by Brett Larner
This weekend is the first of two for the biggest meet in Japanese university athletics, the Kanto Regional University Track and Field Championships. Thanks to the presence of the legendary Hakone Ekiden the Kanto region or KGRR is the center of Japanese university men’s distance running, and its regional championships are both deeper and higher-quality than the National meet where a limited number of KGRR schools compete with universally weaker schools from other parts of the country.
With a 27:38.31 by 21-year-old Waseda University senior Suguru Osako last month at the Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational, sub-28 runs from identical twin Toyo University seniors Keita and Yuta Shitara, both 21, at last week’s Golden Games in Nobeoka and much more there has been a rush of activity by Japan’s 18-22 set recently. It’s time for an update of JRN’s ongoing comparison of the best of this group with their counterparts in the United States’ NCAA, a comparison to which additions and factual corrections are always welcome. I remain deeply indebted to Flotrack’s Mitch Kastoff for his tireless promotion of my four years of work on this topic.
Click to enlarge or open in a new window for full-sized version. From the data in this table, which uses equivalent performances determined using the McMillan calculator for the four major long distances, the relative strengths of the U.S. and Japanese athletes in this age group are fairly clear. On the American side, NCAA athletes generally remain focused on long-term development over distances 5000 m and shorter through their college careers, leading to both greater quality and greater quantity of athletes at those distances as they mature. Beginning at age 20, American athletes also begin to turn in equivalent quality 10000 m performances, the number of which roughly doubles within each single-year age group. The half marathon and marathon distances are not part of the vocabulary of American athletes in this age range.
Among Japanese athletes in the same age group, the majority of which are KGRR collegiates, there is little emphasis on distances 5000 m and shorter, and as a result, of the four distances compared the 5000 m sees the fewest quality performances. The 10000 m and half marathon, the same sorts of distances athletes face in the fall and winter ekiden season, are the main focus from the go, and the quantity and quality for both increase with age. At age 21 the marathon also enters the repertoire at a world-class level.
Comparing the two sets, overall Japan produces much larger numbers of athletes at the ages and performance levels in question than the U.S. Although the U.S. consistently produces larger numbers of high-level 5000 m runners, there is no significant edge in quality at that distance until age 22. Over 10000 m, the very top American athletes have a slight and consistent edge in quality from age 20 on, countered by a greater quantity of high-level Japanese athletes. Luke Puskedra and Todd Williams’ sub-62 half marathons compare favorably with the best Japanese men in this age group and show that the potential would be there for NCAA athletes to excel at this distance if their system had that orientation. Similarly, the 5000 m performances of Kensuke Takezawa and Yuki Sato at age 19 and 20, a full 5 seconds faster than the likes of future sub-13 American Dathan Ritzenhein, suggest that KGRR runners and other Japanese men would have the potential to develop into equally capable track runners if that were a priority in their system.
What’s new and exciting is the rate of change in the KGRR over the last three to four years. Fifteen men, colored green on the table above, responsible for roughly half of the age 19 and 20 half marathon performances and age 20 and 21 10000 m performances to make the Japanese lists, are still under age 23 and setting new marks. Eleven are from the KGRR, with the remaining four from the corporate leagues and none from other university regions. Eight of them have added nine performances to the list this year alone. When Osako, the Shitara twins, Chihiro Miyawaki and others turn 22 the numbers and lists for that age are bound to be rewritten the same way the age 19, 20 and 21 lists have been over the last few years. In the NCAA, only three athletes under 23, the superb Chris Derrick along with wunderkind German Fernandez and recent addition Eric Jenkins, are performing at this level, with only Derrick and Jenkins making contributions so far this year. Even eliminating the half marathon, the KGRR maintains an advantage. It is safe to say that at this point in history the rate of progress is far greater in the KGRR than in the NCAA and that despite its achievements over shorter distances, when it comes to men’s long distance it’s clear the that the NCAA is rapidly taking a back seat as the world’s leading collegiate system.
A simple counter-argument is that the NCAA is more focused on long-term development while the KGRR approach may lead to early burnout, and to be sure whether this early move to longer distances is going to pay off in the future is the million-dollar question. But look at the simultaneous re-development of Japanese men’s marathoning over the last three years, extrapolate these young athletes’ performances forward and you can see the signs of critical things that Americans have had in abundance and Japan has been missing in recent years: positivity and momentum. It certainly looks like we’re on the cusp of an exciting era of Japanese men’s distance running. What’s still missing is the sharp edge, the peak athletes like Ritzenhein, Galen Rupp, Chris Solinsky and hopefully Derrick who can go on to a higher level of individual accomplishment, but the question of whether a system that produces a small number of super-elite within a wider poverty is necessarily healthier than one producing an overall high level is something that touches on social-economic issues and cultural values. Either way, athletes like Osako are working on it. He just beat Ritzenhein's best time at the same age. Rio and beyond should be interesting.
Most of these top-level under-23 Japanese men will be racing at the Kanto Regionals meet, with the 1500 m and 10000 m scheduled for this weekend and the 5000 m and half marathon next week. Along with a host of strong Japan-based Africans, the 1500 m includes Osako and Ikuto Yufu of 2012 National University Ekiden champion Komazawa University, while the 10000 m features Yufu's teammate Shinobu Kubota, 2012 National University Half Marathon champion Toshikatsu Ebina (Teikyo Univ.), both Shitara twins, Shuho Dairokuno (Meiji Univ.) and Shuhei Yamamoto (Waseda Univ.).
The half marathon doesn't have any top-level men on the entry list, but notable names include two-time New York City Half Marathon runner Kento Otsu (Toyo Univ.) and Yuki Kawauchi's younger brother Koki Kawauchi (Takasaki Keizai Univ.). The 5000 m looks like the event of the meet, with Dairokuno, Osako, the Shitara twins, Yamamoto and Yufu all returning for more up against a fresh Kenta Murayama (Komazawa Univ.).
Sprints are also looking good, with London Olympian men Shota Iizuka (Chuo Univ.) and Ryota Yamagata (Keio Univ.) facing off over 100 m, while their Olympic teammate Genki Dean (Waseda Univ.) will be the main draw on the field in the men's javelin. JRN will be covering the meet in detail over the next two weekends. Stay tuned.
(c) 2013 Brett Larner
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