Hakone Ekiden gave relay races new fascination


As the new year approaches, many people are looking forward to gathering with their families to eat special New Year’s dishes. Some also will be tuning in to watch the Hakone Ekiden, the two-day long-distance collegiate relay race held from Jan. 2.

The 218-km race starts in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward and ends the first day in the mountains near Ashinoko Lake in Kanagawa Prefecture. The runners on the second day return to the starting point.

The race involves 20 Kanto region universities, each fielding a 10-man team. Five runners compete on the first day and five the next, each wearing their school sash.

Surveys by Video Research Ltd., which rates TV viewership, show that more than 27 percent of viewers nationwide watched last year’s Hakone Ekiden on both days. This high rating has been sustained for more than a decade and far surpasses the ratings of other New Year’s TV programs.

Here are some facts about the popular track event, and the pros and cons of the Hakone Ekiden.

When was the first ekiden held?

The nation’s first relay race took place in April 1917 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the capital’s transfer from Kyoto to Tokyo. It covered a total of 507 km and lasted three days.

According to an essay on the history of ekiden by novelist Takehisa Fukumoto, posted on his official website, the race involved two teams of 23 men, most of them university students, selected from eastern and western Japan. The racers started from the Sanjo Ohashi bridge in Kyoto and wore the sash to the finish line at Shinobazu Pond in Tokyo’s Ueno district in Taito Ward.

To demonstrate the relay nature of the race, the runners passed their sashes to the next man, with the east team using a purple sash and the west team a red one, Fukumoto writes.

Chiyosaburo Takeda, then dean of Jingu Kogakkan University, the predecessor of Kogakkan University in Mie Prefecture, then coined a name for the race, calling it an “ekiden,” combining the characters for “station” and “pass on.”

This is said to have derived from the ekiden transportation system that connected the early central and local governments in the seventh and eight centuries. Under the ekiden system, stations were spaced at regular intervals on the main road so messengers could change horses or get food as they proceeded to their destinations.

The first Hakone Ekiden took place three years later in 1920, with four universities participating.

Who came up with the idea?

According to Tetsuhiko Kin’s book “Marason, ekiden no soboku na daigimon” (“Simple questions about marathons and ekiden”), the ekiden was the creation of Shizo Kanaguri, a marathoner who participated in the Stockholm Olympics in 1912, when Japan made its Olympic debut.

Although Kanaguri withdrew from the race, the experience led him to believe that Japan could compete in long-distance running but needed to develop more athletes.

What are the major ekiden held each year?

Ekiden have grown popular and now include both men’s and women’s races. Most of them are held by universities or corporate sports clubs in the fall and winter. The total distance covered by each race varies, as do the intervals for each runner.

The three major races for male university students are the Izumo Ekiden in Shimane Prefecture in October, the All Japan Inter-University Ekiden Championship between Atsuta and Ise shrines in November, and the Hakone Ekiden in January.

After graduation, many newly employed graduates can be seen competing in the All Japan Inter-Corporate Ekiden held in Gunma Prefecture on New Year’s Day, and in the Asahi Ekiden on Jan. 11. These are the two most competitive races for corporate track teams.

In the women’s category, the Morinomiyako Ekiden (All Japan Inter-University Women’s Ekiden Championship), takes place in Sendai in October.

Another women’s race, the All Japan University Selective Women’s Ekiden Race in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, was canceled this year because the Inter-University Athletic Union of Japan was unable to fund it after TV Tokyo withdrew its sponsorship.

Meanwhile, the All Japan Inter-Corporate Women’s Ekiden takes place Dec. 19 in Gifu Prefecture this year, but will move to Miyagi Prefecture next year.

What attracts so many people to the Hakone Ekiden?

The main allure of this ekiden is the change of runners at each stage. A runner who completes a leg faster than any other, even if his team loses, earns recognition — a significant difference from marathons.

But compared with other ekiden, the distance each athlete must run is longest in the Hakone, making it a tough race, according to sports journalist Jun Ikushima.

Many Japanese love to watch the athletes “mature” throughout the competition, he said.

“It’s really exhausting to run 20 km, but to see the young runners face that challenge tugs at people’s hearts,” he said, comparing the Hakone Ekiden’s popularity with Americans’ fascination with “March Madness,” the annual men’s basketball tournament that brings together the top collegiate teams from throughout the United States.

Does the Hakone race have an impact on young athletes?

Yes. The race got a popularity boost in 1987 when all 11 hours were televised live that year. Despite the fact that only Kanto region schools participate, the coverage helped popularize the event nationally, leading high school track hopefuls to dream about one day competing in Hakone.

According to Ikushima’s book “Ekiden ga marason wo damenishita” (roughly translated as “marathons are negatively influenced by ekiden relay races”), the Hakone broadcast also sparked a gradual improvement in high school track records over the years.

What other impacts does it have?

Some of the universities that compete in the Hakone Ekiden claim to have seen student applications surge right after the race, which takes place just before the college entrance exam season in February.

Kin, who ran the Hakone Ekiden in the 1980s, says this is because the teams that win the popular race give their universities a boost in name recognition when high school students are getting ready to apply.

In fact, schools such as Toyo University, which has won the race for the past two years, say they have seen this trend.

Do many ekiden runners make the transition to marathons afterward?

Not really. Although ekiden got their start as a way to nurture future marathoners, that is not necessarily the case today. Because young runners are often too focused on entering ekiden, many of them burn out before they can train for a full marathon, which is 42.195 km long, Ikushima says.

On the contrary, Japanese women are competitive in Olympic marathons because both the coaches and the athletes themselves put more focus on competing internationally rather than at home.

“There is a big difference between running the marathon in the Olympics and running in the Japanese ekiden,” Ikushima said.

“Although I don’t deny the ambition of young people wanting to run in Hakone, the mindsets of both the male athletes and track coaches need to change if they want to be competitive in marathons” in the future, he said.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk