Handing off the Tasuki
Brett Larner (Running Times)
Handing Off the Tasuki
How Japan’s marathon traditions are changing
As featured in the JulyAugust 2010 issue of Running Times Magazine
Distance running in Japan is facing change. Elite athletes and the system supporting them are starting to face the fact that the methods that have kept them internationally competitive for so long have lost their edge. At the same time, the longtime spectator sport of marathoning has spread beyond the elite and the serious amateur to become one of mass participation. These trends, and the reactions to them, may mark the biggest shift in 100 years of Japanese running tradition.THE EKIDEN AND THE MARATHON Born just before the first m
odern Olympics, Shizo Kanaguri (pictured, right) is credited as the father of Japanese marathoning. In 1912 he became its first Olympic marathoner and by 1924 had run a world-leading 2:36:10. His success drew others who found that the marathon demanded precisely the types of attributes often considered to be characteristic of Japanese society: discipline, austerity, self-sacrifice, and, above all else, inner strength. The sport began to thrive; marathons and other road races sprang up, and by 1930 six of the 10 fastest marathon times of the year worldwide were run by Japanese athletes.One of the race formats that appeared soon after Kanaguri’s Olympic debut was the Japanese version of the long-distance relay, the ekiden. The first ekiden was held in 1917. It sparked others that are still in existence today, the most important being the university men’s Hakone Ekiden. Many early ekidens pitted regional teams competing against neighboring areas in a spirit of local pride as they handed off the tasuki, the sash that characterizes the event. It’s tempting to see the ekiden as having grown because it speaks to other traits stereotypically considered Japanese: identity with a group; the importance of your place in the group and of giving your best to benefit the group before yourself; and a profound sense of personal responsibility and obligation to others. Hakone had a more concrete purpose: Coaches and administrators wanted to make their athletes more competitive in the Olympic marathon and believed that focusing their university men on a long team event was the best way to build a pool from which to draw the best. As ekidens grew over the next 20 years, so did the marathon know-how. Although they failed to score the ultimate prize of an Olympic medal, Japanese marathoners dominated the 1930s; in 1934 the nine fastest times of the year were by Japanese runners. World War II brought the sport to a halt, but after the war it was part of the rebuilding. Hakone was swift to return in January 1947. New marathons were founded, first among them the Lake Biwa Marathon and soon followed by Fukuoka, Beppu-Oita and others. These events were small, efficiently organized and geared to the regional, national and international elite. COMPANY MEN As the Japanese economy recovered and grew post-war, corporations began to spend money on sports teams. Arata Fujiwara, a member of Japan’s 2009 world championship marathon team, says about these jitsugyodan corporate teams, “The purpose of a team is to unite the workers in supporting their company through the camaraderie of cheering for their own team.” Corporate funding gave athletes a place to continue to develop after university, and when top men reached the end of their competitive days they had a chance to help coach the younger men coming up on the team. Fifteen years of building upon pre-war successes refined technique and led to the importance of mileage for building strength in an era when the marathon was primarily about stamina. In 1961 Takayuki Nakao recorded Japan’s first world-leading time since 1942, running 2:18:54 and leading two others into the worldwide top 10. In 1964, Kokichi Tsuburaya won Japan’s first Olympic marathon medal. In 1965, 10 of the top 11 times worldwide were run by Japanese men. In 1966, it was 15 of the top 16. The rest of the world began to catch up in the 1970s, but Japan regularly continued to put men like Seko, the Sohs and Nakayama into the top 10 worldwide. The introduction of African and other foreign athletes in the late 1980s helped Japan to improve the speed component of its marathoning. In the ’90s came its first 2:06, and in 2002 Toshinari Takaoka, a runner who had avoided high mileage in university and focused on speed, set the current national record of 2:06:16.
The university and corporate team systems were responsible for this progress, and throughout this period their championship ekidens were part of the season. The introduction of live TV broadcasts in the late ’70s meant more people could watch these ekidens, cheering for their company or alma mater and finding inspiration in the performances that addressed the essential importance of personal responsibility towards others for creating a functioning whole. Hakone and the New Year Ekiden took on increasing importance for advertising sponsors as audiences grew. A six-or seven-hour broadcast meant higher exposure for the race sponsors and broadcast sponsors than in a two and a half hour marathon broadcast, leading to higher support levels and bigger productions.[Watch scenes from Day 1 of the 2010 Hakone Ekiden here. This second video is highlights from Day 2 of the 2010 race. In the second video, the bit around 3 minutes shows what happens if teams lag behind. If they’re more than 20 minutes behind the leaders on the second day the slower team runners have to start with a fresh sash and the one that is being carried by the incoming runner stops there, which is a major disgrace. The time between the next runner starting and the incoming runner arriving is added to the final time.]
BE TRUE TO YOUR SCHOOL At the university level, where performance levels have increased to the point of the Kanto region becoming the world’s most competitive university men’s system, this has created something that may be too much for its own good. The Hakone Ekiden has national TV viewership ratings of over 30 percent for its two-day, 15-hour broadcast, stunningly high production values, and millions lining the course. In the midst of extreme pressure the runners have the same bravado and inexperience as 20-year-olds anywhere else, but where the scoring structure of NCAA cross country means individual runners can pass the buck to someone else on their team if they’re having an off day, the first thought in a Japanese runner’s mind is that of his responsibility to the others on his team because, if even one person goes down, the entire team goes down. Takayuki Nishida, a 2:08 marathoner who as a student at Komazawa University set a new Hakone stage record, says: “When you get the sash in an ekiden it holds the efforts of all the runners who came before you. When you run you’re carrying the result of all their hard work too. If you stop you waste not only your own run but everyone else’s, so you can’t ever give up. Growing up in that kind of environment throughout high school and university shapes the mindset of Japanese runners once they go on to the marathon. That’s why you never see Japanese marathoners DNF. It would disrespect everyone who helped you get there.”
With Hakone as big as it has become, there is valid criticism that it is now interfering with Japanese men’s marathoning. Young runners these days dream of Hakone glory more than an Olympic or world championships medal or slugging it out in a major marathon. Most spend everything they have before age 22. Those who do often have trouble maintaining the fire or remaining injury-free.
At the corporate level the New Year Ekiden is the center of the year, driven by the demands of sponsors and companies’ morale-building exigencies. Team members must be available to run the regional qualifying ekidens in early November, meaning that marathons like Berlin, Chicago and New York are usually out of the question. Again, Fujiwara: “What’s important in this system is that you try hard together and give it your best as a team. Even if the team is certain that they are going to qualify it’s unthinkable that their ace runner would choose to run for himself somewhere else.” Some runners may compete in Fukuoka in early December, but with the New Year Ekiden less than a month away most will maintain their focus on peaking then for the more or less half marathon-length stages. After Jan. 1 those doing a marathon will squeeze in a month of training to be ready for one of the four elite marathons in February and March. Although things have never been stronger at the half marathon level, marathon performances have waned: there has been only one sub-2:08 since 2005. Only one topclass Japanese man ran Fukuoka last year, while at the New Year Ekiden four weeks later eight men ran times equivalent to faster than the official half marathon national record. The image of a nation of athletes running massive marathon mileage has shifted, and it appears now that the main emphasis is on being ready for roughly a half marathon on Jan. 1.
Even on Hakone winning teams, men who ran poorly on an individual level give formal apologies to their teammates with tears running down their cheeks, often as the national TV cameras roll. The pressure, the high level of performance and the inexperience mean that the students run themselves into the ground.
GETTING IN TOUCH WITH THE FEMININE SIDE Compared to Hakone and the New Year Ekiden, women’s university and corporate ekiden teams receive moderate attention, but despite a considerably shorter history, Japan’s most famous and respected runners these days are its female marathoners. The Asahi Kasei company funded one of the first women’s corporate teams way back in 1951. In the mid-’70s, expat Miki Gorman scored Boston and New York wins to become the first great female Japanese-born marathoner, but it wasn’t until the late ’70s that domestic women began to appear in overseas marathons and not until 1983 that one, Akemi Masuda, made the top 10 worldwide. When the Tokyo International Women’s Marathon (pictured below) was founded in 1979 as the world’s first elite women-only marathon, Japanese women were nowhere near able to compete with the invited foreign competition.
Nevertheless, women’s ekidens fail to receive the same respect. Although all the women’s ekidens are broadcast, none has a following close to Hakone or the New Year Ekiden. Even now, the women’s races are all shorter than men’s ekidens. Where the National High School Boys Ekiden totals a marathon, the Girls Ekiden is a half marathon. Individual stages are also shorter. The longest men’s leg, Hakone’s 23.4K fifth stage, is more than double the longest National Corporate Women’s Ekiden stage.
Perhaps as a consequence, Japanese women have had marginally more flexibility than men to pursue different paths. It has been more common to see top-level Japanese women race overseas than the men in recent years, and the success of women like Takahashi and the Second Wind club team have in different ways involved existences outside the corporate league world.
Defending gold medalist Mizuki Noguchi’s last-minute withdrawal with injury and almost everything else about the Beijing Olympics marathons were a major blow to the national confidence level, but Yoshimi Ozaki’s silver medal at last summer’s world championships showed that the overall level of the elite women is still high. But like the men, the top end has become blunted; three Japanese women in history have run under 2:20, but there’s been only one sub-2:23 since 2005. The new Tokyo Marathon’s elite women’s fields in the last two years have been as strong as those in Yokohama, Osaka and Nagoya, which have not had the same kind of overseas talent as in the past or as is common in almost any other major marathon. If the goal of these races was to elevate Japanese athletes by giving them the opportunity to test themselves against the world’s best, the question arises of whether the elite-only format still fulfills this function in the age of the big city marathon.
THE PURSUIT PACK
As at the elite level, the amateur world is oriented toward teams. There is no shortage of clubs who not only train and run ekidens together but eat, drink, watch races on TV and go on gasshuku summer training camps (pictured below) together like the corporate and university teams.
But like the early days of Hakone, Tokyo Women’s, along with later elite women’s races in Nagoya and Osaka, served the purpose of helping to pull them up to world standards. By the early 1990s they became a factor at the world level, with marathon medals at eight of the last 10 world championships and four straight Olympic marathon medals, two of them gold. They even earned a world championships 10,000m medal, something no Japanese man has accomplished. Olympic record-holder and first woman to go sub-2:20, Naoko Takahashi, became a major public figure, the first native-born Japanese Olympic marathon gold medalist and probably the last Japanese runner who will ever hold a marathon world record. Almost any Japanese person can immediately tell you about Takahashi and her achievements.
The difference, perhaps, is that where a runner like this in the U.S. might dream of making it at the national level, there is nearly no chance of that happening in Japan. These runners may enter official selection races, but there is little possibility of them getting a spot on a national team, as they would have to beat every corporate runner in the race.
Where dedicated American amateurs might target Boston’s 3:10 and 3:40 qualifying times, their Japanese equivalents are going for Fukuoka’s 2:45 B-standard, Beppu-Oita’s 2:50, or Nagoya, Osaka and Yokohama Women’s 3:15. It’s common for marathons in the bracket below these races to have a 4-hour cutoff. You can find plenty of races for those farther back in the pack, but with names like the Turtle Marathon these are explicitly so.
The Honolulu Marathon has long been the destination for those non-runners who wanted to experience one marathon in their lives, but the launch of the Tokyo Marathon in 2007 has had a deep impact. Roughly 272,000 applied for the 2010 Tokyo Marathon, the vast majority of them beginners. Over the four years since Tokyo launched, these beginners have helped the industry thrive, with new professionally coached clubs and brand flagship stores springing up everywhere. Fashion magazines now regularly target the largest demographic in this population of new runners, independent young women in their 20s and 30s. Longtime running havens such as Tokyo’s Imperial Palace 5K loop have become almost dangerously crowded, and races of any length anywhere within a couple of hours of Tokyo fill up months in advance. Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe will hold large, mass-participation marathons within the next two years.
And so Japanese distance running is now approaching a potential shift, with waning international success at the elite level, increased attention on university-level domestic competition and a shift toward true mass participation. Whether the sport becomes something purely for the masses, whether the elites pack it in and focus on the domestic ekidens, or whether the rising generation of young talent is able to maintain a competitive place on the world level, Japanese distance running faces deep changes as it hands off to the next stage.
Japan’s elites and hard-working amateurs target the same circuit of small, exclusive races. All of them are broadcast live nationwide. Some of the main marathons include:
Even among the sub-2:30 men or the sub-3:00 women, there are a nearly unlimited number of people around who ran in high school but weren’t good enough to make a university team, ran in university but didn’t go corporate, or who retired from a corporate team but are still running. These runners are motivated by trying to get into the small, elite-only marathons and half marathons, to try to beat some corporate or university runners, and, for the best, to win one of the many marathons outside the elite circuit that offer trips to overseas races as first prize.
|Race||Gender||Qualifying Time||2009-10 Field Size*|
|Tokyo Marathon / Elite Division||men||sub-2:23||53|
|Fukuoka International Marathon / A Division||men||sub-2:27||84|
|Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon||men||sub-2:30||200|
|Fukuoka International Marathon / B Division||men||sub-2:45||671|
|Beppu-Oita Mainichi Marathon||men||sub-2:50||649|
|Tokyo Marathon / Elite Division||women||sub-2:54||33|
|Osaka International Ladies Marathon||women||sub-3:15||448|
|Nagoya International Women’s Marathon||women||sub-3:15||309|
|Yokohama International Women’s Marathon||women||sub-3:15||404|
*excluding invited athletes
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