History of Japanese Baseball Cards
Japanese Baseball Cards from the Occupation
Menko came in a variety of different forms: rectangular, round, and diecut. Sets tended to contain fewer than ten cards but several sets contained over a 100 cards. Hundreds of different mento sets have been identified from the Occupation period. Some of these may be the most attractive sports cards ever produced with many cards reminiscent of traditional woodblock prints. The manufacturers of most of these sets are unknown and it is possible that many were produced by small printing shops and just released regionally.
General Douglas MacArthur and the Occupying Forces purposely used baseball to help reconcile the United States and Japan after World War II. Only two months after the end of hostilities, they sponsored a series of professional all star games, and they helped reestablish the professional, university and high school leagues in 1946. In 1949, Lefty O’Doul brought his San Francisco Seals to Japan for a series of goodwill games. This tour started a traditional of a MLB team coming to Japan nearly every other year. The Japanese professional league continued under a one league format until 1950 when they added seven teams and expanded to two leagues- the Central and Pacific with the winners meeting in the Japan Series. The Allied occupation of Japan officially ended on April 28 1952.
Despite Japan’s economic turmoil, the occupation period became the heyday of the vintage Japanese baseball card. The period contains the greatest variety of cards as well as some of the most attractive cards produced on either side of the Pacific. Menko and bromides still dominated the card industry but candy and game issues also became widespread.
Cards were often sold at small candy shops, known as dagashiya. Some came in paper wrappers but most were probably sold in sheets that children cut into individual cards with scissors. Round menko are often found in stacks tied with string, suggesting that they were either sold this way or delivered to the store in stacks and ten sold by the card.
Occupation Era Menko
Mask Menko are particularly beautiful and highly desired by collectors. These cards are about the size of a child’s head- 5x7 inches. One could punch out the eyes and attach a string around it to wear it as a mask to pretend to be your favorite ballplayer.
During the occupation period, thousands of baseball bromides were produced. Black and white, sepia and color bromides were all common. Some bromides were sold in packs, others as individual cards in kiosks, and others in sheets. Bromides set were often large, containing dozens of cards. Samples from over a hundred sets have been found from the Occupation period. Major League teams came to Japan nearly every year during the 1950s. And were popular subjects of bromides.
Game cards usually came as boxed sets that included the rules and playing field but sometimes came in uncut sheets inserted into magazines. Statistical-based simulation dice games became popular during this period. Another popular Japanese card game known as kuruta involves matching a card with a letter from the hiragana alphabet and a written clue to a pitcher card. Kuruta sets usually came in boxes and were traditionally given and played at New Year. Since they were made to be gifts, karuta cards are often made on higher quality cardboard than menko or bromides and are among the most attractive cards.