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A Pretty Good Year for Japanese Men



It was a pretty good year for the Japanese men, in the marathon at least. Not so much on the track and less so in the half marathon, but very decent in the marathon.


On the track, the fastest 5000 m time was only 13:29.11 by national record holder Suguru Osako (Nike Oregon Project) and in the 10000 m 27:55.85 by all-time #2 man Tetsuya Yoroizaka (Asahi Kasei). With the IAAF announcing 13:22.50 and 27:40.00 standards for next year's Doha World Championships after doing an about-face on its plans to base everything on world rankings it's pretty likely that, for the second World Championships in a row, there won't be a single Japanese man running either distance.


Of the 4 still-active Japanese men to have ever bettered the 5000 m standard nobody has done it in the 3 and 1/2 years since Osako and Yoroizaka did in July, 2015. Likewise in the 10000 m, where none of the 5 currently active men to have cracked 27:40 has done it since 2015. Neither distance saw any men make the all-time Japanese top 25 this year. 3 of the 4 men in the 5000 m and 4 of the 5 in the 10000 m have pretty well moved to the marathon, and at this point it doesn't look likely that anyone is going to be stepping up to fill the void, not in the next 9 months at any rate. But, credit where it's due, let's not forget that Keiho H.S. 11th-grader Hiroto Hayashida ran 28:45.75 in October. Respect.


The situation was better in the half marathon. Nobody under 61 minutes for the first time since 2013 but 9 men under 62 minutes, 4 of them university students running in 3 different races. Depth of quality has remained solid on the university circuit, so based on past trends Japan should be keeping on like it did in the marathon this year at least through Paris 2024, probably through Los Angeles 2028 as long as the motivation stays where it is.


So let's talk about the marathon. Japan is one of only 3 countries to have ever produced 10 sub-2:10 marathon performances in a single year, doing it in 2003, 2004, 2008, 2012 through 2014, 2017 and again this year. The previous record was 14 in 2003, with pretty much every year that it happened centering around Olympic selection until high-volume guy Yuki Kawauchi (Saitama Pref. Gov't) skewed the numbers in 2013 and 2014. The 2017 opening of qualification for the MGC Race, Japan's new more-or-less-one-shot 2020 Olympic trials race to be held in September next year, fueled last year's numbers. This year there were 17, with 10 under 2:09.

The lion's share of those came at the Tokyo Marathon, where 9 Japanese men went sub-2:10, by far the most ever in a single race. Prior to this year the best average of Japan's 10 fastest marathon performances per year was 2:08:34 in 2003. This year it was 2:07:43. It's only been since 2002 that Kenya has been better than that and since 2008 for Ethiopia. No other country has ever averaged under 2:09.

It was pretty obvious that this kind of surge in mass quality was coming, the MGC Race pushing it a little earlier than I expected when I wrote 3 years ago about the shape of things to come. But it wasn't just about depth this year. There were a lot of fast individual performances. Yuta Shitara (Honda) running 2:06:11 for 2nd in Tokyo to break the 16-year-old national record in what was at the time the best-ever placing by a Japanese man in the Abbott World Marathon Majors. Hiroto Inoue (MHPS) right behind him in 2:06:54 with teammate Ryo Kiname (MHPS) just missing a sub-2:08 at 2:08:08. Osako following Shitara's lead with a 2:05:50 national record in Chicago, and the likable Taku Fujimoto (Toyota) running a widely overlooked 2:07:57 behind him. Fujimoto's teammate Yuma Hattori (Toyota) scoring the first Japanese win in Fukuoka since 2004 in 2:07:27 with a really, really impressive finish.


And it wasn't just about times either. No top-level Japanese men ran London or New York, but of the 4 Abbott World Marathon Majors that had them the scorecard looked like this:
Add in Inoue's gold medal in heat and humidity at the Jakarta Asian Games, Japan's first in 32 years, and Hattori's Fukuoka win and the prospects for Tokyo 2020 are looking very decent indeed. At least 6, maybe 8 good contenders for the team at this point, only half of them getting there in Vaporfly 4%, and there's still the chance of a couple more popping up in the last few months of MGC qualification.

It's notable that of the 21 men to have qualified for the MGC Race so far, not a single one runs for hallowed old-school marathon stable and 2-time defending New Year Ekiden national champion Asahi Kasei. Rio Olympics team member Satoru Sasaki is probably the only Asahi Kasei runner with a realistic chance of making it, but the chance of him or anyone else on Asahi Kasei's current roster beating the favorites next September looks slim at this stage. This year put the nail in the coffin of the corporate league and national federation old boys' pet theory that the Hakone Ekiden is ruining Japan's marathoners, but Asahi Kasei's struggle to translate success at shorter distances into viability in the marathon shows that the question of whether the New Year Ekiden is getting in the way remains open.


In overall rankings Osako topped the list for the first time since 2013 with the fastest times of the year for 5000 m, half marathon and marathon, Shitara and Inoue placing 2nd and 3rd. Osako started and finished the year as the Nike Oregon Project record holder in the marathon. University men took 4 of the top 10 spots, a first, with corporate league runners, two from Asahi Kasei, filling out the other half of the top 10. Nao Kazami (Aisan Kogyo) didn't fit into the scheme of things but deserves special mention for his 100 km world record in June, with fellow ultra guys Hideaki Yamauchi and Takehiro Gyoba taking gold and silver at the 100 km World Championships. Special mention also to Kazuya Shiojiri (Juntendo Univ.), the fastest of the 4 university men under 62 minutes in the half marathon this year at 1:01:22, who also took home a medal with Asian Games bronze in the 3000 m SC.

Overall there have definitely been worse years. Look for JRN's 2018 women's distance review next week following the Nittai University Women's Time Trials and Sanyo Ladies Road Race.

© 2018 Brett Larner, all rights reserved

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