Books / Reviews

Japan’s runners need a change of pace

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Special To The Japan Times

In “The Way of the Runner,” Adharanand Finn has written an entertaining account of Japan’s obsession with long-distance running (and training). However, the problem is when he veers off the running track into the land of cliche. Consider this: Finn writes that bread only comes in packets of three slices, the moon rises like a paper lantern and Japanese men have an inferiority complex about their manhood.

The Way of the Runner, by Adharanand Finn
336 pages.
Faber & Faber, Nonfiction.

I do have some sympathy for him. Japan, as Finn writes, can be “discombobulating,” especially when you are only here for six months and your ability to communicate in Japanese is (very) limited. Finn arrived in 2013, overland from England, with his wife and three children, and they settled in Kyotanabe outside Kyoto. For the next half a year he traversed Japan following ekiden (relays), meeting with trainers, coaches, corporate runners, monks, university teams, local running groups and teenagers getting up at ungodly hours to train before school — all in order to understand why long-distance running is so popular here. In his first book, “Running with the Kenyans,” Finn adopted a similar approach: to embed and understand — and to become a better, faster runner.

When Finn writes about running and the ecosystem that supports it in Japan, he’s good. Consider the conundrum of the Hakone Ekiden — a 220-km marathon relay run over two days in the New Year and given wall-to-wall TV coverage. It’s the highlight of the running calendar in Japan and for many runners the highlight of their career: and as Finn documents therein lies the problem. Why aren’t these young runners, who are setting blistering half-marathon times, going on to perform wonders at the Olympics?

Japan hasn’t won a medal in the men’s marathon since 1992. The women have fared much better winning two of the past four Olympic gold medals — but being unable to participate in the Hakone Ekiden, they don’t face the same physical toll earlier in their running careers.

Without national relay marathons, however, especially the Hakone event — a grueling race of high drama and genuine entertainment (for the viewer) — long-distance running could lose much of its attraction and its base of runners. Traditions take a long time to die in Japan, but it will be interesting to see what happens with Hakone, especially, as Finn points out, some university coaches are critical of the event.

Finn notes that Kenji Takao, a former champion runner and running coach at Ritsumeikan University, tells a conference at the university that “ekiden is destroying our athletes.” He adds that Takao is particularly critical of Hakone, saying that, “It’s too long, too hard.”

Another topic that Finn tackles is the international cultural differences with regard to training and racing. The Kenyan runners Finn encounters in Japan — all members of corporate teams — mostly run separately from their Japanese team members, and off the concrete when they can. They complain that the Japanese run too slow or steady, and too often.

Japanese runners rarely leave the paved path and nor do they seem to ever stop training. The culture of repetitive practice is ingrained in Japan, and even when trainers and coaches solicit Finn for advice — advice which they mostly already know — they are unlikely to heed it. Another common misconception as to why the Kenyans and Ethiopians dominate the medal hauls is physical size. Commentators and the public in Japan have long believed that Japanese athletes are really at a disadvantage because they are physically smaller, but research points out that the Japanese runner is almost perfectly built for long-distance running.

High-altitude training and motivation, among other things, are factors for success on the international stage for Kenyan runners — physical size is not. Though, in presenting this information, Finn segues to an anecdote about a university student who accosted him at a race meeting in Izumo with the declaration “I have small dick? You?”

Finn takes up the baton, dashing from penis size to the physical size of runners — and in doing so, shows himself attracted to stereotypes like the cliched moth to the flame. At the same relay event in which he meets an American athlete, he immediately pronounces him, “tall, fair-haired and handsome. A real American hero.”

Finn’s stay in Japan ends on a disappointing, if philosophical note: An ekiden he was eagerly anticipating — the first serious one he was going to compete in — is cancelled due to heavy snow.

Back in England, he reflects on what he had learned about running in Japan: “The truth is, more than anything, I learned what not to do. Run less on concrete, run without fear, without stress, without fixating on the watch.”

If Japanese athletes are going to win medals in the marathon in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, they might try following the Kenyans off road and be a little more adventurous and carefree.

As for Finn, he’s a dedicated and competitive runner who could well return if Japanese runners can outrun the Kenyans in the big international races: I just hope he can avoid the way of the cliche.