These early paper menko were woodblock-printed because the halftone and silver bromide processes hadn’t been refined yet for mass production. Before the 1920’s, menko typically had traditional Japanese pictures on them such as samurai, sumo wrestlers, and popular war generals or soldiers. However, after the 1920’s all sorts of new pictures began to appear on menko such as religious subjects, cartoons, exotic animals, Japanese theater 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 sumo 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 had notches cut into them for the rubber band.
Besides Tochinishiki and Wakanohana I, a couple of other interesting facts shaped why the majority of menko survive today only from these 7 to 8 years. Before the mid-1950’s menko were made and used for battle. Printing and production quality was generally poor and kids would more often than not destroy their menko in battle. Even if a menko survived, it was usually in poor condition. Toward the mid 1950’s printing quality went up and many kids would actually collect menko instead of battling with them. Most companies switched to the halftone bromide menko and used actual photographs instead of the hand drawn pictures which were used in the earlier sets. Then in the mid 1960’s Japan fell onto economic hard times and many kids were devoting more time to their school studies 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. Menko were produced on a much smaller scale throughout the 1970s and early 1980s and only a few sumo sets were produced.
Menko are barely known outside of Japan except for avid collectors of Japanese baseball memorabilia. Now there is growing interest in menko in Japan and in the United States as people are becoming more aware of their historical and artistic appeal. According to sources such as the Antiques Roadshow (USA) and other web sources, menko will only grow in value with continued exposure to the market. Pre-WW2 menko are hard to find and menko with unique, interesting or popular themes from the 40’s 50’s and 60’s are highly sought after. In my opinion, menko are great pieces of Japanese art and outstanding pieces of Japanese history. Fortunately, we are seeing a revival in popularity in Japan which only adds to the availability in the United States.