Run, Tokyo, Run: How Japan Became Marathon Capital of the World
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
If you want a running-themed vacation, book a flight to Japan.
In its 122-year history, the Boston Marathon has never been canceled due to weather. And so it was this past November that Yuki Kawauchi kept up a wicked pace despite cold winds blasting between buildings and freezing rain slapping the pavement. The 31-year-old stayed strong through the finish line to become the first Japanese men’s winner since 1987, beating last year’s champ Geoffrey Kirui of Kenya.
The result surprised race fans who’ve watched for years as East Africans dominated international marathons. For many back in Japan, though, it was about time. After all, the country has a surprisingly rich — and growing — running culture. In fact, according to the Association of Road Racing Statisticians:
Since 2015, Japanese runners have completed more marathons than any other nationality.
From 2005 to 2010, the number of Japanese runners finishing the 26.2-mile challenge jumped from around 100,000 to nearly 600,000. And the country’s share of the worldwide marathon market for amateurs increased from less than 10 percent to more than 25 percent. That puts Japan ahead of the much larger, and also running-obsessed, United States, which had led in market share for 50 years.
The boom in popularity started in 2007 with the inaugural Tokyo Marathon. “That was a complete game-changer,” says Brett Larner, who operates the website Japan Running News and who’s written on the numbers behind Japan’s infatuation with hoofing long distances. Before the Tokyo Marathon, the main mass participation competition for Japanese runners was a race in Honolulu, but that was a bucket list goal for just a handful of athletes. Once Tokyo began hosting a marathon, amateurs flocked en masse to the opportunity.
In fact, demand was so high — 322,703 athletes applied for the Tokyo Marathon in 2017, while only 35,824 were allowed to run — that other towns and cities in Japan took note. Marathons sprouted up all over the islands, many with more than 10,000 competitors. “Since 2007 the number of races and the size of the races have just exploded,” says Larner. According to his number crunching, Japanese runners accounted for more than 40 percent of worldwide growth in the event from 2006 to 2015. And, he says, there’s still demand to fill.
Yes, that was Kawauchi wearing a panda suit while competing in his hometown marathon before heading to Boston.
Of course, Japanese runners train obsessively for more than marathons. For two glorious days around New Year’s, millions of Japanese plant themselves in front of their TVs or brave early-morning cold to catch all the action of the Hakone Ekiden, a collegiate relay race in Tokyo that’s the country’s most-watched sports event. It has the cultural impact of a Super Bowl and World Series combined.
Japan has a deep history with running. Since the end of World War II, many have relied on the sport. “Marathon running was seen as a worthy and admirable pursuit, embodying the discipline, effort and commitment the country valued and needed to get back on its feet after the devastation of the war,” says Adharanand Finn, author of The Way of the Runner: A Journey Into the Fabled World of Japanese Running.
And what the Japanese hold in particularly high esteem are true amateurs, citizen athletes like Kawauchi. Dubbed the “people’s runner,” the school clerk has no coach or sponsors. Working 9-to-5, he reportedly spends a quarter of his salary on his marathon hobby. His popularity is boosted by a rare flair for the theatrical. Yes, that was Kawauchi wearing a panda suit while competing in his hometown marathon before heading to Boston.
One reason Japanese marathon madness remains semisecret may be because the country’s amateur runners tend not to race abroad, according to Finn. The same goes for elite athletes. “There are so many big marathons in Japan, and [runners] get paid well to race in them by their corporate teams, who are focused on the Japanese fans,” says Finn. The best runners here, he notes, are just as famous and recognizable as stars from soccer, baseball, karate and other sports.
Every season, Larner of Japan Running News sees new races popping up. And so far he finds little sign of slowing demand. He also notes that young women account for the biggest bump of any demographic in the past decade. Japanese women, after all, have done well internationally, winning 2000 and 2004 Olympic marathon gold. Now the hobby is being marketed to urban, financially independent and fashionable working women.
As for the next explosion in marathon running, check out China. In 2011 it had 22 marathons. By 2016 that number had leaped to 328. And in plenty of those venues, competitors don’t have to deal with arctic blasts and driving rain.