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"I Prevented Them From Banning Kenyans" - Tsutomu Akiyama Part Three

Part three of three in JRN's interview with Tsutomu Akiyama, one of the people responsible for first bringing Kenyan athletes to run in Japan. Read part one and part two.

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Stephen Mayaka told me that jitsugyodan teams want Kenyans mostly for the New Year Ekiden. In the last few years they’ve restricted foreign runners to one stage, the “International Stage,” and have dramatically shortened it to 8 km. Do you think this is going to result in fewer opportunities for Kenyans to find a place on a Japanese team?

With regard to that, my opinion is this: At the Olympics, the World Championships or major marathons they don’t say, “You are faster so you have to run 43 km or 44 km.” It’s the same for everyone. Everyone has the same start line and finish line. In these Japanese corporate ekidens, where they tell fast foreigners that they can only run a particular stage, the only Japanese runners who run that same stage are the slowest ones. It makes it so that you can’t really tell how big the difference is between the top Japanese and the top Africans. But the Japanese runners and coaches themselves know from running against them in other races. If a Japanese runner does 10000 m on the track together with an African, maybe the winner goes 26:50-something and the Japanese guy 28:00. That’s about a lap difference! That’s no secret, so why is it necessary to make this kind of stage and pretend it's otherwise?

I think they need to remove all the limitations and mix the stages. Then they’ll see how bad Japanese distance running really is right now and we can start thinking about ways to change that situation. Otherwise, the level of Japanese distance running will continue to fall. I really believe this.

Why should Japan be in this situation? Well, it’s a small country, surrounded on all sides by the ocean. An island, to put it simply. America is big. America and Canada. People are coming from this side, and that side, adding their strengths to the country. There’s a lot more genetic variation. If you go to the States it’s not just a sea of white faces. There are yellow people, a lot of Chinese. Many, many people of European ancestry. Lots of people with African history. There’s a lot of mixture. And now the President is not a white man. Looking at a country with that kind of atmosphere, there’s no way Japan can win in a competition with it. In what way exactly would we lose? Well, if you asked me in this interview, “How did Japan become so strong in the marathon? There must be a reason.” Well, I’ll tell you, if even the top people in Japan don’t know then there’s no way we’re going to become stronger. For example, in a track race all the Japanese get lapped. Will that be solved by banning the fast guy who’s doing the lapping? I don’t think so. The top people might think that letting a Japanese runner win is going to help them gain confidence and run faster, but I totally disagree. They are just isolating the best athletes and ignoring the facts. But I think that if you lose you are more likely to think about why. If you get passed you might try to hang on instead of giving up.

In the case of universities, they don’t restrict which stage they can run. For example Mekubo Mogusu ran the Hakone Second Stage and crushed all the Japanese guys, but the race organizers couldn’t make him run Third Stage instead to protect all the Japanese aces on Second. It’s all in the way of thinking. That kind of idea of restricting runners is incredibly wrong. 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.

In the Beijing Olympics marathon we had two Yamanashi Gakuin runners, Tsuyoshi Ogata and Satoshi Osaki. Both of them were much slower compared to Mayaka. They could never stay with him. Mayaka was a higher-level athlete, but he couldn’t run the marathon. He was good up to the half. I thought he would be a marathoner, but Ogata ended up being much better. He won a World Championships medal and ran in the Olympics. Osaki was our anchor runner. In those days the anchor stage was the shortest, but even so he was competitive and would race against Kenyans when he was up against them.

So to make a long story short, the reason Yamanashi Gakuin improved so dramatically was that we had a mixture. It made our Japanese runners into better athletes.

In the women’s ekiden foreigners are even more restricted.

3 km! [laughs] All the companies are going to get rid of their Africans. It’s 3/42 of the race. That used to be 10/42 since the old stage was 10 km. 3 km is 3/42. Doing it that way there is no chance that you can win the ekiden over just 3 km. The way I look at this, the stage was 10/42 last year and 3/42 this year. The Hokuren team [with Kenyan Philes Ongori] finished 3rd last year and this year they were 8th. Do you think it’s because the other Japanese runners were slower? I don’t think so. It’s because 10 became 3. If they had reversed the change I am sure Hokuren would have been 3rd again. So yes, that 3 km…[laughs] In an era of 3 km out of 42, it’s going to lead to a weaker environment for Japanese women. Now if Africans are unhappy and threaten to quit, the teams will just say, “OK, goodbye.” That way they can save some money.

So what is the future for Japanese distance running? I think it’s going to get weaker, in my opinion. By restricting foreigners to 3 km, everyone thinks it means they will get to see Japanese runners in the lead. They think that will lead to more and more confidence that will help raise the overall level. But that idea, that by being number one you will get more confidence, OK, but at the Asian Games, the London Marathon, Berlin or Boston or wherever, I doubt they’re going to be number one. Even at the World Half Marathon they can’t follow the leaders. Japanese athletes don’t realize until they are there and can’t compete, “Oh, there’s this much of a difference between us and them.” The coaches should know this. 3 km for women is terrible. The Kenyan women we’ve brought weren’t fast when they were in Kenya, they only got that way once they came and started training here. Why can’t Japanese women do the same thing? It’s not about physical differences. There are many good Japanese athletes with gifted physiques. Why can’t they improve the same way? There must be a reason.

The worst culprits are the TV companies and newspapers. Do you know why they are the worst? They broadcast the jitsugyodan ekiden and believe that if an all-Japanese team is winning, more people will watch. They think that if there is a Kenyan on TV people will just say, “Oh, a Kenyan. Who cares?” The value of the win will be much less to them. I think that’s indicative of how low the level of Japanese distance running actually is. Japan won last year’s International Chiba Ekiden, right? Well, if they win Chiba why didn’t they win anything in the Olympics? Everyone on the team was an Olympian but none had medals. There was an Ethiopian team, but the Ethiopians who came were just out of high school. The Kenyans were all B-class too. The Japanese runners on the team were all far better athletes. The Kenyan anchor Catherine Ndereba was strong, of course, but she wasn’t running all-out.

She had just run the Yokohama International Women’s Marathon a week before.

Right! Hardly a fair contest. [laughs] She was only there because they were paying her. All the TV and newspaper coverage was dishonest.

So we’re never going to get stronger that way. Once they said they were going to completely ban Kenyans. At that time there were a total of about 70 Kenyans, combining high school, university and jitsugyodan. Africans, I should say, mostly Kenyans and Ethiopians. The total amount of money they earn in Japanese companies is huge. I went to the Kenyan embassy to explain that they work at Japanese companies and earn this much money and are bringing it back into Kenya. If they banned Kenyans from running in Japan then there would be zero money going into the Kenyan economy. For the embassy people it’s a tough situation because otherwise how are they going to earn Japanese money? They’d be totally dependent on Kenyan sightseeing, like safaris and whatever else. A small amount of money. So they need Kenyan athletes too to be bringing in income for their country. By lobbying this way I prevented them from banning Kenyans.

But even so they limited women to 3 km. With just a 3 km stage it’s the kind of thing 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 women are going to disappear. So in terms of Japanese athletes, at the inter-prefectural 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. If you put some different people in there then people can see that the level is very different.

If it’s just Japanese runners then people might think, “Wow, they’re fast!” They might think that, but in the 42.195 km of the marathon, a woman has run under 2:16. I’m sure more will break 2:16 too. But right now only one person has done it. Only one more has even reached 2:18. So if you consider that, I wonder what effect it’s going to have to tell you people, “You can’t run here.” I think that may be the biggest single reason Japanese distance running is falling behind. It’s definitely true for men. The women are still competitive because the rest of the world doesn’t have as many athletes. But it’s coming. We’re going to see more 2:16’s and 2:15’s around the world soon.

Look at the half marathon. They’re running 66, 67, right? If you extrapolate from that, it’s strange that there haven’t been more 2:15’s. Sub-2:20’s should get more and more frequent, especially in mixed races. Right now only, what, seven or eight women have broken 2:20? If someone did it in the summer it would be very impressive, but there aren’t any summer races apart from the Asian Games. All the good marathons are in colder weather, so I think we’ll see more records. If Japanese runners want to be at that level they need to have Kenyans around and to make the most of the opportunities to train with them.

Right now there are a lot of very good young Japanese runners in their early 20’s. Yuki Sato, Kensuke Takezawa, Masato Kihara, Ryuji Kashiwabara.

Sato came and trained with us when he was a senior. He came so he could do speedwork with Mogusu. Takezawa has a good head on his shoulders. But looking at those runners, Sato is good up to 10000 m but no more than that, in my opinion. When he’s racing on the track he never moves up and takes the lead. He always stays at the back of the lead pack, waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting. That’s how he did the 27:38. He didn’t win in 27:38, he came in last in his pack in 27:38. He got there because he had other good runners in front of him. If he had run it by himself it would have been about a 28:10. Or if it had just been Japanese runners in the race, 28:10. That’s the kind of time Japanese athletes will run. Something right around 28 minutes? That’s Japan. There’s no way he would have done 27:38 if it had only been Japanese runners. That’s what I believe.

So, he went to America, to San Francisco, where there would be some Kenyan pacemakers and made that time. Before that, Takezawa ran 27:45 in California. I went there with him that time. When he set that time he was about 10th. He gradually, gradually moved up from behind, never to the top but enough that he was running with others and so was able to hit that time. If there were a single fast foreigner in the race running apart from the Japanese runners, the Japanese ones would never make a fast time.

I don’t think that’s the way it is in America. The country is just different. If a Japanese person moves there and intends to get citizenship, they have to get a green card first. It’s very tough. The bureaucracy requires a lot of paperwork. It’s even difficult if you get married. But the rules are clear, and if you follow them you can become an American. A lot of East Asians, Thai, Vietnamese, Filipino, they become Americans. If you ask them where they are from, they will still say, “The Philippines. Thailand.” Japan’s not like that. You basically can’t get citizenship. Even if you get married the background check is very strict. Looking at America again, if you are someone who could become an Olympian you have a route to citizenship. Canada too. All my children went to American universities. The youngest to Oregon. The next, Colorado. Over there, they don’t say openly that they dislike foreigners. Coming back to Japan from that kind of environment is very hard, but in that sense I’m grateful to the United States. They don’t say “No,” to everything just because I am Japanese.

Where do you think Japanese marathoning will be in 10 years?

The men are in a tough position. Very tough. Right now the best men are Takezawa and Sato, and that is because Mogusu and Samuel Wanjiru were around and ran the same races with them. They’re not 1st, like there was one race where Takezawa was 6th and Mogusu 1st. The 6th place finisher was the best Japanese man out there. But part of the reason Takezawa and Sato got to where they are is that they were coming up through high school together with Wanjiru and Mogusu and racing them often.

Along with them, the fellow who went to Chuo Gakuin, Masato Kihara. He couldn’t win against the Kenyans, but he was one of the best of his grade. He wanted to beat them, though. I saw [JAAF director] Keisuke Sawaki recently and he said so too. I think Kihara is an excellent athlete. He went to high school with Takezawa, to Hotoku Gakuen. At the National High School Championships in Shimane they were 6th and 8th. Those are the kind of athletes who are strong enough to win Hakone Ekiden stages and go to top jitsugyodan teams. I think they are strong from running with other strong athletes. In ten years when they are marathoning there will be just a few of them like that.

Also the Toyota Kyushu runner, Yu Mitsuya. He was outstanding. When Mogusu ran 28:28 Mitsuya was right there with him until the last 200 m. Mogusu lost out, but I think he has a better now. In high school once I took him to Nagasaki for a meet where he could run 10000 m because the timing matched up with our schedule well. Up until then he was fairly ordinary. They should give more Japanese runners that kind of opportunity. Both Sato and Takezawa ran their PBs at meets in San Francisco. If there are opportunities for those kinds of races, whether there is money or no, they should go. Then the times will come.

© 2010 Brett Larner, all rights reserved

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