Chaos and Kanji is the blog where I write about my adventures through Japan!

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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Japanese Baseball Cards: Menko

About a month ago, I introduced you to one of the earliest types of Japanese cards, the Bromides. While Bromides were essentially simple black and white or colorized cards, similar to many early American baseball issues, menko cards have a distinction which makes them unique to Japanese culture.
Menko is a Japanese game with two or more players. One player places his card on the ground, and the other tries to flip it by throwing another card at it. If the flipper is successful, he takes both cards, and the player with all the cards (or the most when the game ends) wins. The game has been around since the 17th century, though its connection to baseball didn't come until after World War II. (The modern game of pogs has its roots in menko.)
Card subjects range from samurai warriors to anime and cartoon characters to national heroes. By the late 1940s, when bromide cards were becoming popular, menko cards entered their golden era. They can appear in all sorts of shapes - many are rectangular, but some are round and a few are die-cut.
Image Source (1976 Mitsuya Small Disk)
The cards of the late '40s and early '50s were very colorful and generally had crude drawings. Menko cards are defined by the inclusion of large numbers, math equations, playing card symbols, symbols for the game rock/paper/scissors, and several other child/game oriented designs. Most menko are smaller than the traditional card size - the "standard" menko size comes in at about 1-3/4" x 3". Card stock is usually thicker than traditional US cards for durability in game playing, though later (late '50s onward) issues were on thinner stock.
Example Menko Back - note math equation/long number at bottom; glove symbol, etc)
The sets are generally small and attractive with popular players and accessible quantities. Some US players are on a few sets, including superstars Ruth, DiMaggio, and O'Doul, and a few San Francisco Seals sets.
Menko cards through the early 1950s are crude, thicker, and more colorful than those issued in later years, as sets became somewhat standardized in size and switched from drawings to black and white or colorized photos. Menko's golden era ended after the 1964 season, when baseball menko cards were suddenly no longer produced.

So, how many baseball menko sets were produced? No exact numbers are available, of course, but the Japanese Baseball Card Checklist and Price Guide, 7th Edition, lists a total of 178 issues, 14 of which are diecut, 41 are round, and the remainder in rectangular shape. Other issues are sure to exist, but complete checklists aren't available.

Prices vary wildly. Some of the rarest die-cut cards can run in the hundreds of dollars (common cards from the airplane set seen above run about $50 at high book). However, many menko issues were issued in large quantities, and some issues were brought back to America and appear in better condition in even greater amounts. Commons from some sets can be as little as $2 or less. It's important to know what kind of menko you're working with. Sets aren't too difficult to identify with the right information - each issue has some distinguishing characteristic.

Menkos are some of the most beautiful baseball cards ever produced. They have the color and flamboyant designs reminiscent of tobacco-era non-sport and baseball cards and generally easy availability. I'm looking forward most to finding as many menko as I can while I'm in Japan!


  1. Very cool cards. I knew nothing about these, but will be looking for them now. Thanks for the great write-up.

  2. I've never seen those before, but if I run across any, at least I'll know what I'm seeing! Good luck in your pursuit of menko cards.