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In Response to 'The Week That Was: The Japanese Still Suck at the 1500. They Should Be Ashamed.'

by Brett Larner

Earlier this week I posted an evaluation of marathoner Yuki Kawauchi's 2013 season which included the observation that if Kawauchi, a self-coached runner who works full-time in a high school administration office, is capable by himself of producing a better record for the year than all Americans combined then it would suggest that there may be problems with the U.S. marathon system given strong American performances all the way up the half marathon.  In their Week That Was roundup, American site Letsrun.com dismissed this as "harsh," and rather than addressing it, chose to publish an editorial titled "The Japanese Still Suck at the 1500 m" which included the statement:

How can it be that an entire country as advanced and developed as Japan, a country capable of producing seven sub 2:10 performers (including 4 sub 2:09) in 2013, can only produce a 1500 best time of 3:42.79 for the whole country? They should be ashamed.

Putting aside for a moment both the fact that this is a sidestep of the original issue and their tone, Letsrun discussed how eighty Americans are ranked above the best Japanese athlete this year at 1500 m and how this shows that there are probably genetic and physiological shortcomings in Japanese athletes, stating, "The Japanese runners also likely have more slow-twitch fibers which...makes them horrible at the 1500 m."  Japan's world-class sprinting community would probably have a few words to say about that, but in their rush to claim race as the answer Letsrun ignores the very simple reason for the weakness of current Japanese middle distance running.

It doesn't exist.

There is virtually no serious middle distance running in Japan.  Nobody cares about it.  No history, no prestige, no infrastructure, no kids lining up to become milers.  If you are fast enough, you become a sprinter.  If you have stamina, you become a long distance runner so that in university you can achieve the twin dreams of running in Japan's most prestigious sports event, the Hakone Ekiden, where the focus is on distances around the half marathon, and of becoming one of the hallowed few, an Olympic marathoner.  That's the way the system has worked for almost 100 years.  Even if you wanted to be a middle distance specialist in most situations you are forced to focus on longer distances.  With a very few exceptions at the corporate level the ones who become middle distance runners are the ones who aren't good enough to run longer distances, while the best middle distance times are often run by long distance athletes sharpening their speed.

For example, the two fastest current Japanese collegiate 1500 m runners, Ikuto Yufu (3:42.37, Komazawa Univ.) and Suguru Osako (3:42.68, Waseda Univ.), are long distance specialists with 10000 m and half marathon bests of 28:02.46/1:02:46 and 27:38.31/1:01:47 who ran those 1500 m times in off-season meets during summer mileage training.  Their 1500 m times are not bad at all by NCAA standards judging from this year's class, and if Yufu and Osako were to focus specifically on middle distance with U.S.-style training it seems reasonable to think they could have the potential to be even faster.  We'll have a chance to see what happens in that regard with Osako, at least, as he spends more time with the Nike Oregon Project post-graduation.  Especially at the collegiate level there's an increasing awareness of the need to work on basic speed and so you see greater numbers of people running more 1500 m races these days, but at the present time middle distance as it is in the U.S. is still virtually non-existent in Japan.  Overall, Japanese depth and quality at all longer distances from 5000 m up certainly suggests that if there were any reason for them to specifically focus on 1500 m the numbers Letsrun quotes would look quite different.

So, it's very easy to say that you have an 80 to 1 advantage when the other side doesn't play the same sport, but it's not much different from asking, "If the All-Blacks are so good then why is the NFL full of Americans and not Kiwis?" or "If cricket is so great then where are all the South Africans and Indians in MLB?"  The answer to both of which is pretty simple to understand without resorting to speculation about physiological differences between races.

None of which really has much to do the original question of why the U.S. has trouble producing quality marathoners unless Letsrun's intent, which doesn't seem to be the case, is to suggest that the American focus on middle distance is related to its athletes' trouble transitioning to longer distance later.  The false equivalency with Japanese middle distance the editorial staff at Letsrun.com has raised, Japanese marathoners are to American marathoners as American middle distance runners are to Japanese middle distance runners, suggests the corollary that no one runs the marathon in the U.S., that there is no history, prestige or infrastructure in American marathoning, which of course nobody could seriously claim is the case.  The U.S. has a great history of marathoning, and major U.S. races like New York and Boston pay top dollar to have their best athletes there.  The American system produces lots of marathoners, athletes with good times and accomplishments all the way up to the half marathon, so, as highlighted by Kawauchi's 2013 season, what exactly are the problems that are preventing it from producing equivalent quality at the marathon?  It's only been a few years since Japan was down to near-U.S. levels in the marathon, but they've worked their way back up to make 2013 the second-best in their history.  How can the U.S. do the same?  Let's talk about that instead of dodging the question and speculating about how other races are inferior.

(c) 2013 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

Comments

Metts said…
Excellent article. I agree.
yuza said…
I agree with everything you wrote regarding the men and you have summed up very well why Japanese men do not perform as well as their American counterparts in middle distance events.

However, I think the Japanese women could perform better at middle distance events.I believe they could also structure their running system better in order to improve in this area.

It is a given that the marathon is number 1 for the women as well. But their ekidens are no where near as long and do not really have the same hype, or traditions as the men.

Therefore they do no need to stack their entire team with marathon hopefuls and could actually focus a bit more on developing middle distance athletes. I know most of the corporate teams have middle distance runners, but they are very seldom the best athlete and if they are any good they start focusing on longer events.

Yuriko Kobayashi is an obvious example and she has not turned out well considering that as an 18 year old she ran 4分07秒86 for the 1500m.

All I am saying is that the women could be doing a bit better in middle distance events.


Brett Larner said…
Yuza--

I agree regarding women. My comments were restricted to men as the context of the original point was regarding men' marathoning, but I would pretty much agree with your characterization of the situation for women. I don't think there is the coaching infrastructure or interest necessary to realize that goal, though.

I think that's why Kobayashi, whose record is pretty good considering that she has more slow-twitch fibers which make her horrible at the 1500 m, has been training with Bernard Lagat's coach James Li this year, which in theory should be interesting but judging from the ekiden championships last week hasn't paid off yet
Thank you Brett for letting us know more with your articles and translations about athletics and running in Japan. It's very interesting.
JBJ
Bruce said…
Brett - You hit it right on - Japanese focus on what is of prestige to them - which is usually much longer than what attracts the North American athletes. Also, would you agree that post high school track and field competition (with all its varied events) in Japan becomes a nearly invisible sport aside from the ekiden - how many universities actually have a track and field team, other than the ekiden boys?
By the way, did that same LetsRun thread bemoan how badly American high school middle distance athletes perform, compared to the Japanese?
Anonymous said…
Brent,

I guess the same rationale can be used in this argument for the Americans - the HM and Marathon culture doesn't exist in the US.

No one cares. They only care about the "Mile".

Note that the US does not have an ekiden season, it does not have massive HM races for collegiates, and collegiates are not encouraged to run Marathons.

No one cares.
Brett Larner said…
Anonymous--

I would disagree that nobody cares about the marathon in the U.S. It is certainly not true in a way that would parallel the situation for middle distance running in Japan. But I think you may be right if you are suggesting that the lack of road racing for collegiates may have some relation to the current state of U.S. marathoning.
Anonymous said…
it's a passionnate debate
there are good results in women junior 1500 meters
Japanese actually want to shine on marathon and eikiden
Maybe likely have more slow-twitch fibers , we don't know

I hope for the Olympics 2020 women's team middle distance are performing well
TokyoRacer said…
Just watched the Japanese boys high school national ekiden - 47 teams, one HS from each prefecture. The first leg was the longest - 10K. The top kid ran 29:45. 30th was 30:35 and 40th was 31:10. American kids don't even run 10K, and if they did, they wouldn't be running those kinds of times. The 5K legs had many, many kids who can run in the 13s and 14s. Obviously, these kids are training to run 5K and longer. The ekidens are their big meets of the year, and they are judged on their 5 and 10k performances. In the US, ok, kids run 5k in cross-country, but the real focus, and what they are judged on, is the mile and two mile (1500/3000, 1600/3200). In Japan, no one cares what a kid can run 1500 in. So, as Brett said, it's just two completely different running cultures, and you can't compare them. Up to the 10K or maybe the Half. For the marathon, you can compare them, because that's just the pros and they're all aiming for the same thing - the majors, the world champs and the olympics.

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