Marathon Japan

by David Cozy

Special To The Japan Times

Thomas R.H. Havens warns us early in “Marathon Japan” that “the emphasis is on sports history, not the anthropology of running communities or body culture.” What this means is that, for the most part, in place of analysis and interpretation we get facts, and those who aren’t absolutely besotted with Japanese running may feel their eyelids grow heavy as they move through the many pages detailing the performances of Japanese athletes at various international and domestic races. Eyes will snap open again, though, at some of the things that emerge from this pile of data.

Marathon Japan, by Thomas R. H. Havens
227 pages.
University of Hawaii Press, Nonfiction.

First, those who haven’t kept up with the history of Japanese marathon running may not know what a force Japan has been at that distance. For example, between 1961 and 1970, 52 of the 100 fastest marathon times were by Japanese, and Japanese runners were similarly strong before World War II and also from 1977 to 1988. In the 1990s and beyond, of course, the achievements of African runners largely eclipsed those of runners from every other part of the world.

Second, running has become remarkably popular among amateurs and as a spectator sport. Consider, for example, that 302,000 runners applied to run in the 2014 Tokyo Marathon and that the live broadcast of the two-day Hakone Ekiden, a long-distance relay race, remains the most popular New Years’ show, typically garnering about 30 percent of the viewing audience.

Facts such as these are fascinating. One hopes other scholars — or perhaps Havens himself — will use this research in work that aims less to simply record what happened than to understand what it all means.