Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Top Ten Japanese Men of 2016

by Brett Larner

It was a rough year for Japanese men.  Lots to be positive about:


But the shortcomings were clear.  More Japanese men broke 1:02:00 for the half marathon than ever before, but overall depth at the front end was down for 5000 m, 10000 m, the half and the marathon, and the fastest times for those distances were generally the slowest in the last six years despite it being an Olympic year.  At February's Tokyo Marathon, a pack that included most of Japan's best recent marathoners didn't even try to run Olympic-caliber times, leaving it to an unknown and three debuting university students to take the top Japanese spots without being in serious contention for the Rio team.  

And in Rio, although the U.S.-based Suguru Osako managed to turn in decent times on the track, the Japanese men ranged from only decent to seriously unready, a repeat of last year's Beijing World Championships.  There was no shortage of talent on the men's team, but it has never been clearer that the Japanese system is completely unequipped translate what it can produce on home soil to peak performances when they most matter.  Compare that with the U.S.A., whose scintillating team performance was one of the highlights in Rio.  In the marathon, for example, the U.S. hasn't produced a sub-2:10 marathon on a record-legal course since 2013.  In Rio it took the bronze medal and 6th.  Only four non-African men qualified for the Rio marathon with sub-2:10 times.  Three of them made up the Japanese team. Satoru Sasaki was the only non-African to qualify with a sub-2:09 time, but he could do no better than 16th in 2:13:57.  

If the U.S.A., the U.K., even Canada, can put people in the top ten and the best non-African team can't touch the top fifteen then there are serious problems, ones that the appointment of Toshihiko Seko probably won't fix. Whatever they can do at home, none of the Japanese men in Rio looked like they were really confident, really believed in themselves, really in it to compete no matter what the cost.  That's not an issue of training, it is something larger and deeper.  Something that may not be remediable in time for 2020.  A 2020 that sees a Japanese men's 4x100 m gold medal and marathoners or other distance runners anywhere near the top ten would truly mark the end of one era and the start of another.

So again, 2016 was a mixed year of a few bright spots and disappointment. The performances of Japan's best men reflected this, with two possible exceptions most of them having a few good days without consistently excelling.  As determined by JRN's rankings, the top ten Japanese long distance men of 2016:



1. Kota Murayama (Asahi Kasei)
5000 m: 13:35.06 – 2nd, Nittai Univ. Time Trials, 6/5/16
10000 m: 27:44.39 – 8th, Hachioji Long Distance, 11/26/16

Other major results:
23:36 – 24th, New Year Ekiden Stage 2 (8.3 km), 1/1/16
38:39 – 14th, National Men’s Ekiden Stage 7 (13.0 km), 1/24/16
28:16.54 – 2nd, National Championships 10000 m, 6/24/16
29:02.51 – 30th, Rio de Janeiro Olympics 10000 m, 8/13/16
14:26.72 – 22nd, Rio de Janeiro Olympics 5000 m Heat 1, 8/17/16
24:08 – 1st, Kyushu Jitsugyodan Ekiden Stage 4 (8.2 km), 11/3/16

Murayama was JRN’s top Japanese man of 2015, his 10000 m national record and 5000 m national title putting him into the top position. For most of the first half of 2016 he was injured, skipping a 5000 m title defense and finishing just 2nd in the 10000 m at June’s National Championships. That was enough to get him to Rio, but in both the 5000 m and 10000 m he was ineffectual. A stage win at November’s Kyushu Jitsugyodan Ekiden signaled that he was back in good form, and three weeks later he delivered the best Japanese 10000 m of the year, running around 55 seconds for the final lap to break the London World Championships standard in 27:44.39. Combined with the sixth-fastest 5000 m of the year by a Japanese man it was enough for him to take the top overall ranking for the second year in a row.


2. Keijiro Mogi (Asahi Kasei)
10000 m: 28:25.52 – 5th, National Championships, 6/24/16
half-marathon: 1:00:54 – 3rd, Kagawa Marugame Int’l Half-Marathon, 2/7/16

Other major results:
47:55 – 5th, New Year Ekiden Stage 5 (15.8 km), 1/1/16
37:56 – 1st, National Men’s Ekiden Stage 7 (13.0 km), 1/24/16
1:04:19 – 29th, World Half Marathon Championships, 3/26/16
30:42.76 – 27th, National Corporate Championships 10000 m, 9/24/16

Skipping university and Hakone in favor of an early pro career, Mogi came on strong in 2016 with a win on the competitive anchor stage of January’s National Men’s Ekiden. Two weeks later he ran 1:00:54 at the Marugame Half, the fastest half marathon time of the year by a Japanese man and just the seventh to ever break 61 minutes. At March’s World Half Marathon Championships he ran only 1:04:19, and for much of the rest of the year he was out of competition. A comeback in 2017 would make him a top contender for the 2020 Olympic team.


3. Yuta Shitara (Honda)
5000 m: 13:38.47 – 1st, Hokuren Distance Challenge Fukagawa Meet, 7/7/16
10000 m: 27:48.35 – 2nd, Hokuren Distance Challenge Abashiri Meet, 7/11/16

Other major results:
1:02:45 – 1st, New Year Ekiden Stage 4 (22.0 km), 1/1/16
28:51.21 – 22nd, Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational 10000 m, 5/1/16
28:17.51 – 3rd, National Championships 10000 m, 6/24/16
13:48.71 – 8th, National Championships 5000 m, 6/26/16
28:55.23 – 29th, Rio de Janeiro Olympics 10000 m, 8/13/16
28:26.61 – 22nd, Hachioji Long Distance 10000 m, 11/26/16

Shitara started the year off with his second-straight course record win on the New Year Ekiden’s most prestigious stage, running 1:02:45 for 22.0 km, 1:00:11 for the half marathon, gradually building from there toward June’s National Championships where he ran 28:17.51 for 3rd to make the Rio team in the 10000 m. Inexplicably he busted a hard 27:48.35, the second-best Japanese time of the year, at July’s Hokuren Distance Challenge, only to finish second-to-last a month later in the 10000 m at the Olympics, one place better than his placing at the Beijing World Championships a year earlier.


4. Shuho Dairokuno (Asahi Kasei)
5000 m: 13:31.56 – 5th, Oda Memorial Grand Prix, 4/29/16
10000 m: 27:54.75 – 15th, Hachioji Long Distance, 11/26/16
half-marathon: 1:01:32 – 7th, Kagawa Marugame Int’l Half-Marathon, 2/7/16

Other major results:
38:45 – 6th, New Year Ekiden Stage 3 (13.6 km), 1/1/16
24:50 – 5th, National Men’s Ekiden Stage 3 (8.5 km), 1/24/16
35:19.7 – 8th, Asian Cross-Country Championships 12 km, 2/29/16
28:26.53 – 6th, National Championships 10000 m, 6/24/16
13:39.52 – 3rd, National Championships 5000 m, 6/26/16
29:42.13 – 23rd, National Corporate Championships 10000 m, 9/24/16
36:55 – 1st, Kyushu Jitsugyodan Ekiden Stage 1 (12.3 km), 11/3/16

Another Asahi Kasei runner, Dairokuno improved on his #7 overall placing in last year’s rankings thanks to a combination of solid 5000 m, 10000 m and half marathon times. He finished 3rd in June’s National Championships 5000 m but, just short of a Rio-qualifying time, he missed out on making the Olympic team. In November Dairokuno won the opening stage at the Kyushu Jitsugyodan Ekiden.


5. Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref. Gov’t)
marathon: 2:09:01 – 2nd, Gold Coast Airport Marathon, 7/3/16

Other major results:
2:15:14 – 1st, Ibusuki Nanohana Marathon, 1/10/16
2:11:53 – 7th, Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon, 3/6/16
2:14:12 – 2nd, New Taipei City Wanjinshi Marathon, 3/20/16
2:12:04 – 1st, Zurich Marathon, 4/24/16
2:44:07 – 1st, Okinoshima 50 km Ultramarathon, 6/19/16
2:11:03 – 13th, Berlin Marathon, 9/25/16
2:14:32 – 2nd, Porto Marathon, 11/6/16
2:09:11 – 3rd, Fukuoka International Marathon, 12/4/16
2:12:45 – 3rd, Hofu Yomiuri Marathon, 12/18/16

After a 2015 mostly lost to injury Kawauchi was back in 2016, placing in the top three in seven of his nine marathons including his first European win, the fastest Japanese times of 2016 both inside and outside Japan, the best time by a Japanese man in the current Abbott World Marathon Majors series, and a near-miss on the 50 km world record. His 2:09:11 for 3rd at December’s Fukuoka International Marathon while injured came short of making him a lock for the London World Championships team, but it would be hard to see the JAAF pass him over come the team announcement in March.


6. Hisanori Kitajima (Yasukawa Denki)
marathon: 2:09:16 – 2nd, Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon, 3/6/16

Other major results:
1:03:38 – 6th, New Year Ekiden Stage 4 (22.0 km), 1/1/16
2:25:11 – 94th, Rio de Janeiro Olympics marathon, 8/21/16

Kitajima’s first two marathons were encouraging, a pair of 2:12 wins at home and abroad in 2015, and a brilliant breakthrough at March’s Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon got him onto the Rio Olympic team. Despite looking like a big new talent, in Rio he was ill-prepared for the challenge and finished 94th in 2:25:11. He has been off the radar ever since.


7. Suguru Osako (Nike Oregon Project)
5000 m: 13:31.45 – 16th, Rio de Janeiro Olympics Heat 2, 8/17/16
10000 m: 27:50.27 – 2nd, Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational, 5/1/16

Other major results:
13:45.39 – 1st, Oregon Relays 5000 m, 4/15/16
DNF – Prefontaine Classic 10000 m, 5/27/16
28:07.44 – 1st, National Championships 10000 m, 6/24/16
13:37.13 – 1st, National Championships 5000 m, 6/26/16
DNF – Hokuren Distance Challenge Kitami Meet, 7/14/16
27:51.94 – 17th, Rio de Janeiro Olympics 10000 m, 8/13/16

After he broke the 5000 m national record last year hopes were high for Osako in this Olympic year. He won his first pair of national titles in June, bookended by DNFs at the Prefontaine Classic and Hokuren Distance Challenge. Despite running two of the best times ever by a Japanese man at the Olympic he couldn’t make a dent in either the 5000 m or 10000 m, stopped in the heats in the 5000 and outside the top 15 in the 10000. He hasn’t raced since then.


8. Takashi Ichida (Asahi Kasei)
5000 m: 13:35.19 – 7th, Oda Memorial Grand Prix, 4/29/16
10000 m: 27:53.59 – 3rd, Hokuren Distance Challenge Abashiri Meet, 7/11/16

Other major results:
25:12 – 20th, National Men’s Ekiden Stage 3 (8.5 km), 1/24/16
1:02:32 – 8th, National Corporate Championships Half-Marathon, 2/14/16
35:59 – 2nd, National Cross-Country Championships 12 km, 2/27/16
28:16.00 – 1st, Golden Games in Nobeoka 10000 m, 5/7/16
28:22.13 – 4th, National Championships 10000 m, 6/24/16
13:48.52 – 6th, National Championships 5000 m, 6/26/16
28:20.01 – 8th, National Corporate Championships 10000 m, 9/24/16
39:43 – 1st, Kyushu Jitsugyodan Ekiden Stage 5 (13.4 km), 11/3/16
28:14.40 – 19th, Hachioji Long Distance 10000 m, 11/26/16

Ichida was on more than off this year, the top Japanese man at the inaugural National Cross-Country Championships, the winner at May’s Golden Games in Nobeoka and breaking 28 for 10000 m in July, but 4th and 6th place finishes at the National Championships kept him off the Rio team. Desperate to get there he ran the 3000 m SC for the first time at the same last-minute time trial that got Kazuya Shiojiri (Juntendo Univ.) to the Olympics. Like his Asahi Kasei teammates Murayama and Dairokuno, Ichida won his stage at November’s Kyushu Jitsugyodan Ekiden.


9. Minato Oishi (Toyota)
5000 m: 13:43.91 – 9th, Nittai Univ. Time Trials, 4/24/16
10000 m: 27:48.56 – 10th, Hachioji Long Distance, 11/26/16

Other major results:
38:25 – 3rd, New Year Ekiden Stage 3 (13.6 km), 1/1/16
1:02:32 – 7th, National Corporate Championships Half-Marathon, 2/14/16
1:04:11 – 28th, World Half-Marathon Championships, 3/26/16
28:56.89 – 11th, National Championships 10000 m, 6/24/16
36:36 – 1st, Chubu Jitsugyodan Ekiden Stage 1 (12.5 km), 11/20/16

Oishi started his year off as part of the Toyota team that won a second-straight New Year Ekiden national title.  He made the Japanese team for March’s World Half Marathon Championships, finishing 28th there.  Oishi won his stage at the Chubu Jitsugyodan Ekiden in late November, coming back six days later with the third-fastest Japanese 10000 m time of the year, 27:48.56, just missing the London World Championships qualifying standard.


10. Suehiro Ishikawa (Honda)
marathon: 2:09:25 – 4th, Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon, 3/6/16

Other major results:
37:59 – 3rd, New Year Ekiden Stage 6 (12.5 km), 1/1/16
1:02:49 – 25th, Kagawa Marugame Int’l Half-Marathon, 2/7/16
1:04:02 – 2nd, Garry Bjorklund Half-Marathon, 6/18/16
2:17:08 – 36th, Rio de Janeiro Olympics marathon, 8/21/16

One of the most stable marathoners in Japanese history, Ishikawa became the oldest Japanese runner to ever make an Olympic team when he ran 2:09:25 for 4th at March’s Lake Biwa Mainichi Marathon. His only major race between then and Rio was an encouraging 2nd-place finish at the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon in June, but in Rio he couldn’t execute up to potential, running a 5-minute+ career worst of 2:17:08 for 36th.


© 2016 Brett Larner
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