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11 March 2021, 2pm

Distance running has taken hold of the Japanese population like nowhere else in the world

A national passion

The postponed 2020 Olympics are due to be held in August 2021, eight years after Tokyo was confirmed as the host city. It is the third time that Tokyo has been awarded the Games, but on the first occasion the 1940 Games were cancelled because of the outbreak of hostilities in World War II. After a post-war hiatus it was not until 1964 that the Tokyo staged the Games of the 18th Olympiad.

A Japanese team first participated in the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm and has attended 21 of the 23 Olympic Games held since then. Japan was excluded from the 1948 London Olympics and joined the US-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games. Japan won its first medals in 1920, and its first gold medals in 1928.

It was at the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936 that, amid the unprecedented worldwide fanfare attending them, runners from Japanese-occupied Korea took gold and bronze medals in the Olympic Marathon. They were Sohn Kee-Chung and Nam Sung-Yong but were entered as Kitei Son and Nan Shoryu. Both were born in Korea but received higher education in Japan.

Whether or not pre-war Olympic success had anything to do with it, in the immediate post-war period marathon running started to take off in Japan. The country had been devastated in the final stages of the War. Long distance running both in ‘Ekiden’ relay teams and in marathon races seemed to provide a means by which people picked themselves up and got back on their feet.

Before the war, and for the decade after, Finland had remarkable success in distance running. This was sometimes put down to the Finnish concept of ‘Sisu’ as a facet of national character combining stoic determination, tenacity of purpose, resilience and hardiness. The war effort had perhaps cultivated such qualities in the Japanese population who applied themselves with good effect to endurance running.

The main marathon races held in Japan to this day date from the immediate post-war years. The Lake Biwa Marathon was established in 1946 followed by the Koichi Marathon a year later. But it was the Fukuoka Marathon, first run in 1948, which increasingly became the lynchpin in the growing Japanese enthusiasm for Marathon running both as a participatory and as a spectator sport.

While the races were being established in the 1940s and there was a mini-boom in participation it was not on the scale of that yet to come in the 1970s in North America and 1980s in Europe. It was focused around elite performance and more akin to the sudden expansion of participation by professional runners in East Africa in the 1990s and after. The Japanese version was restricted to committed runners and framed within a corporate club structure. A particularity of this upsurge of interest was that it extended beyond performers to spectators – and eventually to TV viewers – and so laid the economic basis for a more professional approach to competition.

The most viewer-friendly running event was the ‘Ekiden’ road relay where supporters could follow a preferred team and fortunes could change dramatically from one stage to another to a much greater extent than in races between individual competitors. It was a convenient vehicle by which to promote a company and also provided a highly competitive yet cohesive training environment.

Japanese marathon performances were building in the 1950s and Japan became dominant in the 1960s, averaging half of the world’s top-20 performers between 1962-69 (see graphic), in a similar way to what East Africans achieved 30 years later. Performances peaked in 1966 when 12 of the top 14 marathon performers were Japanese and all but one of the top-20 performances were in Japanese races.

On 17 February 1963 Toru Terasawa set a world record of 2:15:16 in the Beppu-Oita Marathon. He went on to place second in the1964 Japanese Olympic trials and then 15th at the 1964 Olympics. Terasawa won the Fukuoka Marathon twice, setting a Japanese national record in 1962 (2:16:18.4) and again in 1964 (2:14:48.2).

Morio Shigematsu set a world’s best in the marathon with a time of 2:12:00 at the Polytechnic Marathon (GBR) on 12 June 1965. Terasawa finished behind him in 2:13:41, the third fastest-ever performance at that time. Less than two months earlier he had set a course record at the 1965 Boston Marathon.

One tragic tale punctuated this halcyon period. In 1964 Kokichi Tsuburaya entered the stadium holding second place in the Tokyo Olympic Marathon. The winner, Abebe Bikila, had finished three minutes earlier and Britain’s Basil Heatley was not far behind him. He sprinted past, relegating Tsuburaya to the bronze medal. Tsuburaya was stricken by the defeat and told his team mate Kenji Kimihara, “I committed an inexcusable blunder in front of the Japanese people. I have to make amends by running and hoisting the flag in the next Olympics.” But before he got his chance Tsuburaya became afflicted with lumbago. He committed suicide during the build-up for the Mexico City Olympics.

Kimihara competed in the marathon at the 1964, 1968 and 1972 Olympics and finished in eighth, second and fifth places respectively. He won two gold medals in the marathon at the Asian Games in 1966 and 1970, and won the Boston Marathon in 1966.

Japan had relatively few top-flight performances for most of the 1970s but in 1978 a trio of runners emerged who were to dominate for the next decade. Shigeru So had finished a modest 20th in the Montreal Olympic Games but in the 1978 Beppu-Oita Marathon ran a world record time of 2:09:06 (if Derek Clayton’s highly suspect 1969 mark in the Antwerp Marathon is ignored). His twin brother Takeshi ran a faster personal best (2:08:55) in 1983 and went on to finish fourth in the 1984 Olympic Marathon. Toshihiko Seko won the 1980 Fukuoka Marathon in 2:09:45, just four seconds ahead of Takeshi So. This was the first time that two men had ever run under 2:10 in the same race. The Fukuoka Marathon’s significance was confirmed the following year when the Australian runner Rob de Castella ran a new world record of 2:08:18 there. Seko won Fukuoka four times, Boston twice and was also victorious in Tokyo, London and Chicago but performed below par at both the 1984 (14th) and 1988 Olympics (9th).

By the late 1970s women were finally breaking down the gender barrier to running long distances. The Avon Series included an annual women’s marathon held in various locations throughout the world, from 1978-1984, and sponsored by the giant global cosmetics company. The Japanese Athletics Federation were quick to establish a women-only Marathon in Tokyo, held for the first time in November 1979. Being federation-led was important, as it became the first women’s marathon officially sanctioned by the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF). Adrian Paulen, IAAF President, attended the race and gave his support for a women’s marathon to be added to the Olympic programme.

Just months after the Tokyo race the Nagoya International Women’s Half Marathon was established, and switched to the marathon distance in 1984. The Osaka International Ladies’ Marathon started up in 1982. All three races attracted an exclusive top-quality international field from the outset, playing a similar role for the women’s marathon as Fukuoka had done for the men’s.

The international outlook of the Japanese Federation found a partner in AIMS, set up in 1982 as an association of marathon race organisers acting independently of the IAAF – which, despite former President Paulen’s early backing, had been dismissive of the new mass participation sport of distance running. The outwardly unlikely alliance was in large part due to the personal interest of Hiroaki Chosa who became Vice-President of AIMS at foundation and President from 1990–2010.

It took until the 1992 Barcelona Olympics Marathon until Japan got back among the medals. In another close endgame Koichi Morishita was dropped in the last kilometre to finish second with other Japanese in 4th and 8th. Likewise in the women’s race: Yuko Arimori was dropped by Valentina Yegorova near the end and finished eight seconds behind with Sachiko Yamashita in fourth place. Arimori won Japan’s first medal in the women’s marathon – and the second, a bronze, four years later in Atlanta. There she again finished behind Yegorova, but with Ethiopia’s Fatuma Roba winning gold with two minutes to spare.

The women took Japan’s Olympic success to new heights at the Sydney Olympics when Naoko Takahashi won gold in a new Olympic Record of 2:23:12. She went on to become the first woman to break the 2-hour 20-minute barrier when she set a world record of 2:19:46 in the 2001 Berlin Marathon.

Mizuko Noguchi took the baton from Takahashi, winning both the 2002 Nagoya and 2003 Osaka Women’s Marathons before taking the silver medal at the 2003 World Championships. Then in 2004 she beat World Champion Catherine Ndereba and world record holder Paula Radcliffe to become the Olympic champion at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Other Japanese finished 5th and 7th, and in the men’s race took 5th and 6th. Like Takahashi before her Noguchi went on to win the Berlin Marathon the following year (2005) beating Takahashi’s time to set a new course record of 2:19:12

Japan has not garnered any more Olympic medals in the Marathon since Noguchi’s win in Athens but within Japan the face of the sport has changed dramatically. In 2007 the Tokyo Marathon switched from being an elite event of a few dozen runners to a mass race of 25,000 participants. AIMS President Hiroaki Chosa played a significant part, through his international contacts, in preparing the ground for this momentous change. The flagship elite-only Japanese Marathons had joined AIMS from the outset and since the emergence of mass marathons AIMS membership in Japan has steadily grown to reach 25.

Other races followed Tokyo’s example and consolidated elite competition within mass races. It had been increasingly hard to find elite-only races until in 2020 coronavirus conditions put a stop on mass sporting events during which elite-only events have had a temporary resurgence.

On 28 February 2021 the venerable Lake Biwa Marathon staged its final edition before a planned merger with the Osaka Marathon. The cancellation of other races focused the Japanese elite men on this one race and a startling 42 of them ran faster than 2 hours 10 minutes. This shows the great strength in depth of Japanese distance running despite the lack of Olympic medals and lack of performers among the annual world top-20 ranked runners in recent years (see graphic). This is a strength very different to what Japan enjoyed in the 1960s before the emergence of East Africa as the new powerhouse of elite performance in distance running.

The continuing popularity of distance running as a spectator sport in Japan is unrivalled anywhere else in the world. The strength of student and corporate teams and the excitement generated by the Ekiden format wins huge viewing figures on Japanese national television. Elite performance is built on this firm foundation.

The postponed 2020 Olympic Games gives Japanese runners another shot at the podium with the pandemic conditions possibly assisting their efforts. But, even without the boost that this would surely give, Japan shows no sign of relinquishing its love affair with the Marathon.

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