One thing that has come up in the comments on some of my recent posts is that its kind of weird that vintage Japanese cards are so underappreciated in Japan. Unlike in the US collecting old cards is not a mainstream hobby activity. Which is weird in a country with such a lovely and amazing history of old cards. In this post I’m going to take a stab at unravelling the mystery of why that is.
Japan’s current apathy to its own lovely old pieces of cardboard is not without historical parallel. In the 19th century when Japan opened its borders to the world colorful woodblock prints were everywhere. The first Westerners who came absolutely fell in love with them. The works of the masters were exported in huge quantities to America and Europe, where they were highly prized and significantly influenced the development of impressionist art.
In Japan itself though? They were considered worthless. Japanese at the time viewed them as a low form of art which they associated with advertising bills (which used the same printing technique). So they ignored them. Sound familiar?
A century later the old woodblock prints by masters like Hiroshige were highly valued in the international art market, which caused a reappraisal of their merits in Japan. Wealthy Japanese collectors started buying them up overseas and repatriating them. Eventually, their popularity internationally had a way of changing the way Japanese perceived them, and there is now a big market in Japan for them. They aren’t junk anymore.
Vintage Japanese baseball cards, particularly menko, have some obvious similarities with woodblock prints. They are colorful and fall easily into that category of things which seem mundane to your average Japanese person but exotic to people everywhere else. But unlike woodblock prints, Japan hasn’t (yet?) re-evaluated menko as a collectible: they (along with other types of vintage baseball cards) are still very much on the periphery of the card collecting world here.
I think the reason why this is lies with three variables which distinguish the Japanese hobby from the American one. They are: 1) the historical development of the Japanese baseball card hobby, 2) Sports Card Magazine and how awful it is, and 3) the nature of Japanese collectors themselves.
This is admittedly kind of a long post, but I think its worth plugging through each of these in turn since collectively I think they do a good job of unraveling the mystery of Japan's missing vintage card market.
Variable 1. The Modern Hobby Evolved Differently Here
In America vintage cards were always at the heart of the organized hobby as it evolved from a niche interest in the 60s and 70s to a massive mainstream past time in the 80s and beyond. The early pioneers in the hobby prior to it going mainstream were very much interested in tracking down and identifying all the old cards that existed, and their collective work formed the source material for early newsletters and catalogues. When the hobby went mainstream in the 1980s, it thus already had a huge knowledge base about older cards built up, and the most experienced collectors were ones who mainly focused on vintage cards. While all the hype in the 1980s was mostly about then current rookie cards, the vintage and contemporary halves of the collecting world were inextricably linked. Values of modern cards were to a large extent tied to people’s knowledge of older cards and the (as it turns out erroneous) expectation that they would follow the same path.
In short, the modern hobby in the US grew organically from an already existing hobby mainly focused on vintage cards and smoothly retained and adopted the collecting knowledge, interests and norms developed by those earlier hobbyists.
In Japan though the development of the modern hobby was completely different. It didn’t grow out of a pre-existing hobby led by collectors pursuing vintage cards. While such a hobby did exist, it was nowhere near as big or organized as the one developed by the pioneers of collecting in the United States (as evidenced by the complete lack of any sort of catalogue of older cards). When the modern hobby arrived with the introduction of BBM’s first set in 1991, it therefore wasn’t an organic offshoot of something that already existed: it was something completely different. It represented an attempt (ultimately successful) to take the business model of early 90s American card companies and transplant it to Japanese soil.
This creates a really radical shift in hobby history in Japan, to the extent that there is almost no continuity between the pre and post 1991 hobby. In the US, the modern hobby didn’t just show up all of a sudden, it developed over the years with incremental changes that collectively over time caused drastic changes, but no one change in and of itself being as game-changing as the introduction of BBM in Japan was there. Fleer and Donruss issuing their first sets in 1981? They were just widening the existing field created by Topps. Same even with Upper Deck in 1989. Insert cards? Autographed cards? Third Party graders? All of these were incremental shifts which may have expanded the pool of collectors and altered the way people collect, but fundamentally they were building upon rather than replacing things which the hobby itself had already created.
In Japan though the hobby in 1990 was basically just kids buying bags of Calbee chips to get the cards, then playing with them and trading with friends. It was the way card collecting looked in the US back in the 1950s. Then in 1991 you suddenly have a major company selling cards in foil packs with all the bells and whistles of junk wax era American sets. In other words they crammed a transition that took 40 years in the US hobby into a single year. It completely obliterated everything that had gone before.
BBM was able to import the business model of junk wax era American card makers to Japan, but it wasn’t able to import all the other elements of the hobby – the shared history, knowledge and interests of the collecting community there. Those things, which are key to the hobby, need to grow on their own. That probably explains a lot about why vintage isn’t mainstream in Japan like it is in the US. But it isn’t the only reason. After all, even if an organized vintage hobby didn’t exist pre-1991, this doesn’t explain why one didn’t develop after the introduction of the modern hobby. To explore this, we now turn to variable #2: the shitty guide.
Variable 2. The Hobby’s Main Japanese Language Publication is a Conflicted Piece of Garbage
(Edit: It was pointed out in the comments that SCM has gone out of business and no longer produces its guides. Good riddance I say! I haven't bought an issue in so long I hadn't noticed that they had disappeared. I think what I say here still stands though, with the caveat that all references to SCM should be in the past tense).
In the United States hobbyists have a long history of producing detailed catalogues of cards going all the way back to the 19th century. There are almost no uncatalogued baseball cards out there in the US. The work of early hobbyists made it a lot easier for the Beckett Guide to come into existence, allowing all collectors to at the very least have a good idea of what all the major sets are, and their relative values and scarcity, going back more than a century.
The nearest parallel to Beckett in Japan is Sports Card Magazine (SCM), which publishes a price guide of Japanese cards. It is pathetic in comparison though. They have invested nothing into researching pre-1973 cards and they haven’t even bothered to produce catalogues of most of the major sets of the 1970s either. No other guides in Japanese exist to fill these gaps.
This creates a huge bottleneck in the information pipeline. Beckett created a common information base for collectors in the US, allowing them to all know (or at least have a way of learning) what older sets existed and what their relative values were, without which many probably wouldn’t have gotten into the hobby. Collectors in Japan lack this information about their own cards. This is a massive hole in the Japanese hobby that continues to prevent it from developing.
The situation is so absurd that thanks to Engel’s excellent work on his guide, American collectors have way more knowledge about Japanese vintage cards than Japanese ones do. The common language that guide created, which allows me to describe a set as JCM 11, and then you to look that up in the guide and know exactly which cards I’m talking about, doesn’t exist in Japanese. The collecting world here knows what menko are in general, but has no accepted vocabulary they use to describe specific sets. So when you see menko for sale on Yahoo Auctions, even specialist dealers just describe them as “Old menko” or something similarly vague.
How do we explain this missing piece of the Japanese collecting puzzle? Partly it is probably attributable to the above noted limited development of the vintage hobby itself – early pioneers in the Japanese hobby never organized themselves to the extent that they produced catalogues like their American counterparts did.
A more direct question though is why hasn’t Sports Card Magazine, as the main producer of guides, ever done the work. And the answer clearly lies in a glaring conflict of interest they have: Sports Card Magazine is published by BBM, the biggest card maker in Japan.
This is a bit like having the wolves guarding the sheep. SCM is little more than a marketing tool to promote the latest BBM sets. It is definitely not a neutral arbiter of card values, which explains why its pricing of contemporary BBM cards has always been so idiotic. They list commons of all BBM sets, no matter how overproduced, at 50 Yen each (about 50 cents US). These are sold in packs of 10 with a retail price of 200 Yen. Do the math.
Beckett, for all its faults, never had a business model so compromised. It would never have listed 1989 Topps commons at 50 cents each. But that is exactly what SCM does with BBM (and other) singles. The reader may infer what you will from the fact that the same company telling collectors that cards which have almost no actual market value (you can buy them in large lots for about 1-2 Yen per card via Yahoo Auctions) are worth 50 Yen each also produces and sells those same cards.
More importantly though in terms of explaining why the vintage hobby hasn’t developed here is the fact that neither BBM nor SCM has any financial interest in allowing it to do so. They don’t make menko so they don’t have anything to gain from collector’s developing an interest in them. Moreover, by keeping the hobby firmly focused on contemporary cards they also keep collector’s money firmly within the part of the hobby they do make money off of. Any money collectors spend on older cards from their perspective is money they aren’t spending on new BBM stuff, so they actually have a financial incentive to quash interest in older stuff rather than facilitate the spread of knowledge about it like the custodians of an actual guide should.
Obviously I’m not a BBM or SCM insider and I know nothing about what conversations drive their decision making, but having a so-called guide with such an obvious conflict of interest at the heart of the hobby is probably doing more to keep the Japanese vintage hobby under-developed than anything else. This relates to variable #1 in the sense that SCM and BBM can get away with this because there was no pre-existing base of ardent collecting enthusiasts to oppose them when they set all this up. In the US Topps was never powerful enough to pull a fast one like that because the collecting community there would have laughed any price guide to their own cards they produced out of business (Topps did produce a magazine promoting its own cards at one point, but it never had a price guide in it).
Much in the same way that powerful team owners like Yomiuri have doomed NPB to a dysfunctional business model that has caught the league in a downward spiral in comparison with MLB, SCM has done the same for the Japanese hobby. I hope that someday a third party publisher will put out a Japanese version of Engel’s guide, because until that happens vintage card collecting has a hard ceiling on how much it can develop in Japan.
Variable 3. Collectors are Different
I think the lack of a pre existing organized vintage hobby prior to 1991, and the lack of interest in SCM in doing anything that might promote one since, gets us a long way to understanding why vintage is so under appreciated in Japan. But I don’t think they alone tell us the whole story. We also have to ask why Japanese collectors themselves haven’t developed an interest independently. If they did, maybe SCM wouldn’t get away with their shenanigans.
I’m going to throw out a few theories here, with the caveat that I’m not 100% comfortable with any of them but I’ll go for it anyway.
i) Japanese Super Fans May Distort the Market
From my interactions with Japanese shops and collectors, which I admit are limited, its obvious that a lot of the hobby base here is made up of intense fans of specific players or teams. You might say that a lot of American collectors are also fans of specific players or teams, so aren’t they the same? And my answer is no, they aren’t, at least in terms of degree. Most American collectors I know are indeed fans of a specific team and probably collect that team more than others. But few take their fanhood to the same level that Japanese super fans do. By “super fan” I mean being so obsessed with something that you devote every aspect of your life to it. That you cry when something bad happens to them. That you follow them around the country, spending your life savings on them. That you can be made to feel intense personal shame when something bad happens to them.
American fans, possibly with a few oddball exceptions, aren’t like this. A significant number of Japanese fans on the other hand are like this. Not all of course, but enough that being a super fan isn’t considered fringe in Japan like it is in the US. This applies not just to baseball teams but to fans of anything here.
Understanding this allows you to understand why weird things like pop idol culture exists and is so popular in Japan. This is a bit of a tangent (though not an irrelevant one), but the idol industry in this country is a cesspool of greed which bases its business model on fans obsessed to the point that they will irrationally throw their money away on it hand over fist. This is sometimes literal: in order to vote in AKB48 popularity contests fans have to buy their CDs. In order to vote in a meaningless contest, those fans spend thousands of Yen on CDs which mostly end up in the trash. It looks completely nuts when viewed from the outside.
Baseball fans aren’t quite at the same level, but those who join Ouendan (semi-official team fan groups) are pretty close. I’ve spoken to these people on occasion and they take fandom to a level I’ve never seen in North America. Being a fan of their team is their whole identity. Its hard to ignore the similarities they have with far-right groups who take their role as kind of “Emperor fans” over the top. Baseball fans aren’t associated with a political ideology like that, but the social expectation in the group is very similar: if you are going to be accepted as a fan in the group, then you have to devote yourself to it completely. And this requires demonstrations of loyalty all the time.
Now I really want to make clear that I’m not saying that all Japanese baseball collectors are insane super fans. But it seems that a not insignificant number are, and these people may have an oversized impact on the business end of the hobby relative to their make up of the population given their devotion to it. Buying BBM team sets of their team, or whatever, may be the equivalent to them of AKB48 fans buying CDs they immediately throw away. It’s a way of demonstrating devotion to your team by pumping money into a business that tells you this is the way you are supposed to support your team. American fans are susceptible to the same impulses, but I think Japanese fans on average are much more so.
The influence of these fans might be serving to skew the hobby away from vintage, since buying cards of long retired players, many of whom played on now defunct teams, doesn’t translate to a showing of loyalty to your current team. How much so I can’t say because I don’t have any way of measuring how much they spend or even identifying who is an isn’t a super fan. But I think the behavior demonstrated by that mindset generally leads a sizeable amount of the market towards buying new stuff and away from buying old stuff and that this is a bigger force in Japan than it is in the United States.
ii: Collecting in Japan does NOT equal amassing
An additional observation to be made about Japanese collectors is that almost all of them live in really really small apartments or houses. This is because basically everyone in Japan lives in really really small apartments or houses. This definitely has an effect on people’s collecting habits.
In the US if a collector lives in an average sized suburban home, they have loads of space to store a collection. A 50,000 card collection in monster boxes can be tucked away somewhat discreetly on a shelf in the corner of a rec room without causing much in the way of marital strife with a spouse who does not share the hobby.
In Japan if a collector lives in an average sized suburban home, a 50,000 card collection in monster boxes is going to take up like 25% of the whole house’s floor space. Try that and see how your spouse likes it (Note: don’t ever try that.) My collection now probably has about 10,000 cards in it and I’m already taking up too much space with them.
So Japanese card collections have to be small, which means they have to be focused. The extra space that American collectors can play with allows them to indulge a lot of collecting impulses that Japanese collectors can’t. Collecting vintage cards might be one of them.
iii: Old stuff? Ew, gross.
This is probably a very minor contributor at best, but its often observed that Japanese consumers have a strong preference for new stuff over old, which may also be working against the uptake of vintage card collecting. You can see this throughout society as a whole. Old Japanese houses are routinely torn down to make way for new ones rather than remodeled, old cars here get replaced much earlier in their life cycles than they do in other countries, and perfectly good but not new electronics are routinely thrown away to name just a few examples.
All of these phenomena are not necessarily driven by cultural preferences. They all have financial or institutional factors driving them: tax incentives encourage building new homes over renovating old ones and inspection requirements increase the costs to owners of maintaining older cars for example. But they do at least have to co-exist with a culture in which new things are prized more than old ones, otherwise the policies which encourage them would have been abandoned long ago.
The reason that I’m a bit reluctant to give this factor much weight is that obviously some old things do have value here – the woodblock prints I mentioned at the start of the post being a prime example. But in order to have value, these things generally need some sort of social stamp of approval – an indication that they are respected as items of importance by people. Menko and other old Japanese cards haven’t achieved that yet, which I think allows them to still be viewed as “old junk” rather than “valuable collectible” by most people.
So these are my three reasons why I think the growth of the vintage baseball card hobby in Japan has been so stunted. I’m not sure if I’m right about all of them, and probably there are some things I’m missing (feel free to comment if you have suggestions), I thought this post might be useful more as a conversation starter than anything else.
The one thing I am convinced of though is that in order for the hobby to actually grow someone needs to break SCM’s incompetent and conflicted stranglehold on the price guide monopoly. Its totally abused its position there and is really the main thing holding the hobby back in Japan. If a Japanese language version of Engel ever took root here I think that would really change things quickly.