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Japanese Running: The Perplexing Depth Of Talent (Part 2)

Japanese Running: The Perplexing Depth Of Talent (Part 2)

Discipline, honour, self-restraint. These are some of the stereotypical character traits people think of when considering Japan. However, devotion to athletics and a motivation to succeed are not enough, in isolation, to explain how so many athletes are competing at such a high level in Japan. Ekiden and the elevated position it holds in the collective conscience of the nation explains a bit more of the situation. However, a final factor that we found came up over and again was the integral role of corporations in the fabric of Japanese running culture. I’m not talking about Mizuno, Asics and Nike.

Many corporations within Japan – Honda, Japan Rail, Kanebo Cosmetics– employ athletes to race and train in-house. The living expenses of the athletes are taken care of, food is cooked by in-house chefs that prepare a menu laboriously agonised over by a nutritionist. Training takes place multiple times per day – some runners in the corporate system reportedly average more than 600 miles (965km) per month – and around these sessions the athletes spend time with the team’s physiotherapists, strength coaches and masseurs. In addition to such extensive support from the team, living expenses being covered, and daily tasks such as cooking being taken care of, athletes running in the corporate teams reportedly receive a salary of US$35,000 and upwards each, depending on performance and their stature within the sport – there are plenty of high performers on six-figure salaries.

Japan Running: The Perplexing Depth Of Talent (Part 1)

Japan Running: The Perplexing Depth Of Talent (Part 1)

Japan. Nihon. The Land of the Rising Sun. A country globally renown for many things. A rich cultural history. A cuisine like no other. The world’s largest metropolis – Tokyo. And… running?

Japan is not one of the nations that first comes to mind when most people think about the global running scene. However, in the marathon distance, Japan comes in third place behind Kenya and Ethiopia when looking at the number of athletes in the top thousand marathon times in history. Japan has over one-hundred athletes that have run sub-2:10 in the marathon. Compare this to the USA: with a population nearing triple that of Japan – and massive infrastructure surrounding their collegiate athletics system – the States have only twenty athletes that have run sub-2:10 (thirteen if you exclude record-ineligible Boston).

Our interest piqued, we decided to plunge headfirst into the Japanese running scene and investigate what was going on.

Tokai University Training – Ekiden Winning Team

Tokai University Training – Ekiden Winning Team

The athletes strip down to singlets and shorts. Next% adorn the feet of all but a few athletes, and we follow the fluorescent queue of feet out onto the track. There are a number of students at the infield next to the start line, wearing Tokai tracksuits but evidently not running. Noriaki says they’re the team assistants. The half dozen assistants are gathered around a cooler box and a small whiteboard. The athletes join them and form a circle leaving a gap for the two coaches to make their address. After attentively listening to both coaches speak, a collective bow by the students indicates the session is about to start. Five by one-mile, repeats followed by five two-hundreds. Jogging a lap between each rep. Noriaki explains that he and Moro asked the athletes to keep it very steady, make sure pace was constant.

Tokyo Marathon 2020 – Press Conference Highlights

Tokyo Marathon 2020 – Press Conference Highlights

Finally, the whiteboards with the athletes’ predicted times. They took their time, and definitely stole glances at each other’s boards before volunteering them to the audience. Shitara posted a modest 1 second PB of 2:06:11. Inoue – 2:04:30. Osako – 2:??:??. When Osako was questioned, he said the race was a fight against himself. His time will depend on weather and conditions, but he plans to make an effort to be in the lead pack. “That’s why I left it blank.” His face was determined, focussed, almost confrontational. He didn’t want to place limits on what he could achieve come Sunday.

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