Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Asahi Kasei Set to Challenge Honda and Toyota for New Year Ekiden National Title

by Brett Larner

It’s an interesting and exciting time in Japan’s corporate leagues. Over the last five years there has been an unprecedented explosion of quality and depth at quality on the university scene at the hands of young, innovative coaches, on which more in a JRN feature next month, and its impact is starting to be felt at the more conservative corporate level.

Last year’s New Year Ekiden national corporate men’s championships winner Toyota had an average age of 23.2, just out of university, for its 7-man team. First-year pros Shinobu Kubota (Toyota), Suguru Osako (Nissin Shokuhin) and twins Keita Shitara (Konica Minolta) and Yuta Shitara (Honda) were some of the day’s overall big players. This year there has been an even bigger influx of major talent ahead of the New Year Ekiden’s 60th running, with the celebrated Asahi Kasei team’s new star Kota Murayama breaking the 10000 m national record in 27:29.69 and cracking the all-time Japanese top 10 for 5000 m, his twin brother Kenta Murayama landing 7th on the all-time 10000 m top 10 in 27:39.95 and their fellow Asahi Kasei rookie Shuho Dairokuno also making the top 25 at 27:46.55.

The Shitara twins also continued to improve, Yuta placing 13th on the all-time lists for 10000 m at 27:42.71 and Keita 10th for the half marathon at 1:01:12 and his Konica Minolta teammate all-time #3 in 1:00:32. There has always been this level of talent, but where in the past it was a handful of athletes at a time, many of whom never seemed to reach their individual potential in the ekiden-oriented corporate system, the sheer quantity of high-quality new recruits and the slow infiltration of the system by younger coaches means that people like the Murayamas may be a sign of real change and more to come over the next five years before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The Asahi Kasei team conjures up memories of Japanese marathoning’s golden years, of the Soh twins Shigeru and Takeshi, of Tokyo World Championships gold medalist Hiromi Taniguchi, of Barcelona Olympics silver medalist Koichi Morishita. It has been a long time since there has been an all-Japanese New Year Ekiden champion team, and it looks like Asahi Kasei had that rare achievement in mind with its recruitment last year, pulling in the Murayama twins, Dairokuno, sub-63 half marathon twins Hiroshi and Takashi Ichida and more to join its existing stars like Tetsuya Yoroizaka, under both the 5000 m and 10000 m national records this year, and former Toyo University captain Tomoya Onishi. Asahi Kasei won the Kyushu regional qualifier easily, its average pace of 2:56.6/km ranking it 3rd among the 43 teams in the field on a hillier course than regions like the highly competitive East Japan.

Honda, 4th at last year’s New Year Ekiden, outran last year’s 2nd and 3rd placers Konica Minolta and Nissin Shokuhin to win the East Japan qualifier, its average pace of 2:55.9/km leading the New Year Ekiden field. Nissin Shokuhin, feeling the loss of Osako who left the corporate leagues in March to run full-time in the U.S.A., was 2nd just 22 seconds back and comes in to the New Year Ekiden ranked 2nd at 2:56.1/km. 2013-14 New Year Ekiden winner Konica Minolta is ranked only 6th after finishing 4th behind the Bedan Karoki-led DeNA team in East Japan.  Defending champion Toyota won the Chubu qualifier, its pace of 2:56.9/km putting it 4th and well within range of the other top five teams. 

The differences in courses between each region mean that the margins between them may be even closer, and with a half dozen other teams close behind it should be an exciting race full of turnover. But make no mistake, all eyes in Japan will be on Asahi Kasei. TBS’ live nationwide broadcast starts at 8:30 a.m. on January 1 and runs well on into the day. Follow the race live on Twitter @JRNLive.

60th Anniversary New Year Ekiden Entry List
Maebashi, Gunma, 1/1/16
7 stages, 100.0 km, 43 teams 
click here for complete entry lists

Honda (East Japan) - 2:55.9 / km
Nissin Shokuhin Group (East Japan) - 2:56.1 / km
Asahi Kasei (Kyushu) - 2:56.6 / km
Toyota (Chubu) - 2:56.9 / km
DeNA (East Japan) - 2:57.6 / km
Konica Minolta (East Japan) - 2:57.7 / km
Hitachi Butsuryu (East Japan) - 2:58.8 / km
Toyota Kyushu (Kyushu) - 2:58.9 / km
Yakult (East Japan) - 2:59.0 / km
JR Higashi Nihon (East Japan) - 2:59.5 / km
Fujitsu (East Japan) - 2:59.8 / km
Kyudenko (Kyushu) - 3:00.0 / km
Mitsubishi HPS Nagasaki (Kyushu) - 3:00.3 / km
Yasukawa Denki (Kyushu) - 3:00.4 / km
Aichi Seiko (Chubu) - 3:00.5 / km
Press Kogyo (East Japan) - 3:00.8 / km
Yachiyo Kogyo (East Japan) - 3:01.2 / km
Kurosaki Harima (Kyushu) - 3:01.3 / km
Komori Corp. (East Japan) - 3:01.3 / km
Subaru (East Japan) - 3:01.4 / km
NTN (Chubu) - 3:01.5 / km
Toyota Boshoku (Chubu) - 3:01.6 / km
YKK (Hokuriku) - 3:02.4 / km
Mazda (Chugoku) - 3:02.5 / km
Otsuka Seiyaku (Kansai) - 3:02.8 / km
Aisan Kogyo (Chubu) - 3:02.8 / km
SGH Group (Kansai) - 3:02.9 / km
Kanebo (East Japan) - 3:02.9 / km
Chuo Hatsujo (Chubu) - 3:03.0 / km
Toenec (Chubu) - 3:03.4 / km
Sunbel'x (East Japan) - 3:03.7 / km
Tokyo Police Department (East Japan) - 3:03.8 / km
Chugoku Denryoku (Chugoku) - 3:04.0 / km
NTT Nishi Nihon (Kansai) - 3:04.0 / km
Sumitomo Denko (Kansai) - 3:04.4 / km
Nishitetsu (Kyushu) - 3:04.7 / km
JFE Steel (Chugoku) - 3:05.3 / km
Osaka Gas (Kansai) - 3:06.2 / km
Omokawa Zaimokuten (Hokuriku) - 3:07.0 / km
Chudenko (Chugoku) - 3:07.3 / km
Osaka Police Department (Kansai) - 3:08.9 / km
Ryugataki SDF Base (Chubu) - 3:13.5 / km
Takeda Yakuhin (Chugoku) - 3:16.8 / km

© 2015 Brett Larner
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