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Tokyo

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Tokyo

 

The capital of Japan, and the capital of puroresu, Tokyo is one of wrestling’s greatest cities. This thread will explore its rich history through profiles of its major wrestling venues across the decades.

 

Major Venues

Ryogoku Kokugikan/Nihon University Auditorium (1909-1982)

Denen Coliseum (1936-1989)

Kuramae Kokugikan (1950-1984)

Riki Sports Palace (1961-1966)

Korakuen Hall (1962-)

Nippon Budokan (1964-)

Ryogoku Kokugikan [II] (1985-)

Tokyo Dome (1988-)

Differ Ariake (2000-2018)

 

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Ryogoku Kokugikan/Nihon University Auditorium

77110568_kokugikancirca1930.thumb.jpg.cbf67a24cef60689c160b78cac1552e0.jpgCapacity: 10,000

Background

After three years of construction, the Ryogoku Kokugikan was completed in the spring of 1909. Designed by architect Tatsuno Kingo, its neo-Baroque influences were in keeping with Kingo’s other major works, such as the Bank of Japan and Tokyo Station. The Kokugikan would be rebuilt twice due to fires in 1917 and 1923. In 1944, the venue was seized by the Imperial Japanese Army and converted into a balloon bomb factory. After the Kokugikan was heavily damaged by the Great Tokyo Air Raid of March 1945, the sumo association was allowed to hold their June tournament there, albeit as a private event for wounded soldiers. Seized once again by the occupational authorities in October 1945, the Kokugikan was renovated. The following November, the Kokugikan held its final sumo tournament. By the time the occupation ended, the Kuramae Kokugikan was already in use and since there was no room to install parking lots in Ryogoku, the sumo association sold it to Kokusai Stadium in 1952. Six years later, it was acquired by Nihon University and renamed as its auditorium. It would remain in use until revisions in building code took effect in the late 1970s, as its roof was deemed too old to support a sprinkler system. The building was officially closed in 1982 and dismantled the following year, after further revisions made sprinkler systems mandatory for large venues.

Wrestling

The Torii Oasis Shriners Club tour of 1951, generally (if reductively) considered the start of puroresu, began with a show in the Kokugikan on September 30. One month later, it ran the venue again, featuring the debut of Rikidozan. While the Kokusai Stadium period saw the company install a roller rink, the Kokugikan saw continued use for wrestling and boxing events, and this would persist into Nihon University’s ownership. At some point Nippon Television acquired exclusive rights to run the venue, and its last wrestling events were all AJPW shows. Most notably, the Auditorium held the December 5, 1974 show on which Giant Baba defeated Jack Brisco to win the NWA World Heavyweight title.

 

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Denen Coliseum
denen.thumb.jpg.d551a96f4a372e6065ec8450f9ebe0cb.jpg

Capacity: 10,000

Background

Opening in 1936, Denen Coliseum was an outdoor venue associated with the Denen tennis club; to commemorate its opening, Bill Tilden came to play a match. From hosting the Davis Cup in 1955 to a decade hosting the Japan Open Tennis Championship, the Coliseum was used for its original purpose for many years. Over time, though, it would also become notable as a music and wrestling venue. Denen closed in 1989 amidst housing development plans, having been functionally replaced by the Ariake Coliseum.

Wrestling

Denen and wrestling went back to 1956, when Rikidozan defended the fictitious Pacific Coast title against Tom Rice on September 1. Three years later, he defended his International Heavyweight title in a World League final rematch against Mr. Atomic. Like the World League itself, the masked Mr. Atomic gimmick had been the brainchild of sales manager Hiroshi Iwata; Mr. Atomic was specifically designed to target a younger audience, as a response to the beginnings of tokusatsu television with Gekko Kamen. As attendee Kosuke Takeuchi recalled, a ticket to the Denen show cost just fifty yen for children.

As far as puroresu is concerned, though, Denen is far more famous for a series of matches and moments from the late 70s through the early 80s. The first of these was Jumbo Tsuruta’s NWA United National title defense against Mil Mascaras, on August 25, 1977. The “idol showdown”, as it was known, remains one of AJPW’s most iconic early matches. Denen would even see a sequel of sorts, as Baba & Jumbo defended their NWA International Tag Team titles against Mascaras & Dos Caras on August 24, 1978. On September 23, 1981, NJPW treated Denen to Stan Hansen’s final singles match against Andre the Giant, commonly considered one of the greatest foreigner vs foreigner matches in puro history. That same show would see the beginning of the Kokusai Ketsumeigun invader angle, as ex-IWE stars Rusher Kimura and Animal Hamaguchi hit the ring to declare war. Other notable incidents include Tsuruta’s May 22, 1984 NWA title challenge against Kerry von Erich, and Mitsuharu Misawa’s debut as the second iteration of Tiger Mask three months later.

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Kuramae Kokugikan

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Capacity: 12,000

Background

With the Ryogoku Kokugikan closed off to them, the Sumo Association began the construction of a new venue in 1949, on a plot of land they had purchased in 1941. While the Kuramae Kokugikan was officially completed in September 1954, it was used for sumo as early as 1950, and in fact its earliest brush with pro wrestling predates its completion. Plans were made to rebuild Kuramae to double capacity in the mid-sixties, but they were abandoned as sumo’s popularity declined. The venue was closed in 1984, with a sale to the Tokyo city government helping fund the construction of its successor, the second Ryogoku Kokugikan. It is now used as an office by the city sewage department.

Wrestling

From Rikidozan and Masahiko Kimura’s first battles with the Sharpe Brothers in February 1954, to Inoki vs. Choshu in August 1984, the Kuramae Kokugikan might have more history with mens’ puroresu than any building in the country, standing or otherwise. There are so many that rattling off even a few would be silly, but suffice it to say that, if you were promoting a big match in Tokyo, especially in the last decade or so before its decommissioning, and if you could work it around the sumo schedule, it was quite likely that you were going to book Kuramae.

Unlike the modern Ryogoku Kokugikan, which uses an elevator system to retract the sumo ring when not in use, Kuramae forced wrestling and boxing events to set their rings directly atop the dohyō. This provided a unique opportunity for heels, who could grab and weaponize the sand and soil below them. Unfortunately, it also prevented joshi promotions from booking Kuramae, due to the Sumo Association’s policy banning women from stepping onto the sumo ring. While Mildred Burke had been allowed to run the venue back in 1954, this courtesy was apparently not extended to her Japanese successors. For this reason, Kuramae shows also didn’t feature bouquet girls (or so I've read it claimed; I have seen contradictory examples).

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Riki Sports Palace

img_20200415_0002.thumb.jpg.1843871c9a4a203a37e7833f7ed186a1.jpg

Capacity: 3,000

Background

The Riki Sports Palace wasn’t the first venue Rikidōzan built; the Rikidozan Dojo/Japan Pro Wrestling Center predated it by several years. As the Dojo became eyed for public appropriation, though, Rikidozan decided to build a larger venue in Shibuya. It would be a permanent home for pro wrestling: the Kuramae of puroresu. Modeled after the Honolulu Civic Auditorium, Rikidozan spent 1.5 billion yen to build the Riki Sports Palace, which was completed in 1961. On some level, the Palace was a practical investment, as it gave Japan Pro Wrestling a consistent base in Tokyo while eliminating the need to rent a venue in the market. Unfortunately, the Palace bloated into a symbol of its namesake’s hubris and poor business acumen, from offices and dojos to a sauna and a bowling alley. After Rikidozan’s death, the Palace became an albatross around the JWA’s neck in the eyes of an executive council that sought to cut ties with the debt-ridden Riki Enterprises. While sales manager Isao Yoshihara attempted to buy it from Riki Enterprises, Kokichi Endo sabotaged this. As Yoshihara left to eventually form the IWE, the Palace was seized as collateral by its creditor. After spending much of its life as a cabaret theater, the former Palace was demolished in 1992; its atrium and the piping that had been installed for its sauna made it impossible to convert into an office building.

Wrestling

The Riki Sports Palace saw regular use from Japan Pro Wrestling for five years. The Palace held its final show on September 23, 1966.

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Korakuen Hall

20170104_Korakuen_Hall.thumb.jpg.63f8d6a1daaddf6435b85288bea00075.jpg

Capacity: 2,005*

Background

Completed in 1962, the Korakuen Bowling Hall opened a Korakuen Gymnasium on its fifth and sixth floors. It was Japan’s first such venue without windows. In 1967, it was renamed Korakuen Hall; the bowling alley was moved and replaced with a roller rink six years later. The exterior has been remodeled four times, most recently after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake. The venue continues to see regular use for combat sports, and the fact that Korakuen provides its own ring is an attractive one to boxing promoters. It also serves as a dance hall, as its floorboards meet the specifications for competitive dance. After the construction of JCB Hall in 2008, the Tokyo Dome Corporation lowered Korakuen’s rental fee.

Wrestling

Korakuen held its first wrestling show on November 25, 1966, with Giant Baba defeating Luis Hernandez. Besides an April 1970 show by the IWE, Japan Pro Wrestling sabotaged its competitors’ attempts to run the building, until AJPW booked it in November 1972. After the JWA’s collapse, Korakuen opened up to all of puroresu, including AJW. In the late 1980s, Weekly Pro Wrestling editor and Baba creative consultant Tarzan Yamamoto put Korakuen at the center of his strategy to revitalize All Japan. The quality of AJPW’s Korakuen shows in this era, best represented by the 1991 Fan Appreciation Day event and its revered Super Generation Army/Tsurutagun six-man tag, were foundational to the venue’s modern mythos. As it has become more affordable for indies to run, the consistency and attendance of a company’s Korakuen shows are often gauged as a shorthand for their current status.

*AJPW frequently announced capacity crowds of 2,100 in the early 90s. However, claimed attendance figures from previous years go as high as 3,400, such as All Japan’s January 18, 1981 show featuring Baba’s 3000th match against Verne Gagne.

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Nippon Budokan

1930054947_R(3).jpg.bf5ac8fc38607246a75fd7f3b8cb5ae2.jpgCapacity: 14,471*

Background

Originally built for the judo competition in the 1964 Summer Olympics, the Nippon Budokan was intended as a venue for martial arts competition. It was one of the final buildings designed by modernist architect Mamoru Yamada, with an octagonal roof inspired by the Yumedono Hall of Hōryū-ji temple. It expanded into professional sports in 1965 when it held Fighting Harada’s bantamweight title defense against Alan Rudkin, and its first musical performance had seen Leopold Stokowski conduct the Japan Philharmonic that same year. The Beatles’ Budokan concert the following year was hotly controversial among nationalists (including venue director and media mogul Matsutarō Shōriki). Over the years though, it’s become a moot point, as a series of live albums recorded by Western pop artists in the late 1970s made the Budokan Japan’s most famous concert venue.

Wrestling

In response to Toyonobori’s Tokyo Pro Wrestling, which was so bold as to hold its first show at Kuramae, the JWA brought puroresu to the Budokan in December 1966, with a Giant Baba title defense against Fritz von Erich. There was initial unease, as Fritz was not established in Japan, but the show would sell out as they built a program. Despite this success, the Budokan would not see puroresu return until the AJPW/IWE Rikidozan tribute show of 1975. After holding Antonio Inoki’s first different styles fight against Willem Ruska, and then his bout against Muhammad Ali, the Budokan saw relatively frequent usage for a few years. It was mainly booked by NJPW, although it would also hold the AJPW’s 1977 Champion Carnival final, a pair of late-70s AJW shows, and the Tokyo Sports show of August 1979.

After a second dark age from 1981 through 1984, AJPW (and JPW) returned in June 1985, with AJW following suit that August. When All Japan was banned from the Ryogoku Kokugikan for their hire of retired yokozuna Hiroshi Wajima, they would be forced to make the Budokan a more frequent destination. While NJPW, the Newborn UWF, and more would come to the venue in the ensuing years, All Japan would become its puroresu kings, eventually building to seven Budokan dates a year. In the 21st century, post-exodus AJPW would continue to make it a frequent destination until February 2004, upon which NOAH would carry the torch as long as they could.

After the All Together joint show in 2011, the DDT Peter Pan show in 2012, and NOAH’s Final Burning in 2013, the Budokan entered a third puroresu dark age until the 2018 G1 Climax, which booked three straight dates for its last shows. They repeated this the following year, but the COVID-19 pandemic would lead them to instead book Budokan for its final show of 2020. As NOAH was acquired by CyberAgent, though, the promotion would return to the Budokan in 2021. Even joshi made its first showing since the twilight days of AJW, with the Bushiroad-backed Stardom holding its tenth anniversary event. 

The future isn’t looking too bad for puroresu at the Budokan.

*The venue can stretch itself as far as 16,300, as it did at the peak of AJPW’s shows.

 

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Ryogoku Kokugikan [II]

Ryogoku_Great_Sumo_Hall.thumb.jpg.a0b87fe37faf618311fc30c631f05453.jpg

Capacity: 11,098

Background

When Tochinishiki Kiyotaka became president of the Japan Sumo Association in 1974, he confided in the board of directors about his intentions to replace the Kuramae Kokugikan. The venue had reappropriated the steel frame of a naval warehouse in its construction, and as a result it was in rough shape as early as the 50s. While he originally considered buying back the Nippon University Auditorium - that is, the original Ryogoku Kokugikan - Kiyotaka ultimately dropped the idea of reverting to a smaller venue, and set his sights on building a new venue on the north side of Ryogoku Station. The Sumo Association bought the property from Japan Railways, who had used it as the office of their bus company, and began construction in 1983. The ¥15,000,000,000 project was wholly self-financed. The building was completed in November 1984 and opened the following January.

Wrestling

From Inoki/Brody I to Genichiro Tenryu’s retirement and beyond, the second Ryogoku Kogukikan has amassed a considerable legacy in puroresu.

In what would quickly become ironic in hindsight, AJPW were the first to bring puroresu to Ryogoku II, as Jumbo Tsuruta and Genichiro Tenryu defended their tag titles against the Road Warriors. They would run the building four more times in the next two years, before the Wajima ban made the venue NJPW-exclusive. (Mutoh-era AJPW would come to the venue for a 2004 PPV event.) Alas, they too would run afoul of the Sumo Association, with the debacle that was their December 27, 1987 show earning them a one-year ban. After that snafu, NJPW would stay in the venue’s good graces, although Masahiro Chono’s G1 Climax win would see him showered with seat cushions, a frowned-upon sumo fan tradition. (The “zabuton dance” would be banned in puroresu, and eventually became more strictly regulated in sumo.)

Due to an elevator system allowing the dohyō to be retracted from the venue, joshi performances would not run afoul of sumo tradition in the new Kokugikan. As a result, AJW booked the venue in April 1986. It has never become a common joshi venue, but Ryogoku II continues to be open to such promotions to this day. In the 2010s, promotions such as DDT and even Big Japan Pro Wrestling booked the venue.

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