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Shoe guru Hitoshi Mimura wants to help put Japan's marathon runners back on right track

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Renowned footwear designer Hitoshi Mimura has become a global adviser for American sports apparel brand New Balance.

But what he really wants to do is help revive the competitiveness of Japanese marathon runners with his craftsmanship skills.

Marathon used to be Japan’s forte in track and field, with the country’s athletes recording several notable achievements on the global stage, including at the Olympics.

But those days are becoming more like ancient history, with Japanese runners struggling to keep pace with African athletes.

A former runner himself, Mimura is frustrated about the situation. But he does not believe there is a silver bullet.

“I think that Japanese runners have to increase the volume of practice they do in order to compete on a par against the rest of the world,” Mimura said at a Tokyo news conference on Wednesday to announce the partnership with New Balance.

The 69-year-old insisted that Japanese marathoners would have to increase their efforts in training, and added that when Japan was one of the top countries in the sport, runners would “work way harder.” He cited the successful examples of two-time Boston Marathon winner Toshihiko Seko, 1991 world championships gold medalist Hiromi Taniguchi, and women’s marathon gold medalists Naoko Takahashi and Mizuki Noguchi, who accomplished the feats at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and 2004 Athens Olympics, respectively.

“They don’t practice as much now,” said Mimura, who has also helped non-track and field athletes to establish elite status with his shoes, such as baseball great Ichiro Suzuki, Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks star Seiichi Uchikawa and national soccer team player Shinji Kagawa.

But Mimura has an idea why current marathon runners cannot train as hard today: they get injured more easily (implying that top runners in the past had bodies that could handle a heavier workload).

So Mimura is prioritizing his own footwear for professional-level athletes, making shoes that reduce the risk of injury and fatigue. Speed is not necessarily as important for them, because that comes when athletes are able to practice more.

“For athletes, injuries are the archenemy,” said Mimura, who has his own workshop, called M.Lab, in Hyogo Prefecture since 2010.

“What do you have to do to not get injured? Basically, you have to know where you have weaknesses on your body. You have to improve your weaknesses. Otherwise, you can’t practice. Unless you do so, you are going to keep getting injured.”

Mimura believes that better footwear can be an effective remedy for runners who have injury-related issues.

“There are things that can only be improved with shoes,” the Hyogo Prefecture native stated. “There are injuries that can be prevented with shoes.”

New Balance feels fortunate to have secured the services of Mimura, who was named a “contemporary master craftsman” by the Ministry of Health and Labour and Welfare in 2004 and awarded the Medal with Yellow Ribbon, given to individuals who, through their diligence and perseverance while engaging in their professional activities, became public role models, by the government in 2006.

The company has hammered out a plan that it hopes will transform it into “the world’s best running brand.”

Tom Carleo, New Balance’s vice president of its “Global Running” division, was thrilled to announce the joint initiative with Mimura, saying, “To be the best running brand, we need to work with people with the wisdom, the experience and the craftsmanship Mimura-san brings to our team.”

Mimura originally worked for Asics Corp. and started M.Lab after he left the company due to compulsory retirement. He was an adviser for Adidas Japan K.K. for several years before he ended the relationship last spring.

Mimura said he received offers from other sporting brands in the past year, but decided to work with New Balance because the two sides were “facing the same direction” in their footwear-making philosophy.

Even in the technology-driven 21st century, New Balance values Mimura’s master craftsmanship.

“I’ve described this as sort of the intersection of craftsmanship and innovation,” Carleo said, referring to Mimura’s skills. “There’s still a human foot, average foot. We have this difference. And understanding that through computers or other technologies, I don’t believe we’ll address the needs of every foot. Still, we need people that can understand how the foot is shaped, but also how the foot is used depending on your body type and depending on your weaknesses and strengths. So the craftsmanship and the knowledge he brings is very critical, too.”

Mimura suggested that runners have to identify their foot types on their own, so that they know what sort of shoes they need to maximize their abilities.

“It’s often said that your legs are your second heart and shoes support them,” Mimura said. “I believe whether an athlete is wearing good shoes or not determines their performance.”

Carleo hinted that the company might have him work on footwear for other sports in the future, but for the foreseeable future, he would focus on designing footwear for long-distance running.

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