“Following Japan’s victories in the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars, one of the most significant changes occurred with the building of sumo’s first permanent stadium in 1909.
“One of the elders in sumo, inspired by the poem Emi Suiin’s essay titled ‘Sumo is the National Skill of Japan’ (Sumo wa Nippon no Koku nari), argued that the new building should be called the ‘Kokugikan’ (Hall of the National Sport). His suggestion was accepted and sumo’s new label as the ‘national sport/skill’ gained increasing importance and prominence as the country became increasingly nationalistic.
“It was in the Kokugikan that professional sumo increasingly became a national organization with the various professional groups folding or joining the Tokyo group to become the Greater Japan Professional Sumo Association. Similarly, the crown prince donated a sum of money that was the first basis of the Emperor’s Cup.”
– Multiculturalism in the New Japan: Crossing the Boundaries Within, edited by Nelson H. H. Graburn, John Ertl & R. Kenji Tierney, 2008
“Common venues for sumo in the early Edo days were the Eiko-in Temple in Ryogoku and Asakusa Kuramae Hachiman Shrine, both located in the old entertainment quarters of the city. The largest of the outdoor arenas could hold more than three thousand people, a sizable number at the time but too small to satisfy the growing legions of fans.
“Sumo’s popularity continued to increase until finally, in 1909, the first Kokugikan, with a seating capacity of 13,000, was built in Ryogoku. Kokugikan literally means ‘National Sport Hall,’ that is, a stadium for the national sport, sumo. The naming of the new hall marked the first time such a claim for the sport had been publicly made.”
– Sumo: A Pocket Guide: A Pocket Guide, by David Shapiro, 2013
In 1909 the first permanent sumo hall, Kokugikan [national sport hall], was completed on land north of Ryogoku Station next to Eko-in Jinja [shrine] and, until the aftermath of World War II, sumo tournaments in Tokyo took place under its domed roof. Legend has it a champion wrestler, Umegatani Totaro, helped raise funds for the building of Kokugikan. When asked by a potential sponsor what collateral he had to back the stadium’s construction, Umegatani simply flexed his muscles. He sealed the deal.
The first Kokugikan was irreparably damaged by fire in 1917 and completely rebuilt by 1920 (with the Tokyo tournaments held in the meantime at Yasukuni Shrine) only to be severely damaged in the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake. Repaired again, this second Kokugikan survived even the firebombings of World War II until torn down in 1954. A second Kokugikan was completed at nearby Kuramae in 1954.
During the Occupation of Japan (1945-1952), SCAP saw sumo as less threatening than other martial arts, and allowed a tournament there in November 1945. One more tournament was held at Kokugikan in November 1946, but tournaments were thereafter held on the grounds of the Meiji Shrine until 1954. The Occupation forces subsequently took over Kokugikan, however, and turned it partially into a skating rink and an events center they called ‘Memorial Hall’.