Why Are Japanese Marathoners So Good?
They crushed at Sunday’s Tokyo Marathon. Here’s why.
Kenyan Dickson Chumba was the first person to cross the finish line in Sunday’s Tokyo Marathon, but the day really belonged to Japanese running.
Yuta Shitara, a 26-year-old who looked like he was fading bad with approximately 10K to go, pulled a Lazarus and started a late-race surge that didn’t end until he’d crossed the finish line in second place (the highest-ever finish by a Japanese man in a Marathon Major) in 2:06:11. With that time, Shitara eclipsed Toshinari Takaoka’s national record from 2002, and earned a bonus of 100 million yen. That’s $934,457. For comparison, the winner of the Boston Marathon, which is the Marathon Major with the largest purse, receives $150,000 and a bonus of $50,000 if he or she breaks the world record.
But the race was much deeper than Shitara. A slew of Japanese men turned in career performances. Japan put six runners in the top ten in the men’s race, and had nine runners who ran faster than 2:10. Yes, nine. After a quick perusal of the fastest-ever marathon times, I found that only 17 American men in history have ever gone sub 2:10. On a record-eligible course (i.e. not Boston) that number shrinks to 11. Much as I’d like Dathan Ritzenhein or Abdi Abdirahman, whose marathon PRs date back to 2012 and 2006 respectively, to prove me wrong when they run the Boston Marathon this April, I think Galen Rupp is the only American marathoner who is currently capable of putting up that kind of time.
As Japan gets ready to host the next summer Olympics, the nation seems to have found the magic formula for producing world-class level marathoners. What’s the secret to their success? To find out, I reached out to Adharanand Finn, author of The Way of the Runner: A Journey Into the Fabled World of Japanese Running, a project for which Finn spent a year traveling around Japan trying to gain insight into one of the most running-besotted cultures on Earth.
Marathoning Has Been Big in Japan for a Long Time
“Japan has this incredible history of marathon running. It goes back a long way. It was really a post-war thing. After the second World War, the country was devastated and they were looking for ways to get everybody back on their feet and they started running ekidens and marathons. In the ‘40s and ‘50s, the Japanese were having a marathon boom, whereas in the West it only happened in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, and in East Africa it didn’t happen until the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. The Japanese were dominating in the ‘50s and into the ‘60s. For example, in 1965, ten of the top eleven fastest marathons in the world were run by Japanese men. In 1966, it was 15 of the top 17. Those are the kind of stats that the Kenyans are running these days.”
The Most Prestigious Ekiden is Japan’s Superbowl
“The ekiden races are long-distance relay races, where each leg is frequently about a half-marathon in distance. The biggest ekiden, the Hakone Ekiden, is the biggest sporting event of the year in Japan—the whole country comes to a standstill. Baseball overall as a sport is bigger, but this one event dwarfs everything else. It’s on January 2nd and 3rd, and everyone in the country sits down to watch. I’d say that, for most runners in Japan, to be on the team that wins that race would be bigger than winning an Olympic medal.”
It Matters That They’re Hosting the Olympics
“I think the reason why suddenly there’s been an upturn in performance in Japanese marathoning is that the Olympics are coming up. The marathon is going to be the biggest Olympic event for Japan. So there’s a lot of pressure from the federation and Olympic committee in the country to get focused on the marathon and forget the ekiden for a while. (Writer’s note: offering a million dollar purse for setting the national record should help.) So Japanese runners have been given much more freedom in training. They’ve set up this national program to find the best runners and get them purely focused on the marathon. That’s been a big change in the last few years.”
Top Japanese Runners Often Fly Under the Radar
“There are a couple of reasons why the Japanese were kind of invisible in that third slot of world class marathoning—behind the Kenyans and Ethiopians. One was that they would go to races like London and Boston and they’d finish third or fourth, or fifth and sixth. But they’d never be in the lead pack, because the Kenyans would go off super fast and a lot of them would drop off near the end. Nobody’s focusing on who’s coming in fourth or fifth, unless you’re from that country. Also: running is so huge in Japan, that for top runners it’s much more worth their while to run in Japan. They all run for corporate teams for Japanese companies. Part of the reason these companies set these teams up is for employees to have something to feel proud about. The Japanese races are so popular and so big—and not just Tokyo. There’s the Fukuoka International Marathon, the Lake Biwa Marathon, the Osaka Women’s Marathon—these things are as huge as the big sports finals in the U.S.”
Running Can Be a Viable Career Choice
“Part of the reason they have so many good runners is because of these corporate teams. There’s about 60 teams, 30 for men, 30 for women. Each team has about 20, full-time, paid athletes. So that works out to be about 1,200 full-time, elite long-distance runners. The traditional model is that a company sets up an ekiden team and the runners are part of the team, but also regular employees. Once their running career is finished, they carry on in the company with their office job. They basically have a job for life, even though they are brought into the company because of their running. At one of the corporate teams I went to, they rotated their runners around the company, so everyone would get a chance to meet them. There was a real sense of pride and belonging with the team. It’s morphing a little bit, but, in Japan, if you’re a talented runner in college, at a level that in the U.S. or in Europe you wouldn’t be good enough to make a career out of it, in Japan it can still be a way into work.”
Runners in Japan Live a Comfortable Life
“Even though it’s all supposed to be all amateur at that level, I spoke to coaches of high school running teams who said that they couldn’t compete because their schools weren’t giving them enough funds to buy the athletes. So there’s a lot of bartering going on even on the high school level, so I’m sure the top athletes are getting paid well. Runners in Japan are living a comfortable life. They’re also big stars–they can’t go down the street without having to sign autographs. They are like a basketball players in the U.S.”
So there it is. Clearly, the answer to America’s marathoning woes is that more rich companies need to start putting distance runners on their payroll.