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The Top Ten Japanese Women of 2016

by Brett Larner

After outperforming their men for over a decade, Japanese women have been on a downward trend for much of the last 8 years even as depth and quality improved dramatically among the men.  In 2016 the trend reversed again, with the men's depth and quality dropping somewhat and the women's fortunes improving.  The good:


It wasn't all rosy, though.  The half marathon, once an area of strength among Japanese women, remains a problem despite the team bronze medal, with only one Japanese woman breaking 1:10.  The change of date of the National Corporate Women's Ekiden from late December to late November makes it more difficult for many Japanese women to run a fall marathon, rendering the Saitama International Marathon almost completely irrelevant as a selection race for Japanese national teams.  And, Uehara aside, like the men the distance runners on the Japanese women's Rio Olympic team struggled to produce the same kind of performances at the Olympics that they could in domestic races and time trials.  The situation isn't quite as dire as with the men and is trending positive, but with the bar having been raised significantly on the track this year it's looking like a hard road ahead to 2020.

The top ten Japanese distance women of 2016 as determined in JRN's annual rankings:



1. Kayoko Fukushi (Wacoal)
half-marathon: 1:10:28 – 3rd, Osaka International Women’s Marathon (halfway), 1/31/16
marathon: 2:22:17 – 1st, Osaka International Women’s Marathon, 1/31/16

Other major results:
1:12:04 – 6th, Gifu Seiryu Half-Marathon, 5/15/16
13:35 – 1st, Avery Brewing Company 4 km, 7/4/16
2:29:53 – 14th, Rio de Janeiro Olympics marathon, 8/14/16
33:25 – 6th, Nat'l Corp Women’s Ekiden Qualifier Stage 3 (10.3 km), 10/23/16
34:55 – 4th, National Corporate Women’s Ekiden Stage 3 (10.9 km), 11/27/16

In 2016, three years after her World Championships bronze medal, Fukushi finally looked like a fully-fledged marathoner. Her 2:22:17 win at January’s Osaka International Women’s Marathon, run with a brash 1:10:28 first half, gave her a place in the all-time Japanese top ten to go with her 5000 m and half marathon national records and her all-time #2 ranking for 10000 m. Injury meant she was less than 100% in Rio, where she placed only 14th, but her clash with the JAAF after Osaka over their refusal to say clearly whether she was on the Rio team put the opaque national team selection system into the sphere of public controversy, arguably Fukushi’s most important contribution this year.


2. Rei Ohara (Tenmaya)
half-marathon: 1:10:04 – 1st, Sanyo Ladies Road Race, 12/23/16
marathon: 2:23:20 – 3rd, Nagoya Women’s Marathon, 3/13/16

Other major results: 
19:43 – 19th, National Women’s Ekiden Stage 1 (6.0 km), 1/17/16
1:10:42 – 5th, Kagawa Marugame Int’l Half-Marathon, 2/7/16
33:31.47 – 29th, Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational 10000 m, 5/1/16
32:30.66 – 10th, National Championships 10000 m, 6/24/16
16:08.95 – 22nd, National Championships 5000 m, 6/26/16
33:02.04 – 12th, National Corporate Championships 10000 m, 9/23/16
15:50.38 – 13th, National Corporate Championships 5000 m, 9/25/16
35:02 – 6th, National Corporate Women’s Ekiden Stage 3 (10.9 km), 11/27/16

In Nagoya in March Ohara, last year’s top Japanese half marathoner, was part of a head-to-head battle with Tomomi Tanaka (Daiichi Seimei) for a place on the Rio team. Ohara lost the sprint finish by one second, and despite a superb 2:23:20 JAAF policies meant she was not even named alternate. Ohara struggled to recover during track season, but in December she soloed a win at the Sanyo Ladies’ Half in 1:10:04, the second-fastest Japanese time of the year.


3. Ayuko Suzuki (Japan Post)
5000 m: 15:24.47 – 2nd, National Championships, 6/26/16
10000 m: 31:18.16 – 3rd, Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational, 5/1/16

Other major results:
31:30 – 2nd, National Women’s Ekiden Stage 9 (10.0 km), 1/17/16
31:38.73 – 1st, National Championships 10000 m, 6/24/16
15:41.81 – 12th, Rio de Janeiro Olympics 5000 m Heat 2, 8/16/16
12:15 – 5th, National Corporate Women’s Ekiden Stage 2 (3.9 km), 11/27/16

After an aggressive streak at last year’s Beijing World Championships earned her international attention Suzuki was strong throughout the first half of the year. In May she became all-time Japanese #8 for 10000 m, following up with a 10000 m national title and a runner-up finish in the 5000 m. Hopes were very high for her in Rio, but injury forced her to DNS in the 10000 m and stopped her from making the 5000 m final. After three months of recovery she returned on a short stage at the National Corporate Women’s Ekiden Championships to help the Japan Post team win its first national title.


4. Hanami Sekine (Japan Post)
5000 m: 15:24.74 – 3rd, National Championships, 6/26/16
10000 m: 31:22.92 – 2nd, National Championships, 6/24/16

Other major results:
31:18 – 1st, National Women’s Ekiden Stage 9 (10.0 km), 1/17/16
31:48.90 – 12th, Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational 10000 m, 5/1/16
31:44.44 – 20th, Rio de Janeiro Olympics 10000 m, 8/12/16
34:02 – 16th, Nat'l Corp Women’s Ekiden Qualifier Stage 3 (10.3 km), 10/23/16
34:50 – 2nd, National Corporate Women’s Ekiden Stage 3 (10.9 km), 11/27/16

Suzuki’s teammate at Japan Post, Sekine broke through in a big way this year. She was the only person to beat Suzuki on the competitive 10 km anchor stage at January’s National Women’s Ekiden, winning in an impressive 31:18. In the National Championships 10000 m she was 2nd behind Suzuki in a PB 31:22.92, all-time Japanese #13. In these and other races the pair’s combination seemed important to Sekine’s success, and without Suzuki there in the Rio 10000 m she could manage only 20th. At November’s National Corporate Women’s Ekiden Sekine ran the longest stage in Suzuki’s place, finishing 2nd on time and playing a major role in the team's win.


5. Tomomi Tanaka (Daiichi Seimei)
half-marathon: 1:11:33 – 3rd, Nagoya Women’s Marathon (halfway), 3/13/16
marathon: 2:23:19 – 2nd, Nagoya Women’s Marathon, 3/13/16

Other major results:
33:39 – 10th, New York Mini 10 km, 6/11/16
2:31:12 – 19th, Rio de Janeiro Olympics marathon, 8/14/16
32:44 – 2nd, East Japan Women’s Ekiden Stage 9 (10.0 km), 11/13/16
32:47 – 3rd, National Corporate Women’s Ekiden Stage 5 (10.0 km), 11/27/16

Deprived of a place at the 2015 Beijing World Championships in favor of a runner from the Tenmaya corporate team, revenge could not have tasted sweeter for Tanaka than when she outkicked Tenmaya’s Ohara by one second to make the Rio team. Rio didn’t go as hoped, with Tanaka placing only 19th, but by the November ekiden season she was back up to strength with top three finishes in both of her main races.


6. Hisami Ishii (Yamada Denki)
5000 m: 15:29.12 – 5th, National Championships, 6/26/16
10000 m: 31:48.24 – 1st, Hokuren Distance Challenge Abashiri Meet, 7/11/16
half-marathon: 1:10:09 – 3rd, National Corporate Championships, 2/14/16

Other major results:
32:05 – 4th, National Women’s Ekiden Stage 9 (10.0 km), 1/17/16
1:13:41 – 36th, World Half-Marathon Championships, 3/26/16
32:10.96 – 6th, National Championships 10000 m, 6/24/16
32:27.08 – 4th, National Corporate Championships 10000 m, 9/23/16
15:38.59 – 2nd, National Sports Festival 5000 m, 10/7/16
15:46 – 1st, Fukui Super Ladies Ekiden Stage 5 (5.01 km), 11/13/16
35:28 – 10th, National Corporate Women’s Ekiden Stage 3 (10.9 km), 11/27/16 

Relatively little-known, Ishii was consistently strong this year without really breaking through to the top. A 3rd-place finish at February’s National Corporate Half Marathon Championships got her to the World Half Marathon Championships, and at June’s National Championships she took 5th in the 5000 m and 6th in the 10000 m. Her biggest performance came at July’s Hokuren Distance Challenge, where she won the 10000 m in the 5th-fastest Japanese time of 2016.


7. Miho Shimizu (Hokuren)
10000 m: 32:22.94 – 5th, Jitsugyodan Women’s Time Trials, 12/10/16
half-marathon: 1:09:41 – 1st, National Corporate Championships, 2/14/16

Other major results:
19:31 – 9th, National Women’s Ekiden Stage 1 (6.0 km), 1/17/16
1:10:51 – 14th, World Half-Marathon Championships, 3/26/16
35:49 – 5th, Nat'l Corp Women’s Ekiden Qualifier Stage 5 (10.4 km), 10/23/16
35:34 – 11th, National Corporate Women’s Ekiden Stage 3 (10.9 km), 11/27/16

Shimizu won the National Corporate Half Marathon Championships in a PB 1:09:41, the only Japanese woman to break 1:10 this year. At the World Half Marathon Championships she was the second Japanese finisher, helping to win the team bronze medal. Shimizu raced little during track season, but in a post-ekiden season track time trial in late December she delivered her best 10000 m of the year to show promise for 2017.


8. Miyuki Uehara (Daiichi Seimei)
5000 m: 15:23.41 – 7th, Rio de Janeiro Olympics Heat 1, 8/16/16
10000 m: 31:38.80 – 7th, Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational, 5/1/16

Other major results:
19:35 – 13th, National Women’s Ekiden Stage 1 (6.0 km), 1/17/16
34:16 – 2nd, Bolder Boulder 10 km, 5/30/16
32:18.09 – 7th, National Championships 10000 m, 6/24/16
15:33.49 – 6th, National Championships 5000 m, 6/26/16
15:34.97 – 15th, Rio de Janeiro Olympics 5000 m final, 8/19/16
19:41 – 6th, East Japan Women’s Ekiden Stage 1 (6.0 km), 11/13/16
35:04 – 7th, National Corporate Women’s Ekiden Stage 3 (10.9 km), 11/27/16

Uehara gained arguably more attention than any other Japanese woman distance runner this year when she frontran her 5000 m heat at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics to become just the second Japanese woman in history to make an Olympic 5000 m final. Having finished only 6th at the National Championships it was something of a fluke that she made the Olympic team to begin with, but her complete fearlessness put her in a different class from the rest of the Japanese distance squads, men and women. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, as Uehara had previously turned in strong performances abroad at the Carlsbad 5 km, Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational and Bolder Boulder 10 km. Others in the Japanese industry would do well to contemplate the relationship between those results and her performance at the Olympics.


9. Risa Yokoe (Toyota Jidoshokki)
5000 m: 15:18.11 – 1st, Hokuren Distance Challenge Abashiri Meet, 7/11/16
10000 m: 32:24.87 – 3rd, Hyogo Relay Carnival, 4/24/16

Other major results:
32:54.28 – 12th, National Championships 10000 m, 6/24/16
15:42.58 – 10th, National Championships 5000 m, 6/26/16
32:38.11 – 7th, National Corporate Championships 10000 m, 9/23/16
22:03 – 13th, National Corporate Women’s Ekiden Stage 6 (6.795 km), 11/27/16

A former high school star who has struggled to make the transition to the pro leagues, Yokoe couldn’t get it together in time to make the Olympic team at June's National Championships. Two weeks later she ran the fastest Japanese 5000 m time of the year a PB of 15:18.11 that put her in the all-time Japanese top 25. In ekiden season she was only average, but Yokoe remains a top contender for the 5000 m squad at next summers’ World Championships.


10. Mao Kiyota (Suzuki Hamamatsu AC)
10000 m: 32:05.05 – 5th, Hokuren Distance Challenge Abashiri Meet, 7/11/16
half-marathon: 1:11:07 – 5th, Valencia Half-Marathon, 10/22/16
marathon: 2:24:32 – 4th, Nagoya Women’s Marathon, 3/13/16

Other major results:
31:55 – 3rd, National Women’s Ekiden Stage 9 (10.0 km), 1/17/16
1:12:20 – 8th, Gifu Seiryu Half-Marathon, 5/15/16
32:26.44 – 9th, National Championships 10000 m, 6/24/16
15:45.32 – 12th, National Championships 5000 m, 6/26/16
15:47.39 – 8th, National Sports Festival 5000 m, 10/7/16
31:56 – 1st, East Japan Women’s Ekiden Stage 9, 11/13/16

One of Japan’s best 10000 m runners last year, Kiyota was brilliant in her marathon debut in Nagoya in March, finishing 4th in a 2:24:32 that put her 5th on the Japanese marathon debut list and 22nd on its all-time list. Recovering well enough to make the top ten in all but one of her races the rest of 2016, Kiyota won her final race of the year with an anchor stage win at November’s East Japan Women’s Ekiden.

© 2016 Brett Larner
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