Culture | Japan Pulse

Up and running in Japan

by Jason Jenkins

Contributing Writer

A few weeks ago, a neighbor asked me and a dozen other friends and acquaintances to help him get a spot at the Tokyo Marathon. Participants are selected by lottery, he explained, and by drawing numbers for him we could ostensibly increase his chances of pounding the pavement next March.

He needs all the help he can get: With Japan’s “running boom” arguably at its peak, races around the country are filling up faster than ever. The 2009 Tokyo Marathon saw 226,378 applicants competing for 30,000 spots: a 68% increase from the year before, and this year’s Peace Marathon in Hiroshima had around 2,000 more participants than 2008. What may be most significant about these numbers is that a majority of these new applicants are first-timers and women. Japanese running clubs are also seeing their numbers swell with new runners, especially those clubs with membership fees that offer professional coaching.

The market has been following closely. Now Nike and Asics have flagship stores in the trendy Harajuku district, and one of Asics’ star designers has broken off to start his own line. According to Brett Larner of Japan Running News, all the major running shoe makers are opening specialty shops and starting their own running clubs. “Upper management-level people from two major brands told me that Japan is the only place in the world where the running market has continued to grow during the recession,” he says, adding that Runners Magazine just moved into new offices last month, due in part to the spike in interest. What’s more,  he explains: “Non-running lifestyle and fashion magazines now regularly feature articles on running geared towards young, fashionable, independent women, the largest demographic within the current Japanese running boom.”

Why now? Why Japan? Some press has cited a number of “talento” celebrities who run for shining a spotlight on the sport, but most people agree that the explosion of interest began with the Tokyo Marathon’s introduction in 2007. “It had a huge impact,” says Paul Walsh of gethiroshima.com, who has been running in Japan since 1991. “Although there were lots marathon races around the country, many of them had cut off times totally unattainable for the average runner,” he says. “I watched officials shut and lock the gates to the stadium where the race finished at 3 hours on the dot – a time which most runners can only dream of. My wife gave up running longer distances in Japan after not receiving an official time after running for 2 hours in freezing rain — the cut off time was 1:55.”

Times have changed. For example, Walsh mentions this year’s Ehime Marathon in Matsuyama. Entries have increased to 5,000, and the cutoff time has been extended from 4 to 6 hours. It shouldn’t be difficult for local governments to see economic potential in 5,000 runners descending for a weekend. Matsuyama, at least, seems to understand this. “I would prefer the old noon start time,” says Walsh, “but to take account of the more generous time limit — and to ‘encourage’ entrants to stay overnight and contribute to the tourist economy — the race now starts at 9 a.m.”

Popularity has its price, however. In fact, some running spots may be getting too popular for their own good. The path around the Imperial Palace is centrally located, offers nice views and is one of the only spots in the city where you can run 5 km without having to stop at a dozen crosswalks. Numbers are swelling at peak times like the weekday lunch hour, which can be a nuisance – especially for non-runners. If it continues at the present pace, some believe it could go from annoying to hazardous.

Another problem are old-school runners feeling marginalized.  “Experienced, serious amateur-level runners who have long been the backbone of the Japanese market are frequently getting shut out of races they have done year after year,” explains Larner. “Now they have to scramble to beat the waves of new beginners to apply for races up to six months in advance, or face the likelihood of missing out.”

Some runners have begun to start their own races. Philip Ryan is a member of the Nanban Rengo running club. Partly in response to the increased demand,  Ryan some other club members threw their own half-marathon last month. With only a few weeks planning, over 50 people signed up. “In hindsight, we could have had hundreds participate pretty easily,” says Ryan, “but we more or less limited entry to club members only, as we didn’t organize it as an official race (with police and firemen and officials etc.).”

Until recently, my own experience with Japan’s running boom went no further than befuddlement at the amount of air time races get on Japanese television (I’m guessing it’s like golf: you find it entertaining only if you do it yourself), but since my neighbor’s request for help I’ve started to see running indicators everywhere. Municipal governments should really find some clever ways to exploit this: fatten their coffers while basking in good PR for promoting health and fitness?  That’s something any politician could run with.