Stem cell researcher Shinya Yamanaka and celebrated novelist Haruki Murakami may have very different professional talents, but they share one hobby in common: running.
For both, the former a joint winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine and the latter a major contender for the literature prize, the hobby is an important tool to help them stay motivated and refreshed amid the pressures from their distinguished careers.
Perhaps many ordinary city runners in Japan nowadays feel the same way. Harsh working environments amid the prolonged recession appear to have contributed to a “marathon boom” in recent years, observers said.
On weekdays, just as dusk falls and skyscrapers begin to sparkle in the dark like jewel caskets, many runners head for the Imperial Palace in Tokyo’s central Chiyoda Ward soon after they get off work to run laps around the 5-km-long circuit around the outside of the palace moat.
A 52-year-old civil servant who works in a government office in the nearby Kasumigaseki district said he took up jogging 3½ years ago when colleagues encouraged him to join them.
“At work, one can rarely achieve a sense of accomplishment in a short time,” he said. “But here I can get the satisfaction of saying to myself, for example, I completed the full circuit around the palace again today, or I made it in 21 minutes today.
“There are also times when I come up with ideas for work” while running, he added.
Another runner, a 41-year-old woman who works at a manufacturing firm, said she started joining full marathons four years ago when she was preparing for a managerial promotion examination while also fulfilling her role as a mother.
“At the time, I had lost track of what progress was at work, but running always gives me back a positive frame of mind,” she said.
But when she eventually got promoted to a managerial post, the company’s business headed for a downturn. She continued her running, rehearsing in her mind answers for job interviews as she ran, and recently succeeded in landing a new job.
According to Sasakawa Sports Foundation, the estimated population of urban joggers who run at least once a week has doubled from almost 3 million in 2006 to 5.7 million in 2012.
“There was also a running boom in the 1980s sparked by raised health consciousness, but the decisive trigger behind the current second boom has to be the Tokyo Marathon that was launched in 2007,” said Yukiko Shimojo, chief editor of the monthly magazine Runners.
“More people have come to realize that while stress accumulates as they just sit and work in front of a computer, running can invigorate the mind and clear away gloom,” she said in analyzing the growing popularity of jogging among the workforce.
Writer Go Egami, who penned the book “55 Sai kara no Furu Marason” (“Full Marathon from Age 55″), was an outside director of failed Incubator Bank of Japan when he took up jogging 2½ years ago.
He was named the bank’s president soon afterward and strived every day to bring the chaos under control, often arriving home in the middle of the night only to find himself surrounded by reporters who had been awaiting his return.
“By working up a good sweat (as I run), it removes the clutter and frills that have clung to me. I can reset things back to square one and start from scratch again,” the 58-year-old Egami said.
He added that getting in touch with nature as he jogs, such as seeing the sunrise and the different flowers of the four seasons, enables him to become more aware of how his existence in this world is being supported by Mother Nature.
On the merits of jogging, marathon commentator Tetsuhiko Kin, 48, said, “Amid the tough times since the collapse of the economic bubble, many people have taken up running to maintain the balance between their mind and body.
“Of course we all know it is good to be able to get a good sleep after exercising, but in fact, having someone root for you is a tremendous source of support for the mind and soul,” said Kin, an active instructor for city runners for over a decade.
“Never do you get so many people cheering ‘ganbare’ (go for it) for you when you are at work,” he said, in reference to the cheers and support for marathon runners.