How a 217.1 kilometre run became a national bonding ritual in Japan

The Hakone Ekiden, which ran on 2 and 3 January, has a lot to tell us about the strengths and weaknesses of Japanese culture.

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Under Mount Fuji’s gaze, the runner from Meiji University collapses into his teammates’ arms, sobbing as he retches, legs flailing like a new-born colt’s. Kyota Yabushita, delirious from wringing strength from his seven stone body, is more than ten minutes slower than the winner of the punishing mountain stage of the Hakone Ekiden university relay race. The crowd still give him a cheer as loud as the winner’s, even though he has just suffered the humiliation of clocking the worst time in a field of twenty. 

For Japan, the Hakone Ekiden, run on 2-3 January, is one of the biggest sporting events of the year and a ritual of national bonding. Values of grit and teamwork are bundled into a romantic package of nostalgia for youth. Run over ten stages of about a half-marathon each, its elite runners cover 217.1 kilometres from Tokyo to the mountain resort of Hakone, at the foot of Japan’s iconic snow-capped volcano and all the way back to Tokyo. If British youth runners crave Olympic gold, their Japanese counterparts (some of the world’s best unknown athletes) grow up with Hakone as the stuff of dreams. It’s no wonder. During Japan’s most important holiday, a time when a family’s chief duty is to huddle around the television and drink beer, the race reaps 30 per cent viewership.   

The Hakone Ekiden is a good way to understand Japanese strengths and perhaps some of its problems. Celebrated attributes of cooperation, duty, bloody-mindedness and perfectionism, which have fuelled Japan’s success and served it well in times of trouble, are distilled into twelve hours of oddly riveting viewing. Crowds and commentators alike lavish as much attention on the losers as the winners, giving every stage compelling sub-plots. The key image is the university sash, called the tasuki, passed from one runner to the next until the final goal. It symbolises the paradox of a collective endeavour that relies on the loneliness of individual achievement. Therein also lies its cruelty. At the end of his run, Yabushita’s pain was physical, his hell emotional.

Burnout can be a problem. The rigours of ekiden training produce world-class long-distance runners and yet Japan has struggled to make an impact on the global stage. One reason some cite is an old-school training mentality, with parallels to Japan’s workplace, that views hard work as an antidote to fatigue and fighting through pain as the path to success. Certainly that’s a model that can yield results, sometimes spectacular ones. But a philosophy of innovation and flexibility, embraced by Kenyans, has been the best modern-day tactic for world-beating times. And some Japanese universities recruit Kenyans to run for their Ekiden teams (they are allowed one foreigner per squad).

The spotlight on Hakone also means that, for many young Japanese running stars, all that follows can seem like an anti-climax. Even the Olympics. Japan has a genius for making domestic adulation the most intoxicating of drugs and Hakone is an example of the island ethos. “My students say, ‘I want to run Hakone,’” says Takashi Kitazume, who won in 2011 with Waseda University and now coaches its high-school running team. “The ones who tell me, ‘I want to compete in the Olympics’ are few.”

The popularity is fed by a slick media machine. There’s huge money involved for sponsors such as Toyota, Toshiba and Sapporo Beer. That, in turn, makes the Hakone Ekiden an optimal advertising tool for Japanese universities, competing in a crowded field for paying students. Private universities (the public ones tend not to be Hakone contenders) send scouts scouring the nation for the best school runners. In this way, the dynamic is similar to US college football or basketball. Such is the publicity pull of Hakone that Tokyo International University spent a fortune on a two-page new year’s day advertising spread in Japan’s highest-circulation newspaper to trumpet its inaugural appearance in the race. Remarkable for a no-chance university that ended up finishing 18th out of twenty.

None of this prevents Hakone from being one of the world’s most beautiful races. In the end, it’s all about the runners with their vast reservoirs of heart, strength and talent. Even when hope is lost, they give everything they have.

This year, Aoyama Gakuin University, which for nine decades had a blank victory slate, won for the second year in a row. The university credits its new coach; disparagers point to scouts and scholarship money. But it was neither the scouts nor the bursars who powered up the monstrous fifth stage, which rises from sea level to 874 meters. That honour belongs to Daichi Kamino who, clutching his cramping stomach, finished second to widen his team’s lead for the return leg. (The stage itself was taken by Kenya’s Daniel Kitonyi of Nihon Daigaku).

What’s the moral of this ambiguous parable? It’s hard to say. Last year Kamino was anointed “god of the mountain” for a celebrated run that set a new fifth stage record. Heartbreak followed. Two stress fractures and other injuries threatened to keep him out of this year’s classic. He kept on fighting, perhaps to his folly. And won. 

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The God issue