Monday, December 29, 2014

The Top Ten Japanese Women of 2014

by Brett Larner
click here for 2014 men's rankings

Back in 2010 JRN interviewed Tsutomu Akiyama, one of the people originally responsible for bringing Kenyans into the high school and collegiate running circuits.  One of the topics at the time was the then-recent move towards restricting non-Japanese athletes to the shortest stages in ekidens to minimize their impact on the races, and in particular the implications for women's running, where at the National Corporate Women's Ekiden African athletes run only 3.6 km instead of the longest stage, 10.9 km, where all the best Japanese athletes run.  At the time Akiyama said,
"That kind of idea of restricting runners is incredibly wrong. It’s going to lead to a weaker environment for Japanese women. If we bring a slower runner from Kenya and they train together with the Japanese runners, all the Japanese runners will get stronger from having a more competitive attitude. With just a 3 km stage it’s the same thing as saying, “Well, there’s no need for you to be in Japan.” More than the men, I think the [African] women are going to disappear. So what is the future for Japanese distance running?  In terms of Japanese athletes, at the interprefectural or junior high school level they are still improving, but otherwise it’s at a standstill. I don’t think it’s going to get better. It’s going to get weaker, in my opinion."
2014 saw things moving steadily in that direction, with outstanding results at the younger end of the spectrum and a further fall in quality among the country's pro marathoners.  16-year-old Nozomi Musembi Takamatsu (Osaka Kunei Joshi Gakuin H.S.) ran a PB of 9:01.58 to win the Youth Olympics gold medal and was only the third-fastest Japanese high school girl of the year, all three within two seconds of the best Kenyan high schooler in Japan, Mariam Waithera (Sendai Ikuei H.S.) with a best of 8:59.60.  Five teams at the National High School Ekiden had better average 3000 m times than the best U.S. university women's teams.  19-year-old Reia Iwade (Team Noritz) ran a 2:27:12 marathon debut.

At the same time only one woman, Tomomi Tanaka (Team Daiichi Seimei) broke 1:10 for the marathon.  The fastest marathon of the year, 2:25:26 by Ryoko Kizaki (Team Daihatsu) in Nagoya, would barely have cracked the top ten just three years ago.  The average of the ten fastest women's times, 2:26:26 was one of the slowest in the last 15 years, and relative to the average of the ten fastest times in the world each year it was the slowest since 1989, a full 25 years ago and 2 years before Sachiko Yamashita's silver medal at the Tokyo World Championships marked the beginning of modern Japanese women's marathoning.  In other words, since they became world class Japanese women have never been further behind the rest of the world than they are now.

It's not entirely due to the dwindling numbers of African women based in Japan, but as Akiyama suggests it's not unrelated.  It's also likely that the success at the junior level is having on impact on longevity, with a seemingly increasing number of high school stars disappearing or retiring before they ever develop into marathoners or even fully-fledged track runners at the pro level.  Hitomi Niiya's way too soon retirement announcement at the beginning of the year was only the most evident example of 2014.  So while there was no shortage of promise this year there's no way around the fact that it's a tough time for Japanese women's distance running with no obvious way out.  The ten athletes and two honorable mentions below were some of those who lit the way for those looking for one.



1. Ayumi Hagiwara (22, Team Uniqlo) - 432 pts.

5000 m: 15:21 - 1st, Matsue Ladies' Road Race, 3/16/14 - #3 Japanese, 2014
10000 m: 31:41.80 - 2nd, National Corporate Championships, 10/10/14 - #1 Japanese, 2014
half-marathon: 1:10:17 - 1st, Matsue Ladies' Road Race, 3/16/14 - #4 Japanese, 2014

Major performances:
1st, Matsue Ladies' Half Marathon, 3/16/14 - 1:10:17 
2nd, Hyogo Relay Carnival Grand Prix 10000 m, 4/20/14 - 31:50.85 
2nd, Nittai Univ. Time Trials 5000 m, 4/26/14 - 15:55.98
3rd, East Japan Corporate Championships 10000 m, 5/17/14 - 32:50.22
5th, East Japan Corporate Championships 5000 m, 5/18/14 - 15:55.34
3rd, National Championships 10000 m, 6/6/14 - 32:41.56
1st, Hokuren Distance Challenge Kitami Meet 5000 m, 7/2/14 - 15:33.71 
DNF, Hokuren Distance Challenge Abashiri Meet 5000 m, 7/6/14
3rd, Asian Games 10000 m, 9/27/14 - 31:55.67 
2nd, National Corporate Championships 10000 m, 10/10/14 - 31:41.80 
3rd, National Corporate Championships 5000 m, 10/12/14 - 15:24.56
3rd, East Japan Corporate Women's Ekiden Third Stage (12.2 km), 11/3/14 - 40:35
1st, International Chiba Ekiden Sixth Stage (7.195 km), 11/24/14 - 23:02 
3rd, National Corporate Women's Ekiden Third Stage (10.9 km), 12/14/14 - 34:59 (CR)

After a breakthrough run at last year's Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational Hagiwara had a big year in 2014, starting off with a 1:10:17 win at March's Matsue Ladies' Half Marathon where her mid-race 15:21 5 km surge ranked as one of the best Japanese women's 5000 m times of the year, and going on to make the top three in every race she ran for the rest of 2014 except for a 5th place finish in May's East Japan Corporate Championships the day after placing 3rd in the 10000 m and a DNF at July's Hokuren Distance Challene Abashiri Meet.  She didn't win much, only taking the top spot at the Hokuren Distance Challenge Kitami Meet 5000 m and on the anchor stage at November's International Chiba Ekiden besides her Matsue title, but her the quality of her times and stability over distances from 5000 m to the half marathon and in championship situations including a 10000 m bronze medal at the Asian Games gave her the #1 ranking for the year among Japanese women.  And with an entertaining personality she stands to pick from Hitomi Niiya (Team Univ. Ent.), Kayoko Fukushi (Team Wacoal) and Yoko Shibui (Team Mitsui Sumitomo Kaijo) as the media favorite among Japanese best women.


2. Tomomi Tanaka (26, Team Daiichi Seimei) - 285.6 pts.

10000 m: 32:29 - 1st, National Corporate Championships, 2/16/14, #25 Japanese, 2014
half-marathon: 1:09:24 - 1st, National Corporate Championships, 2/16/14 - #1 Japanese, 2014
marathon: 2:26:05 - 5th, Nagoya Women's Marathon, 3/9/14 - #4 Japanese, 2014

Major performances:
8th, National Women's Ekiden Ninth Stage (10.0 km), 1/12/14 - 32:52
1st, National Corporate Half Marathon, 2/16/14 - 1:09:24 
5th, Nagoya Women's Marathon, 3/9/14 - 2:26:05
7th, Rock 'n' Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon, 9/21/14 - 1:12:05
1st, East Japan Corporate Women's Ekiden Fifth Stage (10.0 km), 11/3/14 - 33:51
1st, Yokohama International Women's Marathon, 11/16/14 - 2:26:57
2nd, National Corporate Women's Ekiden Fifth Stage (10.0 km), 12/14/14 - 32:49

Tanaka won her second National Corporate Half Marathon title in February, at 1:09:24 the only Japanese woman of the year to break 70 minutes.  Although ranked #1 for the Copenhagen World Half Marathon team she bowed out of consideration in favor of making her marathon debut at March's Nagoya Women's Marathon where she got off to a decent start by taking 5th in 2:26:05.  Her follow-up at September's Rock 'n' Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon was only lukewarm, but in her 2nd marathon she won the final edition of November's Yokohama International Women's Marathon in 2:26:57.  A few years ago those times would not have made the top ten for the year for Japanese women, but given the current state of things Tanaka ended the year ranked 4th in the marathon with a stable record and room for improvement.


3. Kasumi Nishihara (25, Team Yamada Denki) - 154 pts.

5000 m: 15:29.02 - 1st, National Sports Festival, 10/18/14 - #7 Japanese, 2014
10000 m: 31:53.69 - 3rd, Hyogo Relay Carnival, 4/20/14 - #2 Japanese, 2014

Other major performances:
3rd, National Women's Ekiden Ninth Stage (10.0 km), 1/12/14 - 32:22
1st, National Corporate 10 km Road Race, 2/16/14 - 32:27 
3rd, Hyogo Relay Carnival Grand Prix 10000 m, 4/20/14 - 31:53.69 
2nd, Oda Memorial Meet Grand Prix 5000 m, 4/29/14 - 15:31.28
9th, Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational 10000 m, 5/4/14 - 32:09.84
1st, East Japan Corporate Championships 5000 m, 5/18/14 - 15:32.55
1st, National Championships 10000 m, 6/6/14 - 32:37.23
14th, National Championships 5000 m, 6/8/14 - 16:00.49
1st, Gunma Championships 5000 m, 6/28/14 - 16:14.02 - MR
8th, Asian Games 10000 m, 9/27/14 - 32:41.49 
13th, National Corporate Championships 5000 m, 10/12/14 - 15:47.72 
1st, National Sports Festival 5000 m, 10/18/14 - 15:29.02
10th, East Japan Corporate Women's Ekiden First Stage (6.795 km), 11/3/14 - 22:17
11th, National Corporate Women's Ekiden Second Stage (3.9 km), 12/14/14 - 12:41

Nishihara, the road 10 km national record holder, had a very strong first half of the year, running the second-fastest 10000 m time of the year, 31:53.69, at April's Hyogo Relay Carnival and winning the National Corporate Road 10 km, East Japan Corporate 5000 m and National 10000 m titles before having problems over the summer.  With the exception of a 15:29.02 win at October's National Sports Festival she didn't reach the same level during the fall, finishing 8th in the Asian Games 10000 m and in the double digits in the rest of her races.  Her corporate team Yamada Denki was a favorite to win December's National Corporate Women's Ekiden but with Nishihara at far less than 100%, 11th on the second-shortest stage of the race, the team took only 3rd.


4. Yuka Takashima (26, Team Denso) - 147.5 pts.

5000 m: 15:31.66 - 1st, Nittai Univ. Time Trials Heat 5, 11/15/14 - #8 Japanese, 2014
10000 m: 31:55.81 - 1st, Hokuren Distance Challenge Abashiri Meet, 7/6/14 - #3 Japanese, 2014

Major performances:
2nd, Kita-Kyushu Women's Invitational Ekiden Fifth Stage (11.7 km), 1/19/14 - 37:57
1st, Kumanichi 30 km Road Race, 2/16/14 - 1:44:19 
9th, Hyogo Relay Carnival Grand Prix 10000 m, 4/20/14 - 32:26.50 
1st, Chubu Corporate Championships 10000 m, 5/10/14 - 33:28.14
7th, National Championships 10000 m, 6/6/14 - 32:45.24
1st, Hokuren Distance Challenge Abashiri Meet 10000 m, 7/6/14 -31:55.81
4th, National Corporate Championships 10000 m, 10/10/14 - 31:56.81 
1st, Central Japan Corporate Women's Ekiden Third Stage (10.2 km), 10/19/14 - 32:54 - CR
1st, Nittai Univ. Time Trials 5000 m, 11/15/14 - 15:31.66
1st, National Corporate Women's Ekiden Third Stage (10.9 km), 12/14/14 - 34:40 - CR

Takashima didn't get much attention this year but was consistently outstanding, winning six out of her ten main races including February's Kumanichi 30 km road race and setting stage records at both the Central Japan Corporate Women's Ekiden and the National Corporate Women's Ekiden.  At the latter she ran 34:40 for 10.9 km, breaking 5000 m and half marathon national record holder Kayoko Fukushi's course record by 24 seconds and running the equivalent to a world-class 31:48 road 10 km time at a flat conversion.


5. Riko Matsuzaki (22, Team Sekisui Kagaku) - 138.6 pts.

5000 m: 15:18.95 - 5th, Asian Games, 10/2/14 - #2 Japanese, 2014

Major performances:
10th, Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational 5000 m, 5/4/14 - 15:22.67
3rd, East Japan Corporate Championships 3000 m, 5/18/14 - 9:17.10 
8th, National Championships 5000 m, 6/8/14 - 15:41.12
3rd, Hokuren Distance Challenge Kitami Meet 3000 m, 7/2/14 - 9:06.95
3rd, Hokuren Distance Challenge Abashiri Meet 5000 m, 7/6/14 - 15:36.65
5th, Asian Games 5000 m, 10/2/14 - 15:18.95
5th, East Japan Corporate Women's Ekiden Third Stage (12.2 km), 11/3/14 - 40:40
3rd, East Japan Women's Ekiden First Stage (6.0 km), 11/9/14 - 19:06
19th, National Corporate Women's Ekiden Third Stage (10.9 km), 12/14/14 - 36:58

Matsuzaki was another runner who flew under the radar throughout 2014, steadily turning in quality performances without really shining.  Her best run of the year came at October's Asian Games where she took 5th in 15:18.95, a four-second PB and the second-best Japanese women's time of the year.  Her season ended on a down note as she was only 19th on the National Corporate Women's Ekiden's most competitive stage, but look for more from her in 2015.


6. Ryoko Kizaki (29, Team Daihatsu) - 130 pts.

half-marathon: 1:12:30 - 2nd, Asian Games, 10/2/14 - #25 Japanese, 2014
marathon: 2:25:26 - 3rd, Nagoya Women's Marathon, 3/9/14 - #1 Japanese, 2014

Major performances:
1st, National Women's Ekiden First Stage (4.0 km), 1/12/14 - 12:40 - CR
3rd, Nagoya Women's Marathon, 3/9/14 - 2:25:26 
14th, Hokuren Distance Challenge Kitami Meet 5000 m, 7/2/14 - 15:57.92 
2nd, Asian Games Marathon, 10/2/14 - 2:25:50
1st, West Japan Corporate Women's Ekiden Sixth Stage (6.495 km), 10/26/14 - 20:27 - CR
1st, National Corporate Women's Ekiden Fifth Stage (10.0 km), 12/14/14 - 32:47

Kizaki didn't race much in 2014 but when she did she was almost always on.  She won all three ekiden stages she ran, setting course records on two, ran the fastest Japanese women's marathon time of the year, 2:25:26, while finishing 3rd at the Nagoya Women's Marathon in March, and pushed the tempo near PB pace after a slow start to take silver at the Asian Games marathon in an exciting run.  It says a good deal about the state of today's Japanese women's marathoning that in 2011 Kizaki's Nagoya time would have been #9 among Japanese women, but for what things are now she is the best Japan has.


7. Risa Takenaka (24, Team Shiseido) - 128 pts.

10000 m: 32:07.08 - 3rd, Hokuren Distance Challenge Abashiri Meet, 7/6/14 - #9 Japanese, 2014
half-marathon: 1:10:10 - 2nd, National Corporate Championships, 2/16/14 - #3 Japanese, 2014

Major performances:
2nd, National Corporate Half Marathon, 2/16/14 - 1:10:10
17th, World Half Marathon, 3/29/14 - 1:10:30 
13th, Hyogo Relay Carnival Grand Prix 10000 m, 4/20/14 - 32:40.23 
5th, East Japan Corporate Championships 10000 m, 5/17/14 - 33:10.21
17th, National Championships 10000 m, 6/6/14 - 33:39.89
11th, Hokuren Distance Challenge Kitami Meet 5000 m, 7/2/14 - 15:55.38 
3rd, Hokuren Distance Challenge Abashiri Meet 10000 m, 7/6/14 -32:07.08
7th, Great North Run Half Marathon, 9/7/14 - 1:11:11 
11th, National Corporate Championships 10000 m, 10/10/14 - 32:32.58 
12th, East Japan Corporate Women's Ekiden Third Stage (12.2 km), 11/3/14 - 42:34

Takenaka, a former star runner at the dynastic Ritsumeikan University, didn't have a great year but turned in some quality performances when they counted.  In her half marathon debut at February's National Corporate Half Marathon she aggressively attacked past champion Tomomi Tanaka, only fading near the end to take 2nd in 1:10:10.  Six weeks later she followed up with a 1:10:30 at the World Half Marathon Championships before going through a rocky track season.  In the summer she got back on track with a 32:07.08 for 3rd at the Hokuren Distance Challenge Abashiri Meet 10000 m in preparation for September's Great North Run half marathon, where she was 7th in 1:11:11.  Takenaka's ekiden season did not go well, with the once-strong Shiseido corporate team failing to qualify for December's National Championships.  Takenaka now plans to make her marathon debut in Nagoya in March.


8. Rina Yamazaki (26, Team Panasonic) - 127.05 pts.

5000 m: 15:38.88 - 2nd, Hokuren Distance Challenge Kitami Meet, 7/2/14 - #23 Japanese, 2014
10000 m: 31:56.11 - 3rd, National Corporate Championships, 10/10/14 - #4 Japanese, 2014
half-marathon: 1:10:45 - 4th, National Corporate Championships, 2/16/14 - #8 Japanese, 2014

Other major performances:
4th, National Corporate Half Marathon, 2/16/14 - 1:10:45
48th, World Half Marathon, 3/29/14 - 1:14:20 
11th, Hyogo Relay Carnival Grand Prix 10000 m, 4/20/14 - 32:36.62 
17th, Gold Games in Nobeoka 5000 m, 5/10/14 - 16:24.90
7th, East Japan Corporate Championships 5000 m, 5/18/14 - 15:58.25
1st, Nittai Univ. Time Trials 3000 m, 6/14/14 - 9:24.59
1st, Hokuren Distance Challenge Fukagawa Meet 10000 m, 6/25/14 - 32:17.25 
1st, Hokuren Distance Challenge Shibetsu Meet 3000 m, 6/28/14 - 9:21.18 
2nd, Hokuren Distance Challenge Kitami Meet 5000 m, 7/2/14 - 15:38.88
7th, Nittai Univ. Time Trials 5000 m, 9/27/14 - 15:47.00
3rd, National Corporate Championships 10000 m, 10/10/14 - 31:56.11
1st, East Japan Corporate Women's Ekiden Third Stage (12.2 km), 11/3/14 - 40:22
1st, Fukui Super Ladies Ekiden First Stage (6.55 km), 11/9/14 - 20:58
9th, National Corporate Women's Ekiden First Stage (7.0 km), 12/14/14 - 22:38

Yamazaki was one of the most prolific and successful racers among Japanese women this year, making the Copenhagen World Half Marathon team off a 1:10:45 4th-place finish at the National Corporate Half Marathon and winning five of her nine races over distances from 3000 m to 12.2 km from June through December.  Along with 2014 Gold Coast Airport Marathon winner Asami Kato she was one of the driving forces behind the Panasonic corporate team this year.


9. Ayuko Suzuki (23, Team JP Post/Nagoya Univ.) - 126 pts.

5000 m: 15:14.96 - 2nd, National Corporate Championships, 10/12/14 - #1 Japanese, 2014

Major performances:
3rd, National Women's Ekiden First Stage (6.0 km), 1/12/14 - 19:22
1st, Nittai Univ. Time Trials 3000 m, 9/27/14 - 8:58.08
2nd, National Corporate Championships 5000 m, 10/12/14 - 15:14.96
1st, International Chiba Ekiden Second Stage (5.0 km), 11/24/14 - 15:21
7th, Nittai Univ. Women's Long Distance Time Trials 10000 m, 12/20/14 - 33:23.48

The star runner at Nagoya University, Suzuki made the transition from collegiate to corporate running this year when she joined the brand-new Japan Post team after her graduation in March.  In her first major race for JP she rocked a 8:58.08 at the September edition of the Nittai Univ. Time Trials series, the first Japanese woman to break nine minutes for 3000 m in over six years and just missing the all-time Japanese top ten.  In her next race she took 2nd at the National Corporate Championships 5000 m in 15:14.96, the best time of 2014 by a Japanese woman.  With the new JP team not yet fielding enough member to run ekidens Suzuki's only appearance on the ekiden circuit came at November's International Chiba Ekiden where she won the 5.0 km Second Stage in 15:21.  The only blemish on her year was at December's Nittai Univ. Women's Long Distance Time Trials 10000 m where she ran only 33:23.48 for 7th, but given the miserable freezing rain conditions there not too much should be made of it.  Suzuki is a major talent to look out for in the buildup to the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.


10. Kayoko Fukushi (32, Team Wacoal) - 120 pts.

half-marathon: 1:10:04 - 6th, Berlin Marathon, 9/28/14 - #2 Japanese, 2014
marathon: 2:26:25 - 6th, Berlin Marathon, 9/28/14 - #5 Japanese, 2014

Major performances:
2nd, National Women's Ekiden Ninth Stage (10.0 km), 1/12/14 - 31:59
14th, Hokuren Distance Challenge Abashiri Meet 10000 m, 7/6/14 -32:48.87
6th, Berlin Marathon, 9/28/14 - 2:26:25


Multiple national record holder Fukushi wasn't very active in 2014, a 2nd-place finish on her stage at January's National Women's Ekiden and a forgettable 14th-place finish in the Hokuren Distance Challenge Abashiri Meet 10000 m in July her only significant runs before a shot at sub-2:20 at the Berlin Marathon in September.  Toting a large entourage in Berlin, Fukushi started off well enough, her halfway split of 1:10:04 the second-best half marathon of the year by a Japanese woman, but she wore down quickly in the second half to finish 6th in 2:26:25.  Even that far off her target, Fukushi's Berlin time was the 5th-best Japanese women's time of 2014.  In the fall she suffered a minor stress fracture that kept her out of ekiden season, announcing that she would skip the Beijing World Championships in favor of focusing on trying to put in a world-class marathon time.


Honorable mention: Reia Iwade (20, Team Noritz)

3rd, Yokohama International Women's Marathon, 11/16/14 - 2:27:14 - under-20 Japanese NR

Iwade ran 1:09:45 at the Sanyo Ladies' Half Marathon two weeks after her 19th birthday in December, 2013 to make the Copenhagen World Half team, announcing that she wanted to run her marathon debut before she turned 20.  She lived up those words at November's Yokohama International Women's Marathon, looking very strong, very determined and outright fearless as she took 3rd in 2:27:14, an under-20 Japanese national record.  How that is going to play out for her long-term remains to be seen, but Iwade's Yokohama run was good enough to be voted the Japanese women's long distance performance of the year by JRN readers.


Honorable mention: Nozomi Musembi Takamatsu (17, Osaka Kunei Joshi Gakuin H.S.)

1st, World Youth Olympics 3000 m, 8/25/14 - 9:01.58 - PB
4th, World Junior Championships 3000 m, 7/24/14 - 9:02.85 (PB)


Just 16 year old, Osaka Kunei Joshi Gakuin H.S. star Takamatsu went up against world-class competition including American Mary Cain at July's World Junior Championships in the 3000 m, where despite turning in a six-second PB of 9:02.85 Takamatsu was only 4th.  Fueled by that disappointment, a week before her 17th birthday Takamatsu ran another PB a month later to win the 3000 m gold medal at the World Youth Olympics in 9:01.58, over three seconds clear of the field.  Takamatsu later helped Osaka Kunei win its first National High School Ekiden title, making her one of the most important Japanese runners of her generation.  And there's more where she came from: her younger sister Tomomi Musembi Takamatsu, an 8th-grader at Osaka Kunei Joshi Gakuin J.H.S., won the 3.0 km Third Stage at January's National Women's Ekiden in 9:23.  Look for her to join Nozomi at Osaka Kunei H.S. in April.

(c) 2014 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

2 comments:

TokyoRacer said...

Terrific wrapup, thanks.
One suggestion: after the name, how about listing the age?

Brett Larner said...

You got it.