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The Top 10 Japanese Men of 2010

by Brett Larner
Arata Fujiwara photo by Brett Larner

This is the second of JRN's four-part year-end review. Click here to read the second part, a ranking of the top 10 Japanese women of 2010. Look for the third and fourth parts, the top 10 Japanese men and women of 2001-2010 and a look at the history and future of Japanese marathoning, early in the new year.

To be honest, the Japanese man of the year should probably be either Shota Iizuka, the Chuo University first-year whose 4x100 m anchor leg at May's Kanto Regionals was heard 'round the world and who went on to win 200 m gold at the World Jr. Track and Field Championships, or Ichiro Suzuki, whose running abilities were critical in him scoring his tenth consecutive year of 200 major league hits, but as a distance running site JRN can only give them their due before turning to the long distance runners.

Contrary to appearances, 2010 was an improvement over 2009. For the second year in a row only one man broke 2:10 in the marathon, hard to believe considering that in 2008 there were ten sub-2:10's by domestic men, a feat only Kenya and Ethiopia have ever equalled. However, while still among the weakest in history, the average of the top ten Japanese times of the year was marginally closer to the world standard despite the continued improvement worldwide relative to last year (see the forthcoming part four of JRN's review). That's good news. Half marathon performances improved over recent years, and 2010 was the best year ever for Japanese 10000 m runners, with seven men under 28 minutes, five of them under age 25.

The improvement of the under-25 set on the track was possibly the big story of the year, as unprecedented numbers of university and even high schoolers recorded sub-14 5000 m and sub-29 10000 m times. Hakone Ekiden previews have always focused on the number of sub-30 and sub-14 men a team holds, but this year Waseda University has seven men with PBs under 29 minutes and defending champion Toyo University six. The sharp end present in the U.S. may be missing, but the overall level among young Japanese men has never been higher. Combined with the current state of marathoning this means the London Olympics may well be a bust but that in five years it should be a different story altogether.

Looking at individual performances in 2010, there were a considerable number of excellent, memorable runs, too many to recap in a single article. JRN ranked Japan's top men of the year using a formula which took into account domestic ranking, time, and placing for 5000 m, 10000 m, half marathon and marathon performances. Below are the top ten men of the year along with an honorable mention who did not meet the strict numerical ranking criteria but was still one of the most noteworthy of the year.

1. Arata Fujiwara (Remo System AC) - 130 pts.

marathon: 2:09:34 - 1st (Ottawa, 5/30/10) - #1 Japanese, 2010

Other major performances:
New York City Marathon: DNF (New York, 11/7/10)
Tokyo Marathon: 2:12:34 (Tokyo, 2/28/10) - 2nd
New Year Ekiden 4th Stage (22.3 km): 1:03:26 (Maebashi, 1/1/10) - 4th

Yes, I know, it's a conflict of interest to put a runner with whom I have a business relationship as the top Japanese man of the year.

When, following his runner-up finish at the freezing hell that was the 2010 Tokyo Marathon, Arata Fujiwara took the virtually unheard-of step of resigning his corporate position to pursue a solo career as a full-time marathoner he asked me to represent him. I accepted, and we have worked together throughout 2010. Be that as it may, it doesn't change the fact that when Fujiwara outkicked Kenyan Laban Moiben and Ethiopian marathon junior world record holder Bazu Worku in the final kilometer of May's Ottawa Marathon to win in a course record 2:09:34 he became the first Japanese man in 23 years to win an overseas marathon sub-2:10. Only the fifth Japanese man to ever accomplish this, along with greats Toshihiko Seko, Takeyuki Nakayama, Hiromi Taniguchi and Taisuke Kodama. The only sub-2:10 of the year by a Japanese man. Deciding how to deal with Fujiwara on JRN in the wake of this performance, unquestionably the best of the year by a Japanese man, has been difficult, but I'm proud to say I helped make it happen.

Thanks to Ottawa, Fujiwara succeeded in securing a private sponsor, Remo System, but his follow-up at November's New York City Marathon was a high-profile failure. Fujiwara is now focused on 2011 and February's Tokyo Marathon. "I don't want to run a conservative race just to try to make the World Championships team," he says. "I want to run Tokyo like it is what matters. I want to run a risky race." Seemingly the only elite Japanese man interested in what's happening overseas and in going outside the domestic leagues to put himself up against the best, Fujiwara and the reaction he generated in the Japanese industry and federation symbolized much of what was good and bad about Japanese marathoning in 2010.

2. Tomoya Onishi (Team Asahi Kasei) - 126.8 pts.

10000 m: 27:50.72 - 5th (Nat'l Corp. T&F Champs, 9/24/10) - #1 Japanese, 2010
half marathon: 1:01:31 - 9th (World Half Mar. Champs, 10/16/10) - #1 Japanese, 2010

Other major performances:
Kyushu Isshu Ekiden Day Three 4th Stage (15.3 km): 43:55 (Kyushu, 10/31/10) - 1st, CR
Nat'l T&F Championships 5000 m: 13:40.52 (Marugame, 6/6/10) - 2nd
Nat'l T&F Championships 10000 m: 28:46.23 (Marugame, 6/4/10) - 5th
Nat'l Interpref. Ekiden 3rd Stage (8.5 km): 24:16 (Hiroshima, 1/24/10) - 1st
Asahi Ekiden 7th Stage (16.7 km): 46:48 (Kita-Kyushu, 1/11/10) - 1st

When Tomoya Onishi graduated from Hakone Ekiden champion Toyo University in 2009, JRN predicted he would become a solid pro runner with a 2:08 marathon to his name. Gritty and unafraid to tackle more talented competitors as a university runner, in 2010 he surprised us and many others by clocking the fastest 10000 m and half marathons of the year by a Japanese man, both in high-pressure championship situations. He came within a step of winning the 5000 m national title and made the top ten at the World Half Marathon while running a sizeable PB. A mentor to current Toyo star Ryuji Kashiwabara, Onishi was the most welcome breakthrough of 2010. Based on this year we're willing to revise our prediction to a 2:07 career best.

3. Masato Kihara (Team Kanebo) - 112.53 pts.

5000 m: 13:34.21 - 3rd (Stanford, 5/1/10) - #5 Japanese, 2010
10000 m: 27:52.75 - 6th (Nat'l Corp. T&F Champs, 9/24/10) - #2 Japanese, 2010

Other major performances:
East Japan Corp. Ekiden 4th Stage (9.9 km): 30:50 (Saitama, 11/3/10) - 5th
Nat'l T&F Championships 10000 m: DNF (Marugame, 6/4/10)
Karatsu 10-Miler: 47:30 (Karatsu, 2/14/10) - 6th
New Year Ekiden 1st Stage (12.3 km): 35:28 (Maebashi, 1/1/10) - 1st

A JRN favorite since his Hakone Ekiden First Stage win as a first-year, Kihara was largely invisible throughout his first year as a pro. He finally emerged with an aggressive stage win on the First Stage of the 2010 New Year Ekiden, running like Samuel Wanjiru (Kenya) at the Beijing Olympics with surges and controlled fades. A promising 5000 m PB at Stanford in May showed progress, but injuries caused Kihara to DNF at June's National T&F Championships. Missing the summer season, he returned at September's National Corporate T&F Championships with the second-fastest 10000 m time of the year by a Japanese man, 27:52.75. Coached by 3000 m, 10000 m and marathon national record holder Toshinari Takaoka, Kihara remains one of Japan's greatest hopes for the marathon.

4. Suguru Osako (Waseda Univ.) - 99 pts.

half marathon: 1:01:47 - 1st (Ageo, 11/21/10) - #2 Japanese, 2010

Other major performances:
Nat'l Univ. Ekiden Championships 2nd Stage (13.2 km): 37:55 (Nagoya, 11/7/10) - 3rd
Izumo Ekiden 3rd Stage (5.8 km): 16:56 (Izumo, 10/11/10) - 3rd
Nat'l Univ. T&F Championships 5000 m: 14:22.53 (Tokyo, 9/12/10) - 10th
World Jr. T&F Championships 10000 m: 29:40.14 (Moncton, 7/21/10) - 8th
Nat'l T&F Championships 5000 m: 14:24.71 (Marugame, 6/6/10) - 27th
Kanto Regional Univ. T&F Championships 10000 m: 28:35.75 (Tokyo, 5/16/10) - 4th
World XC Championships Jr. 8 km: 23:42 (Poland, 3/28/10) - 32nd
Chiba Int'l XC Jr. 8 km: 23:34 (Chiba, 2/14/10) - 2nd

Only a first-year, Osako is the star of what may be the best university team Japan has ever seen, the 2010-2011 Waseda squad. With PBs of 13:47.29 and 28:35.75 and turns on the national teams at this year's World XC and World Juniors to his name Osako was already the star first-year of 2010, but his 1:01:47 win at November's Ageo City Half Marathon, an Asian junior area record, the second-fastest of the year by a Japanese man and the second-fastest ever at Ageo, makes him one of the biggest names in the country. Osako is scheduled to run the First Stage at the January 2-3 Hakone Ekiden. A shot at the stage record held by Yuki Sato (Team Nissin Shokuhin) may be in the cards.

5. Tomoyuki Sato (Team Asahi Kasei) - 97.2 pts.

marathon: 2:10:07 - 2nd (Biwako, 3/7/10) - #2 Japanese, 2010

Other major results:
Asian Games marathon: 2:18:24 (Guangzhou, 11/27/10) - 7th
Kyushu Isshu Ekiden Day Three 6th Stage (20.2 km): 1:01:21 (Kyushu, 10/31/10) - 1st
Kyushu Isshu Ekiden Day One 5th Stage (11.0 km): 32:34 (Kyushu, 10/29/10) - 1st

A past member of Japan's World Championships marathon team and reliable 2:09 man, Sato began 2010 recovering from a disastrous 2009 Fukuoka International Marathon. He recovered sufficiently to take 2nd in March's Biwako Mainichi Marathon in a passive but fast-closing 2:10:07 performance. It was the second-best of the year by a Japanese man and good enough to earn him the lead spot on the Asian Games marathon squad. Largely absent throughout the year, he had several stage best runs in the October/November Kyushu Isshu Ekiden before running poorly in the Asian Games.

6. Kensuke Takezawa (Team S&B) - 86.625 pts.

5000 m: 13:33.61 - 4th (Kumamoto, 4/10/10) - #4 Japanese, 2010
10000 m: 27:55.02 - 9th (Stanford, 5/1/10) - #4 Japanese, 2010

Other major results:
Asian Games 5000 m: 13:54.11 (Guangzhou, 11/21/10) - 6th, 2nd Asian
Meeting voor Mon 3000 m: DNF (Leuven, 8/14/10)
Nat'l T&F Championships 5000 m: 13:41.73 (Marugame, 6/6/10) - 3rd
Nat'l T&F Championships 10000 m: 28:43.08 (Marugame, 6/4/10) - 1st
Himejijo 10-Miler: 47:33 (Himeji, 2/11/10) - 1st
Nat'l Interpref. Ekiden 7th Stage (13.0 km): 37:33 (Hiroshima, 1/24/10) - 2nd

The phenomenally talented but injury prone Takezawa, who ran 13:19.00 and 27:45.59 at age 20, started the year off with a memorable duel against half marathon national record holder Atsushi Sato (Team Chugoku Denryoku) on the anchor leg of the National Interprefectural Ekiden, outkicking Sato in the last km but losing on stage time to rival Yuki Sato (Team Nissin Shokuhin). A win at February's Himejijo 10-Miler and several good track performances led into his 10000 m national title in June, but an injury in Europe later in the summer knocked Takezawa out of competition for months. At November's Asian Games he was only 6th in the 5000 m, kept out of the medals by four Africans, and was a DNS in the 10000 m. Wrapping up grad school in March he will hopefully be turning his full attention back to running in 2011. Japan needs him.

7. Tsuyoshi Ugachi (Team Konica Minolta) - 81 pts.

5000 m: 13:36.26 - 1st (Kitami, 7/14/10) - #8 Japanese, 2010
10000 m: 28:01.54 - 3rd (Fukagawa, 6/17/10) - #8 Japanese, 2010
half marathon: 1:01:49 - 12th (World Half Mar. Champs, 10/16/10) - #3 Japanese, 2010

Other major performances:
Int'l Chiba Ekiden 5th Stage (10 km): 28:51 (Chiba, 11/23/10) - 1st
East Japan Corp. Ekiden 2nd Stage (15.3 km): 44:49 (Saitama, 11/3/10) - 1st
Nat'l T&F Championships 10000 m: 28:48.37 (Marugame, 6/4/10) - 8th
Kumanichi 30 km Road Race: 1:30:14 (Kumamoto, 2/28/10) - 3rd
Nat'l Interpref. Ekiden 7th Stage (13.0 km): 38:17 (Hiroshima, 1/24/10) - 8th
Hakone Ekiden 2nd Stage (23.2 km): 1:08:38 (Yokohama, 1/2/10) - 3rd

One of the trio of 2010 Komazawa University grads to dominate the corporate rookie ranks, Ugachi was the all-around best Japanese man of the year, making the top ten for 5000 m and 10000 m and ranked 3rd for the year with a 1:01:49 PB at October's World Half Marathon championships. Aggressive and fearless on the roads, he also had outstanding runs at the International Chiba Ekiden and Kumanichi 30 km. Whether his flailing, snarling style will translate to the marathon remains to be seen, but Ugachi is one of the best hopes in the under-25 set.

8. Yuichiro Ueno (Team S&B) - 78 pts.

5000 m: 13:24.75 - 5th (Fukuroi, 5/3/10) - #1 Japanese, 2010

Other major results:
Int'l Chiba Ekiden 1st Stage (5 km): 13:23 (Chiba, 11/23/10) - 1st
Takashimadaira 20 km Road Race: 1:01:48 (Tokyo, 10/25/10) - 23rd
Meeting voor Mon 1500 m: 3:39.52 (Leuven, 8/14/10) - 5th
Nat'l T&F Championships 5000 m: 13:56.22 (Marugame, 6/6/10) - 11th
Nat'l T&F Championships 1500 m: 3:46.15 (Marugame, 6/5/10) - 3rd

Ueno, the 2009 double 1500 m and 5000 m national champion, had a checkered 2010. He started the season off with the fastest 5000 m of the year by a Japanese man, then missed defending either title at June's Nationals. He returned with a near-national record in the 1500 m in Europe in August, then lost time to injury. Coming back again, strangely, with a 20 km road race in October, he then won the competitive 5 km First Stage in November's International Chiba Ekiden, barely missing the stage record. He vowed afterwards to get the record in 2011. A shot at the 1500 m national record is surely in the works as well.

9. Yusuke Takabayashi (Team Toyota) - 70.125 pts.

10000 m: 27:56.46 - 8th (Fukuroi, 10/16/10) - #6 Japanese, 2010
half marathon: 1:01:54 - 5th (Marugame, 2/7/10) - #5 Japanese, 2010

Other major results:
Chubu Jitsugyodan Ekiden 4th Stage (13.9 km): 45:17 (Gero, 11/14/10) - 1st
Nat'l Corp. T&F Championships 5000 m: 13:48.26 (Niigata, 9/26/10) - 2nd
Nat'l Interpref. Ekiden 7th Stage (13.0 km): 38:09 (Hiroshima, 1/24/10 - 4th
Hakone Ekiden 9th Stage (23.2 km): 1:10:19 (Yokohama, 1/3/10) - 1st

Along with Ugachi and Takuya Fukatsu, Takabayashi was one of three 2010 Komazawa University graduates to make waves on the jitsugyodan circuit in his first year as a pro. Takabayashi ended his university career with big runs at the Hakone and National Interprefectural ekidens and a sub-62 clocking for 5th overall at February's Kagawa Marugame Half Marathon. He ran well on the fall ekiden and track tune-up circuit, nearly winning the National Corporate T&F Championships 5000 m and becoming one of seven Japanese men to break 28 minutes for 10000 m in the year.

10. Yukihiro Kitaoka (Team NTN) - 67.2 pts.

marathon: 2:10:51 - 4th (Biwako, 3/7/10) - #3 Japanese, 2010

Other major results:
Asian Games marathon: 2:12:46 (Guangzhou, 11/27/10) - 2nd

One of the top-ranked members of Japan's 2009 World Half Marathon team, Kitaoka only ran two major races in 2010. His marathon debut in the cold and rainy Biwako Mainichi Marathon was solid if unspectacular and netted him both the third-fastest time of the year by a Japanese man, 2:10:51, and one of the two spots on the Asian Games marathon squad. At the Asian Games he ran consistenly in 3rd before overtaking defending gold medalist Mubarak Hussein Shami (Kenya/Qatar) in the final 200 m for silver. Barring some spectacular performances at next year's Beppu-Oita, Tokyo and Biwako marathons Kitaoka will likely be on the 2011 World Championships team thanks to his medal.

Honorable mention: Shinji Nakadai (Harriers AC)

Major performances:
100 km World Championships: 6:43:44 (Gibraltar, 11/7/10) - 1st

Ultras may, in some circles, not get the respect other distances do, but Japan earned a bona fide World Champion fair and square when Nakadai won November's 100 km World Championships in Gibraltar. Nakadai ran the race at a steady speed, ignoring the fast pace set by the early leaders and gradually moving up until, to his own surprise, he took over the lead roughly 3/4 of the way in. "I was looking for a toilet," he told JRN, "when I passed the American [Michael Wardian] and thought, 'Whoa! Am I in the lead?!' I didn't want to stop for a toilet when I was leading, so the hardest part of the race was holding it until I finished." Nakadai's time was the fourth-fastest of the year worldwide.

(c) 2010 Brett Larner
all rights reserved
photo (c) and (p) 2010 Brett Larner
all rights reserved


Anonymous said…
Well I've been reading this blog for over a year now, and for what it's worth, I didn't mind reading all the articles on Arata Fujiwara. In fact, I found them interesting hope you will continue to write them.

It's notoriously difficult to find out information about Japanese elites (i'm not from Japan) and you're doing a fine job. It doesn't really matter to me personally if the news or praise concerns an athlete you represent. It's refreshing to have news at all.

As for choosing Fujiwara as the first in the rankings, well the results speak for themselves, don't they ;)
TokyoRacer said…
Great job on these rankings, Brett. It must have been a lot of work. They are really interesting and it will be fun to follow the top ten men and women next year.

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