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The Year's Best and Worst in Japanese Distance Running

by Brett Larner
click here for 2015 top 25 rankings by distance

There was plenty to be excited about in Japanese distance running in 2015.  For the men especially it looked like the next generation was finally starting to break through.  Race-making corporate debuts from former university stars Shinobu Kubota, Suguru Osako and twins Keita and Yuta Shitara at the New Year Ekiden.  A legend-making win by Aoyama Gakuin University and new Fifth Stage star Daichi Kamino at the Hakone Ekiden and again at the Izumo Ekiden.  World record-setting depth at the National University Half Marathon Championships, Yosenkai 20 km, Kumamoto Kosa 10-Miler and seemingly everywhere else.  University men breaking 28 minutes for 10000 m and 1:02:00 for the half marathon.  And national records.  Lots of national records:
indoor 3000 m: Suguru Osako - 7:45.62 (en route) (NYC, 1/31/15)
indoor 2 miles: Suguru Osako - 8:16.47 (NYC, 1/31/15)
indoor 5000 m: Suguru Osako - 13:28.00 (NYC, 2/14/15)
5000 m: Suguru Osako - 13:08.40 (Heusden, 7/18/15)
10000 m: Kota Murayama - 27:29.69 (Hachioji, 11/28/15)
20 km: Masato Kikuchi - 57:24 (NR tie) (Yamaguchi, 2/15/15)
Looking at the Japanese all-time top 25 for the four major outdoor distances things were even better.  Green marks were set in 2015:

Considering that all the athletes hitting the all-time top 25 except Masato Imai were 25 or younger it certainly looks like the beginning of a wave, more on which next month in a JRN article looking at trends in the last 20 years of Hakone Ekiden results.  As noted by writer Mika Tokairin, Imai's 2:07:39 in Tokyo was also vitally important as possibly the first time in a generation that a university runner who achieved national stardom at Hakone went on to top-level success in the marathon.

Kota Murayama earns JRN's pick for Japanese male distance runner of the year, with a spectacularly fearless run against an all-African field for 2nd in 13:19.62 at May's Golden Games in Nobeoka, a last-kick win over Suguru Osako in the 5000 m at June's National Championships, turning up at an amateur time trial meet in July and jumping in to pace a 20-min heat, and for his era-changing 27:29.69 national record for 10000 m at November's Hachioji Long Distance meet.

For runner-up, Murayama's Asahi Kasei teammate Tetsuya Yoroizaka, surely the sorriest distance runner in Japan after breaking both the 5000 m and 10000 m national records in 2015 but losing to another Japanese runner both times.  Osako, who officially jumped ship from the corporate team system to become a full-time member of Alberto Salazar's Nike Oregon Project immediately before the NOP doping allegations controversy exploded, takes 3rd on the strength of his outdoor 5000 m national record.  This year's top 25 Japanese men:


Japanese women didn't set any major national records this year, but in general things were trending in the right direction to reverse the slide in quality over the last generation, with multiple all-time top 25 performances at 5000 m, half marathon and the marathon and IAAF bronze label or better wins at overseas marathons including Rotterdam, Zurich and the Gold Coast.  The 10000 m didn't see any top 25 performances, but overall depth was way up with eight women breaking 32 minutes, second only to Ethiopia, and an impressive 23 clearing the 32:15.00 Rio Olympic standard, more than any other country by a wide margin.  All-time top 25 women's performances by event:


People are hungry for a new star to take over, but while half marathon national record holder Kayoko Fukushi doesn't look like she is going to succeed in picking up where the sub-2:20 troika of Mizuki Noguchi, Yoko Shibui and Naoko Takahashi left off, at least two new hopefuls did emerge this year.

Marathoner Sairi Maeda topped JRN's 2015 rankings.  Last year in her debut at age 22 Maeda set the national university record of 2:26:46 in Osaka.  This year at 23 she ran March's Nagoya Women's Marathon, where despite a bad fall early in the race that bloodied both knees and injured one of her wrists she ran 2:22:48, the first Japanese woman in nearly a decade to break 2:23 and only the 9th to ever do it.  Her Beijing World Championships run didn't work out, but in Nagoya, running mostly alone, blood dripping down both knees, she showed a hardness that seemed to have disappeared, talent, focus and mental toughness that make her the best candidate to become the next Japanese marathon great.  The playing field at the world level has changed since Noguchi's day, but in Nagoya Maeda looked like she might have what it's going to take.

23-year-old Ayuko Suzuki earned JRN readers' pick for Japanese woman of the year thanks to her fearless frontrunning in the World Championships 5000 m, where she finished only 9th in the final but scored a major PB of 15:08.29, good for all-time Japanese #5.  Her follow-up 10000 m title in 31:48.18 at September's National Corporate Championships cemented her position as Japan's top woman on the track heading into next year's Olympics and put her at #2 on JRN's 2015 rankings.

Rounding out JRN's top three behind the young Maeda and Suzuki, Mai Ito took #3 for the year thanks to a sub-1:10 PB for 2nd at the National Corporate Half Marathon Championships and her 2:24:42 behind Maeda in Nagoya, cracking the all-time Japanese top 25.  Ito came through in Beijing as the top Japanese woman at 7th in 2:29:48, clearing the JAAF's top 8 criterion for auto-selection to the Rio de Janeiro Olympic team.  The year's top 25 Japanese women:


It wasn't all smiles and warm feelings, though.  Suzuki and Ito aside, Japanese distance runners at the Beijing World Championships were almost all, as JRN wrote at the time, "from mediocre to completely unprepared."  Despite having put five sub-2:09 men on the line at the last World Championships marathon, this time only two got there, and neither broke 2:20.  2:08:00 man Kazuhiro Maeda's 2:32:49 was slower than all three Japanese women in the World Championships marathon.  In the men's 10000 m, Kenta Murayama, twin brother of Kota, and Yuta Shitara finished in the last two positions despite having run outstanding times in May and having been able to cope with international racing as university students at the NYC Half Marathon.  Post-race comments from many of the Beijing team members showed a peculiar lack of mental preparation, whatever their past success at home and abroad.  Altogether the results indicated the crisis facing Japanese distance running: the impact between the coming wave of talent reared by younger coaches at the high school and university level and the more conservative ways of the corporate leagues.  Put wagyu into a meat grinder and you still get hamburger.

The corporate leagues did show some forward thinking, throwing a million dollars at the problem of the stalling of the Japanese marathon national records with their Project Exceed, but the JAAF continued to make astounding decisions.  The great International Chiba Ekiden was cancelled without ceremony.  National team standards in the marathon were set at sub-2:06:30 for men and sub-2:22:30 for women, essentially giving the JAAF the right to pick who they wanted to be on the Beijing and Rio teams when no Japanese athletes cleared those standards.  Tomomi Tanaka, winner of the first selection race for the Beijing women's marathon team and coached by a World Championships marathon medalist who had previously coached another athlete to a medal, was left off the team in favor of Risa Shigetomo whose executive coach Yutaka Taketomi is one of the JAAF executives in charge of decision-making regarding the national marathon program.

In any other country that would be called by its rightful name, but in Japan the JAAF struck back, with Vice Chairman of Development Katsumi Sakai telling the media and the nation's athletes, "It's not about winning, it's about trying to run the times we tell you."  Despite this kind of hard line the JAAF was unable to stick with its own decisions, cutting the heart out of its year-old National Team development project after only a year in apparent recognition of the problems it caused with regard to marathon team selection.

The problems extended to the Tokyo Olympic Committee, with embarrassing scandals surrounding the Olympic stadium, the failure to meet the deadline to host the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the cancellation of the winning stadium design, and the alleged plagiarism of the Tokyo Olympic emblem by designer Kenjiro Sano that eventually resulted in the emblem being discarded long after having been officially released.

Scandal also hit Japan following the Russian doping scandal as a consequence of its major races' elite athlete coordinators' longtime willingness to work with agents with a history of supplying doping athletes.  Three-time defending Osaka International Women's Marathon winner Tetiana Shmyrko of the Ukraine and 2015 Nagoya runner-up Mariya Konovalova of Russia, both brought to Japan by Russian agent Andrey Baranov, were stripped of their results after being found guilty of biological passport violations.  With the NYC Marathon turning down Baranov-represented London Olympics bronze medalist Tatyana Arkhipova of Russia, the new Saitama International Marathon, the successor to the Yokohama International Women's Marathon which had been smacked by a Russian cheat in its first edition, was more than happy to bring Arkhipova and Baranov on board.  It took the IAAF's suspension of the Russian Federation to block Arkhipova from competing, but the very same day another large new Japanese marathon, the Kanazawa Marathon, allowed Russian Victor Ugarov to run.  After he won race officials denied there was any problem with him running, but just days later he was stripped of his results and faced a four-year ban from the Russian Federation for breaking the international ban.  No word on any consequences for Kanazawa for letting him run.

And back in Saitama, the first women's domestic selection race for the Rio team, the top Japanese woman was Kaori Yoshida, 2nd in a PB of 2:28:43.  Yoshida is the only Japanese athlete to have been publicly suspended for EPO after a positive test at the 2012 Honolulu Marathon, a fact race broadcasters studiously avoided mentioning.  There is almost no chance she will make the Rio team with that performance, but if she were how would it look?  How would people feel about it?  Would they care in the slightest?

Altogether this and the year's other problems betrayed a troubling but common lack of concern about appearances, especially to the rest of the world, a focus on the details and total disregard for the big picture.  Isolation.  It's not encouraging, but with so many good things happening this year and the potential for so much more in the next five years you still have to stay optimistic.  Change takes time, few places more so than in Japan, but it looks like it's starting to happen.

text © 2015 Brett Larner, all rights reserved
Murayama photo © 2015 @tetsujiman, all rights reserved
Maeda photo © 2015 M.Kawaguchi, all rights reserved

Comments

Neil Powell said…
Great post and summary of the year. Have enjoyed following you for last three years.

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