Ekiden is Japan’s homegrown long-distance road-relay event. Its popularity peak comes at the start of
every year with the grueling two-day Hakone Ekiden — but some long to see it one day gracing the
Olympics, too.

In a few days, a new year will be upon us. For many people, that change will have an almost spiritual significance, as it signals a time to take a break from the regular daily round, reflect on the year gone by, and conceive a grand design for the one ahead.

On a less lofty plane, the New Year’s holidays may simply give us the green light to gorge on seasonal osechi meals and turn into a complete couch potato, mindlessly flipping through TV channels catching any number of those “special” New Year’s programs.

If you take the second approach to January’s dawning, among the TV programs you’ll likely come across in Japan is the iconic two-day, long-distance road relay race staged annually on Jan. 2 and 3.

The Hakone Ekiden, as this epic 217.8 km event is known, sees college teams of male runners compete in a race that on the first day takes them all the way from central Tokyo to Hakone, high up in the Mount Fuji foothills of Kanagawa Prefecture. Then, on the second day, they run all the way back down again.

It’s a spectacle that, thanks to superb, continuous live TV coverage, is as much a part of New Year’s in Japan as the Vienna Boys’ Choir concert in Europe or American college football’s Rose Bowl game.

Sponsored by the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper group and its affiliated TV station Nippon Television Network, the dramas that unfold pace by pace over those two days consistently enjoy viewer ratings that top 25 percent.

While the 10-stage Hakone race dwarfs others in the distance covered and its popularity, it is only one of many ekiden nationwide, whose distances and competitors’ makeup vary from municipal and school teams to ones representing corporations or countries. It’s uncertain exactly how many there are each year, but at least a dozen are broadcast on national TV between November and February.

But what’s so fascinating about ekiden?

Akira Kazama, director of competitions and management at the Japan Association of Athletics Federation, says the long-distance relay race appeals to Japanese people’s penchant for teamwork.

“It’s a team sport, based on the concept of handing a tasuki (cord) over from one to another,” Kazama said. “It strikes a chord with the Japanese mentality of everyone working as a team to accomplish a goal.

“It’s a prime example of how you as a group can accomplish some things that you as individuals cannot, just like in corporations.”

Akemi Masuda, a former Olympic marathon runner turned sports journalist, on the other hand, believes the key to the attraction of ekiden is its unpredictability.

“You cannot forecast the winning team by adding up each runner’s personal-best times,” Masuda said. “Perhaps the mission of passing tasuki cords down to the next runner brings out more power from some runners. This ‘passing down’ act also seems to touch many TV viewers, as they can reflect on their own acts of passing things down to other people, from the senior to the younger or from bosses to subordinates.”

The Hakone race especially speaks to the Japanese psyche, experts say, as it takes place along a section of the Tokaido, one of the oldest roads connecting eastern and western parts of Japan — Tokyo and Kyoto — with the iconic, snow-capped Mount Fuji soaring in the background.

“The Hakone ekiden matches the mood of New Year’s,” said Jun Ikushima, a sports journalist who has written extensively about ekiden, including in his book “Kantoku to Daigaku Ekiden (Managers and Collegiate Ekiden),” published this month. “The Tokaido, which every Japanese knows, Mount Fuji and Hakone . . . these quintessential components, coupled with earnest performances by students, have turned it into a great New Year’s TV feature.”

Ekiden, a word comprising eki (station) and den (passing down), originally referred to the system, developed in the Edo Period (1603-1867), of arranging relays of horses to carry important messages between points on major roads; such relay points were called stations, around which inns and shops prospered. Ekiden as an athletic event began in 1917, advocated by Zenmaro Toki, then director of the social news department at the Yomiuri Shimbun.

That first race spanned three days, 516 km and 23 stages between Kyoto and Ueno, Tokyo. In 1920, it evolved into what is currently known as the Hakone Ekiden, which, except for several years during and right after World War II, has been held annually since.

Another key player in the establishment of ekiden was Shiso Kanakuri (also known as Shizo Kanaguri), who, after participating in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics as a marathon runner, became convinced that ekiden would help improve the athletic abilities of Japanese runners, according to a 2004 video documentary on the Hakone Ekiden.

Now, the Yomiuri Shimbun and the Inter-University Athletic Union of Kanto, the student runners’ association in the Kanto region, cosponsor the event.

What began as a low-profile training challenge during winter, though, turned into household entertainment by the late 1980s. This was made possible by advances in broadcasting technologies, allowing TV networks to deliver numerous dramas that happen to the elite student runners (and potential Olympic hopefuls) every step of the way as they brave winds from the Pacific Ocean, often sleet or snow or rain, and gasp for breath during the steep uphill run to the hot-spring resort (and former station on the Tokaido) of Hakone, strive to keep their balance while hurtling back down toward Tokyo and finally, exhausted, raise their fists high at the finish line.

In fact, for its growing legion of fans, watching ekiden on TV gives a far better view of it than actually going to see it themselves. TV broadcasts also come with colorful analyses, not only of runners’ performances, but also of their personal backgrounds.

In the runup to the Chiba International Ekiden, held in late November, Masuda said she interviewed some 100 runners — a lot more than she normally does for a marathon race, because ekiden features far more competitors and its reporting is necessarily fast-paced.

During the race’s TV broadcast, several prominent former athletes were featured with Masuda as commentators — including Toshihiko Seko, another marathon pioneer, and the recently retired 2000 Sydney Olympics marathon gold-medalist Naoko Takahashi. They rushed to comment as Yusei Nakao, the first runner of the Japan national team, neared the end of his 5 km stage and reached for his tasuki to hand to the next runner:
News anchor: “Oops! He slipped again! He slipped again!”
Seko: “Yeah, the ground is slippery.”
Anchor: “I hope he hasn’t sprained his ankle.”
Seko: “He’s trying so hard.”
Anchor: “Yes. Isn’t he, Q-chan (Takahashi’s nickname)? You must understand how he feels now, the strong desire to give his tasuki to the next runner.”
Takahashi: “This is the first Chiba International Ekiden race for him. I can feel his strong sense of responsibility, being a member of the Japan team.”
Anchor: “That’s right. Now a U.K. runner is trying to overtake him from behind. Ethiopia is opening up its lead! And from behind it’s Yusei Nakao again, trying his best to catch up! His father is now a professor at Chukyo University. His father, Takayuki Nakao, was the first Japanese to break the 2 hr. 20 min. threshold in marathon.”
Masuda: “The runner got his name Yusei (featuring two kanji characters that mean ‘courage’ and ‘live’) because his mother bravely gave birth to him at the age of 45 . . . ”

As ekiden’s popularity has skyrocketed, though, runners now face greater pressures than ever to perform. Three out of 20 teams dropped out during the Hakone Ekiden of 2008, the most in the race’s history. Runners in these teams either injured themselves or suffered from dehydration. Experts point to excessive pressures as a potential cause.

When a Juntendo University runner withdrew from the race during the monstrous 5th leg, which covers an uphill, 23.4 km course that snakes through the Hakone mountain to its summit, he nearly passed out. He broke down on his knees and stood back up feebly several times, before he was finally stopped by his manager.

Teammates wept after the race, saying that it was their fault, and that, because they were not strong enough, they had relied on him too much.

Such tales of self-sacrifice and team bonding abound.

Nowadays, though, some experts, including Ikushima, worry that the ekiden boom has become so big that, for most elite runners, running in the Hakone event — rather than aiming for the Olympics — has become their ultimate life goal.

Team managers, too, are under increasing pressure from university administrators to make a win at Hakone their priority, because at a time of sagging college enrollments, it is a perfect opportunity to boost their brand image, Ikushima says.

Also, contrary to the original intention for the Hakone event, the race is not contributing to preparing runners for other races, as each stage is roughly 20 km — too far for the longest track race of 10,000 meters, and too short for the full 42.195 km marathon.

Consequently, Ikushima — in his ominously titled 2005 book “Ekiden Ga Marason wo Dame ni Shita (Ekiden Ruined Marathon)” — blames the Hakone spotlight for recent lackluster performances from Japan’s long-distance male athletes on the world stage.

So, if Japan loves ekiden so much, why hasn’t it pushed this homegrown competition as an Olympic sport?

JAAF’s Kazama, who was involved in organizing this November’s Chiba International Ekiden, says that event was part of the organization’s efforts to promote ekiden internationally. Journalist Masuda is also hopeful that ekiden will become an Olympic event.

“It has a chance, and I hope it will be accepted,” said Masuda. “Ekiden teaches us important values, such as teamwork and passing down traditions.

“And if ekiden was introduced in the Olympics as a mixed event (with teams comprising both men and women), it would be even more unique — and likely to get popular.”