It was only in the 1950's, after the devastation of World War II had been brushed aside and the average Japanese family had enough
disposable income for small luxuries, that Japanese children began to enjoy the more modern mass-produced entertainments of comic books
(manga), television, and collectibles. For centuries previous, they had made do with the small childhood games and playthings that
are common to most cultures and do not require great technology to produce and distribute. One of these playthings was peculiar to
Japan, however, and that is the card game called menko.
Menko cards consist of various shapes and thicknesses, one or both sides of which are decorated with pictures of popular figures of
the day - cartoon and comic book characters, sports heroes, samurai, etc. The object is to throw one's card on the ground with enough
skill and force to turn over another player's card, either by hitting directly or just from the air whipped up by slamming the card
forcefully enough. If the player turns another's card over, he gets to keep both. A player wins when he owns all the cards,
or when the game is called to an end and he is holding the most cards.
Menko has been a popular pursuit with Japanese children (mainly boys, given the game's inherent forcefulness) since the Edo period, which
ran between the early 17th and 19th centuries. Smaller children could enjoy it too, often getting the best of their larger elders,
if they made up for their lack of strength with skill. Over the years cards have been manufactured either of thick paper or pressed
cardboard, most often being rectangular but sometimes round or some other exotic shape.
Menko tend to be brief little history lessons regarding what subject matter has been chosen to be depicted thereon: for example, during
the years of Japanese military dominance in the 1930's and early 40's, cards featured such subjects as fighter planes, battleships, and
generals; in the 50's, professional wrestlers enthralled the nation and could be found on countless menko. Baseball players took their
places in the sports category, while the explosion of comics and cartoons in succeeding decades ensured that those more fantastic
characters would take over as the desired subjects.
While menko are not seen on the sidewalks of modern Japan as they were in centuries past, they have not disappeared completely. And
older and rare cards are highly sought after by collectors and salarymen who remember their long-ago youths spent squatting over the
field of battle, arm raised to strike the blow that would deliver an opponent's card to their own hard-won collection.